‘Transformers: The Last Knight’ review
The name “Michael Bay” is practically synonymous with excess at this point, and he’s not reining it in now. Transformers: The Last Knight has much too much of everything: characters, plot points, explosions, mythology, noise, minutes.
It’s dizzying at first, then exhilarating, then nauseating, and then, finally, numbing. At one point during the big climactic showdown, I realized I’d stopped even trying to process what was happening in front of me. There didn’t seem to be any point. The crashing noises and flashing lights would continue with or without my attention.
But none of that should be particularly surprising if you’ve ever seen a Transformers movie before. The Last Knight is the fifth in the series, but it’s probably no harder or easier to understand if you’ve seen the previous installments. There’s so much stuff in it, it’s impossible to keep track of it all anyway.
The Last Knight opens on a battlefield in Medieval England, where King Arthur and his knights are waiting for Merlin to show up and produce a miracle. Unbeknownst to them, though, Merlin is actually a charlatan whose only real talents are plowing through booze, money, and women.
However! Merlin does happen to be friends with a Transformer who’s hiding out in a cave. Said Transformer gives Merlin a magic staff that wins Arthur the battle, but only after Merlin swears to protect the staff until the day that the Transformers come to need it again.
After that opening, The Last Knight jumps to the present day, where humankind as a whole is none too pleased about the giant alien cyborgs within our midst. Still, a few humans remain on the side of the Autobots, including scrappy teen orphan Izabella (Isabela Moner) and failed inventor Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg).
Some Chosen One nonsense leads to Cade teaming up with Sir Edmund Burton (Anthony Hopkins), an English gentleman who knows way too much about Transformers, and Vivian Wembly (Laura Haddock), an Oxford professor who knows nothing at all about Transformers, in an effort to save Earth from being totally annihilated in an effort to rebuild Cybertron, the Transformers’ home planet.
Mixed up in all that are easily a dozen other recognizable human characters, including military toughs, comic relief, and assorted nerds, not to mention a roughly equal number of Transformers – the most important of which are Optimus Prime (voiced as before by Peter Cullen), who’s come to Cybertron to seek out his maker, and Megatron (voiced by Frank Welker), the ultimate evil Transformer.
Despite the franchise’s focus on murky mythology, expensive explosions, and mechanical monstrosities, The Last Knight‘s best highlights are small, specific, and human. Stanley Tucci puts in a five-minute cameo as Merlin, whom he plays as endearingly sloppy and undignified. Even better is Hopkins, who seems to be having the time of his life as Burton, perhaps because he gets to drop the dignified gravitas or once and play up his goofy, eccentric side. (He also gets to spend a bunch of his scenes with the best Transformer character, a sociopathic butler named Cogman voiced by Jim Carter.)
Unfortunately, The Last Knight is rather less successful with its ostensible leads. Cade is a peculiarly American fantasy of a totally normal, down-to-earth, salt-of-the-earth dude who is also, paradoxically, so smart and noble and strong and kind that he’s earned his Chosen One status, while Vivian is one of those Strong Female Character types who actually just exist to bolster the male lead.
Anyway, all of these elements collide in a complicated but totally nonsensical mythology that grows to encompass Pangaea, Stonehenge, Leonardo da Vinci, Harriet Tubman, and Nazi Germany. Basically, if it was major, the Transformers were somehow involved, like an intergalactic race of cyborg Forrest Gumps.
The movie itself borrows freely from a vast array of influences, most notably Star Wars – Izabella is essentially a Rey ripoff, complete with her own BB-8 stand-in. (Of course, given the way the Transformers mythos seems to operate, Bumblebee and friends were probably on set with George Lucas, too, giving him ideas for the original Star Wars.)
Where less experienced filmmakers might get bogged down in The Last Knight‘s kitchen-sink approach, Bay’s style shines all the way through, for better or for worse – up to and including a generous helping of Bayhem. It’s hard to imagine anyone walking out of this movie with their appetite for destruction unsatiated. When The Last Knight drags (and at 149 minutes, it drags pretty often) it’s typically because Bay couldn’t resist dropping in yet another orgy of clanging metal and glittering sparks.
Some of the set pieces are even pretty cool. An early showdown in a junkyard has Bumblebee falling to pieces, and then taking out baddie after baddie as he pieces himself together. Another fantastic sequence has a Transformer zipping around London with Burton in tow. But as the film goes on and the story gets less coherent and the battles get bigger, they start to blend together. Which is how I found myself staring at the climax of the movie with no earthly idea how I’d gotten there, or what I was looking at, or why.
Which, in a way, felt kind of remarkable. I can’t remember the last time I felt so little while watching a movie. I wasn’t even bored, so much as just dazed, like I’d woken up in someone else’s dream. Transformers: The Last Knight isn’t a particularly good film – it’s overstuffed and incomprehensible, hampered by bizarre narrative choices and inconsistent pacing.
But it feels like a movie someone wanted to make, unrestrained by budgetary demands or time limitations or even common sense. In a summer of lifeless Mummys and generic King Arthur: Legend of the Swords, there’s something almost winning about that.