Monday, 6 November 2017

Film Review: Transformers - The Last Knight

I held off reviewing the fifth Transformers film when it was on release over the summer; I had other projects on the go, I was a little tired when I went to see it, spending as much time looking at my watch, and there were a couple of queries about it that I wasn't entirely convinced weren't down to me missing something massive. I wasn't keen but I wasn't prepared to slaughter a film on one compromised viewing but the release of the DVD gave me a chance to re-evaluate it. Results were mixed; with better preparation for a letdown (anyone who reads mainstream reviews of the films, which have quickly become a Nickelback-esque punching bag for critics who make their mind up before the film even starts) it was less of a letdown but basically none of the film's problems were solved.


The idea that Bay is actively trolling Transformers fans and possibly basically anyone watching the movies gathers more credence here. Consensus from those who gave Age of Extinction half a chance was that it had too much unnecessary plot crammed in and was overlong but there were some promising green shoots in there - the large role and clear if somewhat clumsy plot arc given to Optimus Prime, the respectable characterisation given to the new Autobots and the success of Lockdown as a new villain. The Last Knight seems perversely out to upset anyone who liked Age of Extinction. Optimus Prime's role is ramped right back (he barely appears before the final climactic battle); Hound, Crosshairs and Drift are reduced to the sort of scraps the likes of Sideswipe and Jolt previously had to settle for, a whole new secret history welding the Transformers to Arthurian myth and World War II is grafted onto the plot and the film severely lacks an central villain.

Where to start picking at this shambles without devolving into "BEY DONT UNDERSTAND TRANSFORMERS" is the difficult problem. Perhaps the muddy shambles of the plot; the previous film ended with the puzzling sight of Optimus Prime jetting off into space, leaving the group of Autobots who can't function without him, the recently resurrected Dinobots who had been corralled into helping only by the Autobot leader's brute force winning their respect, an inventor, his daughter and her beau who are wanted fugitives and a disgraced tech mogul. The Last Knight actually makes a passable fist of this, with Cemetry Wind replaced by the only slightly less shady TRF, hunting disorganised  and demoralised Autobots in various shattered parts of America. There are some fine sequences here, with a surprisingly grounded look at what ten years of robot fighting has done to the world. Some of the solutions aren't exactly elegant - unsubtle Steve Jobs analogue Joshua Joyce has vanished without a trace, as has Shane Dyson. Tessa Yeager nearly gets the chop completely as well but someone thought this needed an explanation - and the film makes an absolute arse of it. She's studying at college while Cade is on the run from the government, giving him incredibly limited contact with her. Which doesn't make any sense as the TRF would surely use her as leverage to bring him in; it smacks of not wanting Nicola Peltz back; they couldn't kill her off as Cade probably wouldn't recover from that but surely there were other ways - either insinuate vaguely that she's undercover somewhere (maybe in Hong Kong, working with Joyce?) or just Sam Witwicky it - flat-out not mentioning her would actually be less incongruous than the fudge we get.

That aside, Cade Yeager and his ragtag Autobots fighting a guerilla war against the TRF with a few new allies is a good starting point, as is the idea of the latter turning to Megatron and a squad of captured Decepticons. Throw in the plot point of a returning Lennox seemingly undercover within the TRF and the decent main plot of Unicron as planet Earth (as per the Prime TV series) as an overriding threat and it could have been a decent film. Instead we get more madness shovelled in; there's more of this insane idea that Transformers have been on Earth actively for centuries - not the vague prehistoric glimpses given in Revenge of the Fallen or Dark of the Moon or Age of Extinction this time, but actively and overtly operating alongside 20th Century humans. I hate that sort of secret history nonsense - while not a huge amount of the preceding four films is actively contradicted it sure goes against the spirit of it all.

So we have a group of Transformers on the run from creator Quintessa setting up on Earth and loaning a dragon to King Arthur to battle enemies. Which is a bit much but potentially harmless. The only problem is this is then tied into an insane secret society called the Witwiccans, a sort of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen consisting of every positive post-Medieval human being in history that you can rely on a cinema audience to recognise. Things get even more implausible when you find out among the order's past exploits were linking up with the military in WW2 to blow up a random Nazi-infested chateau, which was somehow hushed up. The bigger problem is that Bumblebee is involved - so the Autobot scout spend something approaching seventy years on Earth before even meeting Sam Witwicky, totally failing to find the Allspark despite the resources of a huge secret society named after the guy with the glasses bearing his location, totally failing to - say - track his descendants. Bumblebee then signalled in Autobot high command instead of letting the society know so someone could just buy the glasses off Sam on eBay. He also chose to go on the run with Skids and Mudflap during Revenge of the Fallen rather than calling in any help (despite his vocal troubles it's clear throughout all the films he can communicate well enough with anyone) with the society for their part apparently ignoring Sam when his face was splashed all over the world instead of offering help, or making any contact during Dark of the Moon when he was itching to be involved in Transformery stuff. It's also worth remembering that in the second, third and fourth films various parties on both sides were actively tracking Transformers all around the globe and never found Hot Rod or the two (at least) retired Autobots kicking around with Tony Hopkins - they're not, for instance, rounded up when the Autobots are 'exiled' to appease Sentinel Prime. You could come up with a plethora of fannish explanations to cover most of this if you really, really, really wanted to but it is not worth the effort. The absolute biggest problem is that it's a terrible angle that is responsible for some of the film's most interminable sequences - the badly-acted Arthurian opening sequence is just to set up the MacGuffin of the staff (yay, a return to an artifact quest plot after a blessed break in the fourth film...), a tedious detour to Britain, overstretched scenes with Sir Edmund Burton and Cogman and, just when the film needs a boost, a momentum-sapping submarine chase. Yeah, a submarine chase.

What doesn't help the British sections is that Michael Bay's knowledge of Britain seems to come entirely from Hollywood films about King Arthur and that Friends episode where they visit London. Yes, everyone British being clipped and formal is a long-running Hollywood cliche but that's no reason to hand out a pass here. Especially as someone, somewhere seems to have decided that British people saying rude words, discussing sex and being sarcastic is inherently funny and can carry a good hour or so of a film. They can't and not for the first time in the franchise there's a feeling as we watch Cade and Viviane inevitably flirt that we're seeing the less interesting part of the story. As it turns out all this guff about staffs and talismans is the plot with the rest of the Autobots presumably just spending this time pottering around America aimlessly while Bumblebee finally remembers Hot Rod exists.

Not only is the plot we don't see in America more interesting but so is that out in the universe. The laconic handling given to Optimus Prime meeting with Quintessa and being convinced or conditioned to serve her makes so few appearances that it's almost a surprise when it comes back into play at the end; it's so spaced out and lacking in substance that it feels like a post-credits sequence bumped up the order. While we're hearing dull lists of historical personalities and Viv's mum's bridge club discussing rumpy-pumpy all of the potentially interesting plot is crammed into tiny scenes. Beyond being probably the Transformers' creator we learn very little of Quintessa - why and how did she create them? What were they for? At what point did they all run off and forget about her? What's she doing now? She just rocks up in the shattered remains of Cybertron and brow-beats Prime into seeking redemption by saving the planet at the cost of the Earth, which is inadvertently sheltering Unicron. Not that the film particularly explains what Unicron is or what the Hell it's going to do - a few spikes come up when Cybertron reaches Earth but beyond that I'm at a loss to really tell you why anyone should care.

The Nemesis Prime angle is botched as well, for several reasons. Firstly it robs the film of its' star for much of the run-time - a format experiment already tried in the second. With Bumblebee trapped in a loop (all of the films involve him in some way showing great initiative, leadership and/or bravery to Prove Himself with the following instalment then resetting him to something like a petulant child no-one believes in, like a character from a terrible eighties cartoon who learns a lesson each week but has to be reset so the episodes can be shown in any order - hmmm, maybe the films are more faithful to G1 than many suggest) Optimus Prime is the only Autobot left in the franchise who's more than a thumbnail and here he's barely glimpsed. Hell, if they were absolutely bent on doing the Nemesis Prime thing why hold off his arrival until half an hour from the end? Give him the Decepticons' role, have him harrying Cade and company across the UK. And like many things in the film the whole Nemesis Prime thing is ill-defined. Optimus has been shown as potentially embittered, especially in Age of Extinction, where he's more than a little resentful to be a political football., rewarded for prioritising Earth over Cybertron in Dark of the Moon by being betrayed with his troops hunted down for parts. So this Optimus perhaps having little time for Earth is plausible; the problem is it goes against the central tenets of the character to go so far and it feels like the the production team flinched from this late in the day, with the glowing eyes not quite as good as the rest of the effects and the cry of "NEMESIS PRIME" sounding almost arbitrary. It basically feels like Prime is easily swayed and then easily swayed back - and however well executed it is the fight between Optimus/Nemesis and Bumblebee feels utterly redundant and never in doubt, with the consequences of the whole episode barely mentioned again at the end. The whole arc is underwhelming, without any shock value and without any real tackling of exactly what goes on.

There are plenty of new characters but few are particularly impressive. What's jarring is how many are all but lifted from recent blockbusters, especially Star Wars. Izabella and Squeeks are fun enough as potential new characters but it's incredibly hard not to see them as simply Rey and BB-8. Similarly the Jim West-voiced Cogman would be kind-of a fun if obvious subversion of the dutiful English retainer if the whole sarcastic unhelpful robot thing hadn't been done for Rogue One with J2SO. Hot Rod is harmless enough, despite falling into the same "accent counts as characterisation, right?" field as Drift and having a time-bending weapon that kind of feels like it breaks the rules of the franchise a bit, however illogical that sounds. There's a fun cameo from Steve Buscemi as the shambling Daytrader and the two new combiners add a bit of visual variety but the rest is a heavily mixed bag. Cade gets a human sidekick in the form of Jimmy, who's so much like Lucas from Age of Extinction that you wonder if he was entirely scripted as such before someone remembered he died. He virtually disappears from the plot once the action moves to England and you're left wondering what the point was; for my money it would have been funnier if Joyce had filled the role, destitute after the Transformium scandal and having to dogsbody for Cade. Instead Stanley Tucci, either because he was under contract before Joyce was cut from the script (possibly because ongoing animosity as he had  intentionally melted down Autobots would have been too much of a brick, though that level of thought seems unlikely) or because Michael Bay liked him gets a glorified cameo as a charlatan Merlin, for which he actually received third billing.

Megatron meanwhile gets a new gang of Decepticons, not seen before but presumably drawn to Earth as with the new Autobot arrivals and captured by the TRF (or even possibly by NEST beforehand) and released to help bring in Cade and the Autobots. This whole sequence is a clear riff on Suicide Squad, complete with on-screen naming graphics and lurid introductions, but it goes too far and breaks down almost immediately within the universe as we're given a list of crimes these Decepticons have committed like they're minor felons. Bear in mind that 20 minutes earlier the TRF had summarily executed the non-aggressive Canopy, but have a big prison somewhere for Decepticons with rap sheets. They all look a bit silly and have dumb names that don't really mean anything, like the DJD, and the whole scene is weird, filled with bizarre negotiations between Megatron, the TRF and some lawyers (because lawyers, right? No, me either) and is packed with strange non-sequiters, like Megatron demanding the release of one guy and not budging an inch and then asking for Berserker and when the lawyers decide he's too nasty just metaphorically shrugging and moving on. It's all very strange and gets stranger when the gang catch up with the Autobots, are caught out in a trap laid by Cade and massacred, only Nitro-Zeus surviving. Which is in a way fine and funny (and a fair reference to the comic version of Suicide Squad with its' gigantic cast turnover) but as a 15 minute detour in a film full of detours it's a bizarre sequence. It's also a shame - the film has lots of very similar looking vaguely knight-ish groups of unnamed Transformers including the Infernocons and the Knights of Iacon fulfilling various roles at various times; more visually distinct identities might have made some parts clearer.

As for Megatron himself, he has a new smart design (inexplicably losing his Transformium construction and the Galvatron thing) but gets little use, vaguely becoming one of Quintessa's minions after his squad is defeated. He's not given much to do, which is a shame as there was space in the movie for someone other than the diffuse Quintessa and the controlled Prime to argue the case for Cybertronian patriotism. Barricade's back as well, also with a spanking revamp, but as with the first film after starting out as Megatron's major catspaw and getting in a chase he just sort of melts away, his script functions taken over by Nitro Zeus. The impression from all of it is that there wasn't really the need or the space for the Decepticons in the film full-stop but someone bottled it and here they are.

They do better than poor old Josh Duhamel, though. Back in the fold after the first film launched him as a plausible male lead for a variety of underwhelming romcoms and straight into second billing but sadly it seems like most of his scenes and characterisation ended up on the cutting room floor. There are a few scenes with fellow returnee Glenn Morshower showing that he might be infiltrating or working to otherwise moderate the TRF but it never really comes to anything. His familiarity with the Autobots is unintentionally hilarious as well as it's all one way as Lennox tries to reason with Bumblebee but gets ignored. It gets sadder later on when the character accompanies Cade and Bee to the big showdown with Optimus and barely gets in the shot. Poor old Josh Duhamel.

The rest of the cast are variable. Anthony Hopkins as per usual over the past decade or so turns up and hams out without being particularly amusing, a major victim of the believe that an elderly British toff saying "Badass" is inherently awesome; John Turturro gets a weird cameo literally phoning it in (I like the idea of Cuba being a refuge, though, and the confirmation that the other two Wreckers made it); Santos, the sort-of field leader with the TRF gets an obvious mini-arc of bashing antlers with Lennox before realising the Autobots are awful. Mark Wahlberg flickers between his two facial expressions ("surprised"/"surprised and cross") at random, Laura Haddock shows all the screen presence that someone trusted with playing Star Lord's dead mum can be expected to show and both are shown up by the competent but unspectacular Isabela Moner, who is less annoying that she culd be as a Chicago urchin. 

Most damningly of all, though, is how boring the film is. Across the brutal two-and-a-half hour run time there's no momentum, coherence or even exciting. A couple of the action scenes pass muster - the battle between the Autobots and Decepticons in the rigged ghost town is a respectable appetiser and the Prime/Bee fight works better than a fight between two guys who absolutely are not going to die should but beyond that it's slim pickings. The big climax consists of guys in fatigues crouching down while a single gun emplacement (because it's the beaches of Normandy in 1944) shoots at them until they run off. Uhhh. There are Transformers around but they tend to flit in and out - The Last Knight is a major sinner in this score; the previous four all have little scenes where people on both sides of the camera seem to forget there are 20-foot robots hulking around - and their big moments all flop, notably the terribly choreographed moment where Prime beheads all of the Infernocons with a single swing of his sword. It just feels like they're trying to top themselves there.

The whole thing is muddied and confused, seemingly uncertain of what sort of film it wants to be. There are reappearances aimed squarely at the fans - confirmation that Lennox and Simmons at least survived the purge when the Autobots were outlawed, that Roadbuster, Topspin and Wheelie are alive, a photo of Sam Witwicky, that sort of thing. And then there are things that seem purposefully designed to annoy them, like a squad of Decepticons overtly using what for the most part sound like pre-production placeholder names. But looking at all these disparate problems it seems that the film was pulled every which way but loose for the sake of pleasing just one man, Michael Benjamin Bay.

It's been a source of wry amusement that after each sequel Bay's stated he's done with Transformers and gets persuaded to stay on, which makes sense from both points of view - it's a solid job for him and Paramount can't be blamed for believing in him for delivering around four billion (actual literal figure rather than bombastic exaggeration) at the box office. Age of Extinction came at the price of increasing the funding for Bay's (apparently) more personal Pain & Gain and thus made little effect on that film but here it seems to be all up on screen. It might be that the film's three screenwriters bear some of the blame but really given the franchise's history and the way blockbuster films work it's probably more accurate to lay the blame on the director.

In the case of long-running TV shows, especially sci-fi series, it's something of a common trend that the cast get restless and either through alleviating boredom or trying to add a string to their bow to avoid typecasting they lobby the producers to do something a bit different. You get excuses made to dress up in different costumes, play evil versions of their characters, that sort of thing. This seems to be the case here - the most logical explanation for a lot of The Last Knight's more obtuse moments are that Michael Bay wanted to do them and with Paramount over a barrel he was indulged. The only reason for there to be an Arthurian battle is because Bay thought it would be fun; ditto a combining dragon Transformer, a Suicide Squad aping roll call, a car chase through England, senile retired Autobots, scenes on a WW2 submarine, etc. All of these point to a director tired of modern combat set pieces set in American conurbations (making it weirdly ironic that the best action scene in the film is a modern combat set piece set in an American conurbation); in short the director is using the movie as a back door to show he can handle other stuff with little care for the coherence of the result.

Previously I've defended both the films and the director as being towards the better end of what can be expected in the real world of Hollywood licencing a toyline for a major big budget production. But this one is enough and there is now a need for change, with the worldwide box office seeming to agree. The Last Knight is easily the most disappointing entry in a franchise that's never aimed high, almost totally bereft of any crumbs of comfort. What the change will be and whether it will be for the better is open to debate, but this is a film that shows that Bay and Transformers has ran its' course as a working relationship.

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