The seventh entry in the series shows that these robots in disguise still have some gas in the tank.

It is hard to believe that the first live action Transformers film came out in 2007. Not because that seems too long ago, but it oddly feels too recent; it was a single year before Iron Man ushered in the MCU, and with it the modern age of the blockbuster. It was created in the midst of superhero films being a dominant cultural zeitgeist, but before it was the only big budget film that existed. The Michael Bay-directed, Stephen Spielberg-produced film felt like a natural explosion of big budget Hollywood fare of that time, an extension of late 90s bombast and excess.

It was followed by four direct sequels, each felt increasingly out of step with the shape of popcorn fare. They have always performed well, largely on the back of global popularity, but their appeal was always somewhat suspect. An unwieldy, aesthetic aggressive series that traded in dodgy politics, bigoted stereotypes and a healthy dose of well-intentioned conspiracy theory dabbling, the Transformers films always felt like an indistinguishable slog of interchangeable noise that were mostly noteworthy for taking up a full decade of Bay’s career.

That reputation somewhat changed with Bumblebee. Released only a year after The Last Knight, the final Transformers film from Bay, Bumblebee functioned as a ‘80s-soaked prequel as well as simplification of the robots-in-disguise franchise, returning to a stripped down format and a straight-forward storytelling style. The effect was an injection of new life into a franchise that had long been stumbling in the darkness. The question was if the follow-up would be able to build upon the goodwill of the previous installment.

The good news is that the newest Transformers entry, Rise of the Beasts from director Steven Caple Jr., appears to have learned most of the right lessons from Bumblebee and maintains the revival course for a once lost series. While it certainly has its issues with excess that both reflect on the previous Transformers films, as well as having a shape that will be familiar to MCU aficionados, it grounds itself in recognizable, winning performances and relatable stakes on both a micro and macro level. It ultimately isn’t quite the surprise that Bumblebee was before, but it does give the impression of a steady hand at the wheel.

The “beasts” referred to in the title are the Maximals, a race of robotic lifeforms that resemble Earth animals, who are introduced in a cold opening to the film alongside the life-devouring evil god Unicron. A handful of Maximals are able to escape to Earth as Unicron destroys their home planet, thanks to his henchmen the Terrorcons led by Scourge. They take with them the Transwarp Key, a device capable of opening portals across the universe that would allow Unicron to devour the whole of reality in a matter of moments. 

Later on earth, specifically in 1994, we meet our human heroes, Noah (Anthony Ramos) and Elena (Dominique Fishback). Noah is a struggling Brooklynite, trying to balance finding work and supporting his family, specifically his little brother who is struggling with sickle-cell anemia. Desperate for money to pay for medical bills, Noah resorts to car jacking, only to stumble upon the Transformer Mirage (voice acted by Pete Davidson). Meanwhile Elena, an artifact researcher at a local museum, discovers the Transwarp Key, catching the attention of both the heroic Autobots who see it as a means to return home, and the evil Terrorcons who hope to use it to finally elevate Unicron.

This is the leg work that the film has to do in the opening 30 minutes or so to allow the action to carry the rest of the momentum to the predictably massive conclusion. But what could be a clunky bit of set piece dressing is carried by strong performances across the board. Ramos and Fishback carry the majority of the live-action acting, and they both perform admirably, giving likable and relatable faces for the action primarily inhabited by giant CGI robots. Ramos in particular holds the camera well, coming across as both a believable action hero as well as the down-to-earth human who finds himself in the objectively insane world of alien robot warfare. What could be laborious and leaden is given a playful bounciness thanks to these central performances.

Beyond the live action performers however, there is the married acting of CGI characters alongside a healthy dose of voice acting for all of the robot characters. The voice actors include series mainstay Peter Cullen, who returns as Optimus Prime, a role he can do almost on reflex at this point, along with a bevy of newcomers. Chief among them is the always affable Pete Davidson as the transformer Mirage, an Autobot capable of projecting holographic duplicates of himself. Davidson’s performance inject much needed life and levity to the film, a likable addition to the Autobot family who can often get weighed down in a sort of self-importance. Also impressive is Peter Dinklage as the villainous Scourge, snarling and yelling his way through very melodramatic, menacing dialogue.

Perhaps the strangest aspect of Rise of the Beasts is how secondary the titular beasts turn out to be to the plot. Other than their introduction early in the film, the majority of the Maximals don’t show up until the final third of the film, and even then fulfill mostly functional roles in the plot. They are there to support and ally alongside the mainstay Autobots. This is a shame because the moments that they are present, the Maximals provide some interesting counterbalance to the familiar.  Ron Perlman’s grumbling but compassionate Optimus Primal, the ape-like leader of the Maximals, plays brilliantly against Cullen’s Prime, and Michelle Yeoh adds much needed gravitas to the role of a robotic falcon named Airazor.

The final act of Rise of the Beasts, which predictably culminates in a gigantic literal battle between good and evil, is perhaps its weakest portion, but still has plenty of surprises and genuine visual spectacle to elevate it above other films of a similar vein this year. And that is in large part due to its core cast working overtime to get you invested in the characters walking into that battle. Much like Caple’s steady leadership in Creed II, his visual language never really elevates or detracts from the core competency of the storytelling, allowing a down the middle, enjoyable summer flick that may not land amongst the hollowed ranks of an all-time summer banger, but shows promise and life for the Transformers franchise going into the 2020s, and with a killer final tease, suggests a healthy future for the series. With so many film franchises faltering for an identity, it is a pleasure to watch one setting a course confidently.

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