Movies: "Transformers: The Last Knight" Spoiler Movie Review
"Transformers: The Last Knight" Movie Review (SPOILERS)
Release Date: June 21, 2017 (US)
Run time: 2h 29min
Director: Michael Bay
Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Stanley Tucci, Isabela Moner, Josh Duhamel, John Turturro, Ken Watanabe, Laura Haddock, Anthony Hopkins
This is the official Ben's World of Transformers SPOILER filled review of "Transformers: The Last Knight". I recommend reading my Non-Spoiler Review before this one to get my general thoughts on the film before going on to this review. In many respects this is a "part two" to that initial review. You have been warned, turn back now if you do not want spoilers! Also, this review is long, so get a snack, get comfortable and enjoy.
"Transformers: The Last Knight" is the fifth movie in the live action movie franchise. It also marks a bit of an anniversary. The first live action movie came out in 2007, so the live action universe has now existed for ten years! Not many movie franchises last that long and despite a steady torrent of lambasting over the years from professional critics and fans alike, the series has endured with one box office success after another. Of course, box office success is not a pure indicator of quality. Critics and fans alike have critiqued everything from the designs of the robots to the humor to a lack of focus on the titular Transformers themselves. In many respects, "The Last Knight" feels like a reaction to much (read: not all) of this criticism and the result is an enjoyable film that mostly falters at times because it over complicates its own narrative.
The basic story behind "The Last Knight" is fairly simple. Cybertron is a dead world (we have known this since "Dark of the Moon") but Quintessa, the creator of the Transformers wants to revive her world. The key to doing this is on Earth: an ancient artifact given to the ancient wizard Merlin. Through this device, she plans to extract the energy of Earth to revive Cybertron. In Cybertronian lore, Cybertron and Earth were destined to come into conflict with each other because Earth is actually Unicron, the ancient enemy of Cybertron! Of course, mankind is not taking kindly to their world being destroyed to revive Cybertron, so a race ensues to claim Merlin's staff, an artifact that can either destroy or save the Earth!
Now let me stop here for a moment. Reviews I have read about this film up to this point (see the Rolling Stone review for instance) are written by critics who appear to have a major problem with the very premise of the film. If the idea of King Arthur and Transformers mingling grates on your nerves, if the idea of Cybertronian artifacts playing a role in Earth's fate bother you then this film is not for you. It's cool. Just walk away, put in your DVD of the 1986 "Transformers: The Movie" film and watch that instead. No amount of enthusiasm or thought on my part will change your mind if that is where your mindset is.
Okay, still there? Great. Let's begin.
On a high level, the summary above sounds almost like a two part episode from the original 80's "Generation One" series. However, "The Last Knight" attempts to put layer and layer (and layer) on top of the basic storyline and the result becomes very confusing at times. These are all very well intentioned and interesting points on their own, but when mashed together, these story points can feel like too many narrative threads are being woven together. There is the story of Izzy, an orphan surviving in the wasteland that has been quarantined by the government. She fixes Transformers and tries her best to help them (and any strays that wander into her path). Then you have the story of Cade Yaeger, our hero from "Age of Extinction" who, like Izzy, is living in the Badlands in a junkyard where Cybertronian refugees can hide out. Then you have the story of Lennox, who is "undercover" with the Transformers Reactionary Force (TRF) military unit in behalf of General Moreshower. Meanwhile, you have the narrative glue of Sir Edmund Burton who is the last remaining keeper of secret Transformers lore with respect to human history and the end of the world.
If that last paragraph feels a bit overwhelming, it is. While it would be easy to paint "The Last Knight" as a "popcorn flick" that you can turn your brain off in, you actually do need to pay attention to a lot of the dialogue to get the full picture of what is being presented. At times the plot is over complicated and trips over itself. One example is Lennox being "undercover" at the TRF while "really" working for General Moreshower. The idea is to distinguish that one military group (Moreshower/Lennox) recognize Autobots are the good guys while the TRF does not care as much about the differences between Autobots and Decepticons. It is not a bad idea, but it is a nuance that quickly gets discarded because the story needs to move forward. I think it may have been better to just have Lennox be part of the TRF period, but have the morality battle play out over the course of the movie with him as the advocate for the Autobots and the TRF realizing he is right. This sort of happens, but with some clunky scenes thrown in to facilitate the "TRF vs not-TRF military branches" story.
There is also a sense that there are two (possibly three) movies that are being smooshed together into one film. I could not help feeling that Izzy's story was a bit short changed. She starts off strong early on in the film, and her growing friendship with Cade was actually very touching, but then out of necessity Izzy disappears for a large chunk of the movie only to reappear in the finale. Meanwhile, the story of King Arthur working with the Knights of Cybertron is told in flashback, but it feels like it could have been a fun 90 minute movie just by itself. Some of this can be explained as world-building (after all, the original "Star Wars" only mentioned previous wars but we did not see them til years later), but at times the narrative jumps across the line of "cool flashback" to "I want to see more of that!" and back. In many respects the movie gave us peeks into some amazing potential stories, but quickly pulls in other stories even as we are trying to enjoy the one that came before.
In the mixture of various storylines outlined above, there are narrative issues that will bother some people and outright infuriate others. For instance, if another planet like Cybertron just popped up next to Earth, there should be all sorts of gravitational problems causing chaos long before Earth's energy begins to be drained. This could easily be explained in a throw away line of dialogue, but it is never brought up despite there being a scientist character who appears in several scenes during the crisis. Also many fans will leave this film wondering what happened to "Galvatron" from the last film. Did he just reformat himself? Sure it's plausible he did, but all it would have taken is one line of dialogue to explain it away, but we never get it. In another example that drove me crazy as a fan, Cogman is called out as a "Headmaster" by Sir Burton, however the film never goes on to explain what that means nor does it factor into the actual story (or an action scene as many fans had hoped). I think it would have been an amazing scene to see Cogman rip off Nitro's head and take over his body (as the toys can do) but no such scene even comes close to happening in the film.
So after four paragraphs of critique, it would be very easy to think I did not enjoy this film. In fact, I enjoyed it quite a bit. There were many scenes where I was almost vibrating with excitement in my chair. Several parts of the movie had me grinning ear to ear. So let's get to what worked for me in the film.
Robots in Disguise
Since "Revenge of the Fallen", the live action movie series has shown that Transformers have been involved with human affairs long before Optimus Prime and company landed on Earth. Between seeing Cybertronians in ancient Egypt and Jetfire hiding in a museum, it became clear that this Earth has had a lot of Transformers activity over the ages. However, "The Last Knight" kicks this idea up several notches by showing just how much Transformers took part in human stories over the ages. From Dragonstorm helping King Arthur to Bumblebee helping out the Allies during World War II it is an exciting prospect to see just how much Transformers were involved in human affairs. When Sir Burton goes through the various names of people who have been involved with Transformers in the past, it is a dizzying array of historical figures. This opens up the world of the live action movies to a lot of potential future stories that tell us about Transformers adventures predating the 2000's. Indeed, the upcoming Bumblebee movie will be set in the 80's!
One of the fun aspects of Transformers is imagining them in every day life. In the 80's one could imagine how cool it would be if the stereo was Soundwave or if the car parked down the block was really an Autobot guarding against Decepticons. The realistic vehicle and alt forms of many G1 toys fostered this fantasy, and in a way that thread of imagination continues with these films. Before we could wonder "What if that stereo was Frenzy?" or "What if that Camaro is Bumblebee?" but now in addition we can also wonder about the vintage submarine at a museum or a seemingly dormant World War I tank also being robots in disguise. Almost anything in this world can be a Cybertronian and that is very exciting to me.
When Transformers was first introduced to the world in 1984, one of the most distinct features of the toys was a "tech spec" card which gave you a brief rundown of the character's personality and abilities. Over the years, the live action films have floated back and forth between depicting the Transformers characters as either personalities or props that can talk. Optimus Prime and Bumblebee have arguably gotten the most lines and representation as sentient beings (with other characters such as Ironhide and Ratchet trailing behind). However other characters, mostly Decepticons are mostly props that serve a purpose to push the narrative forward, but not really do much else. "The Last Knight" still has some of this, but there are some really fun moments that elevate the Transformers beyond just being talking props (for the most part). Most of the main characters get a few character beats, whether it is in something they do or something they say, you get a sense of who many of the Autobots and Decepticons are.
In one of my favorite scenes, Hound helps Cade call his daughter. He sees Cade is suffering as the call ends and the normally blustering, loudmouth character offers brief words of support instead. Later, Izzy is seen hanging out on Hound's shoulders talking to him, echoing a bit of the interaction between Miko and Bulkhead in "Transformers: Prime". There is also the very touching scene where Izzy watches Canopy die (which was plastered all over trailers months ago). It was important that the Transformers and humans interacted not only in a perfunctory way, but also in an emotional way and I was very happy to see that in the film.
Fans have long complained about Decepticons merely being faceless/nameless masses in the past. Sure we got to hang with Frenzy quite a bit in the first movie, but by "Age of Extinction", the Decepticon troops were basically nameless cannon fodder. Not so with this film. There is an entire sequence built around Megatron working to free Decepticon prisoners. Each gets a full on shot on screen, a bit of character exposition and their names shown on screen. This is a very old skool method of introducing characters but from a visual standpoint it is a very effective way of telling the audience who is who. As we see these Decepticons later in the film, we now know who they are and a bit of their attitude since they had such a dramatic introduction. They are no longer just faceless minions (literally, and figuratively) in the background shooting at things. The only shame is that so many of them are dispatched so quickly. I would have loved to see all the Decepticons from the beginning survive to the finale.
Many fans will say that the Transformers needed more screen time and more representation of their personalities, and I agree wholeheartedly. I would be happy with a movie that took place entirely on Cybertron with no humans, however these films have established humans as a major component of the story, so it is no surprise they play such a prominent role in this tale.
I was introduced to Transformers at the very beginning of the line in 1984. Since then I have watched every series, absorbed as much fiction as I can and now 30 plus years later it is always fun to connect the dots on fiction and callbacks to the previous generations. Even when I review action figures, I always look for how that toy might be referencing something that came before. With that in mind, I absolutely ate up all the various references in "The Last Knight" to previous Transformers tales.
From the start of the movie, Transformers interacting with humans in the Middle Ages recalled fond memories of A Raider in King Arthur's Court and "Man of Iron" story. Quintessa's "deceitful" nature reminded me of the original "Five Faced deceivers" themselves, the Generation One Quintessons from the 80's cartoon. Even small mentions are significant. Daytrader recognizes the symbol on Cade's medallion as belonging to the "Knights of Iacon". Iacon is a major Autobot city in many different stories going back to Generation One. It is a quick moment, but one that calls back to old lore going back to 1984. Of course, the biggest reveal is that Earth is Unicron, the ancient enemy of Cybertron! This, more than any other reference had me grinning ear to ear. Not only is it a fun twist, but it also calls back to the series "Transformers: Prime", which used the same idea. I love all these (and other) references back to the history of the Transformers brand. It shows a certain recognition of the heritage of the line.
While references are great, I would be remiss if I did not point out that many of these callbacks go by very quickly on screen. In fact, during conversations with some of my friends about the film they did not catch some of them (such as the Iacon reference, which is a line that goes by very fast). Aside from the Middle Ages story and Merlin's staff, not much is expanded upon. For some such as myself this will whet your appetite, for others it will frustrate you to no end because it will feel as if these elements were shortchanged. Your mileage will vary.
It is no secret that Michael Bay is one of Hollywood's reigning kings of action on film. His unique style and ability to pull of complex and powerful action sequences is both the subject of admiration and parody in pop culture. Over the years there are signature elements to Bay's films including huge explosions (usually done on set at the time of filming, not spliced in later), over the top stunts and set pieces that are unlike those you will see in other movies. However at the same time there is frequent use of "shakey cam" and shots that are so close you have a hard time telling what is happening. This is on purpose, with the idea of bring you the viewer "into" the action. Imagine if you were standing next to Bumblebee while he blasted away at Decepticons. You will not get a wide view of the area, but rather just a close up view as explosions rocked around you. I have always understood this theory, but I have never been a big fan of it. Having grown up in the 80's watching movies with lots of big, wide shots I am used to seeing a lot happening before me and absorbing as much of it as possible. Since this film was actually made using IMAX cameras, I highly recommend seeing it on an IMAX screen (3D is optional). I saw this on IMAX first, then on a regular screen second. A lot of the grandeur winds up being lost on a smaller screen. If you can see it on IMAX, definitely do so.
In this film, Bay seems to have worked hard to take full advantage of the IMAX cameras he used to film the movie. There are far fewer tight shots and many more wide shots, allowing you to see what is happening not just to one or two characters, but sometimes up to a dozen characters on screen at the same time. Let's face it, a lot of seeing these films involves eye candy, and you want to see wide shots of robots and their transformations. Thankfully this film offers both. One of my favorite sequences is the battle between the Autobots and Infernocus. The Combiner separates and combines a couple of times on screen. When he comes together his presence is truly threatening, and when he separates there is an extra creepiness about him. When Optimus Prime finally arrives to fight him, it is a really fun scene to watch. There are also some scenes of Transformers from the human point of view, which really helped to impress upon the audience the grandeur of the Transformers as larger than life figures.
Over the past few days I have watched critics and fans alike shred "The Last Knight" to pieces from a critical point of view. Sometimes their comments are justified, other times they are badly researched. However, I am more than aware that my opinion on this film is in the minority. To me, "The Last Knight" is a fun roller coaster ride filled with fun moments, cool references to previous Transformers lore and some exciting action. In many respects, the film reminds me of a group of kids taking a pile of toys (mostly Transformers and G.I. Joes) and coming up with an adventure in their backyard. The film can be frenetic, and yes, there are lots of pieces that do not quite connect properly with previous films. However I found myself having so much fun I was able to look past those issues and enjoy the experience. I have already seen the film twice and hope to see it a couple more times before it leaves theaters. "The Last Knight" is not a perfect movie, but it is a fun one.