Review: Rise of the Beasts is better than nearly any Transformers film, or perhaps it’s just better at not being a noticeably abysmal movie.
To blubber a plot synopsis of any of the Transformers movies seems like a task done only by the deranged. They draw you so far into the weeds that it’s hard to keep your bearings while you watch them (Who’s the villain this time? How’s that different from the last?). But regardless, they keep chugging along.
This is in part because of the figures that headline each project. When one movie falls to new lows, just hire a new director, give Shia LaBeouf a new love interest – or dismiss Shia LaBeouf from the franchise entirely. They may feel like half-assed attempts to get new butts in seats at your local theater, but they seem to keep working because the studios (DreamWorks to start, later taken on by Paramount) keep funding them.
Which must consist of a lot of cash, because the only thought your brain should conjure after seeing any of the (now) seven Transformers movies is “it must have cost a fortune to render that skyscraper imploding in [enter city here].” And you’d be right. I’ve always detested the Transformers movies. They feel like the antithesis of independent filmmaking – a subsection of the medium currently on life support at the cinema. Offering this level of turn-your-brain-off mush to audiences only further cements the possibility that we may be heading towards the end of public exhibition for arthouse pictures.
I had originally thought I could never like a movie in this extended Transformers universe. After all, Mark Wahlberg’s second attempt to maneuver his way into the fold, The Last Knight, may possibly be the worst picture I’ve ever laid eyes on (and I like Michael Bay!). That movie magnifies every negative impulse Bay has when making movies: crosscutting between a jarring number of aspect ratios, lighting straight from alternative rock music videos in the early 2000s, mistaking stakes for scale, etc.
But then a little film called Bumblebee was released in the theaters in 2019. Noticeably absent of the volatile visionary in the director’s chair, Bumblebee feels like a rejection of the movies that came before it. The film offered the hope that maybe there’s a place for these movies in the culture – a chance to reflect on film history through these plastic alien lifeforms rather than rejecting the rules of the form.
The movie, although heavily inspired by the works of John Hughes and Steven Spielberg, felt shockingly new and idiosyncratic, as if Travis Knight was the only director who could conceive of E.T., but with a yellow Volkswagen at the center.
Not only did Bumblebee shred the franchise installments that came before it – the film had me interested to see if they would build on it. And while Transformers: Rise of the Beasts doesn’t necessarily do that, it recycles enough of the emotional elements to remind me more of the Travis Knight outing than the abysmal run of movies prior.
Rise of the Beasts follows Noah Diaz (Anthony Ramos), an ex-military electronics expert bouncing from job to job trying to pull funds together to support his family. His younger brother, Kris, suffers from sickle cell disease and needs expensive treatment in order to ease the chronic condition.
And within this short amount of time in 1990s Brooklyn (roughly 15 minutes of runtime to be exact), Rise of the Beasts has already built more emotional equity than any of the five movies that began this forgettable franchise. This is largely accomplished because of Ramos’ screen presence – the affable caretaker of a family pushed to the margins of the big city.
Simultaneously, museum intern Elena Wallace (Dominique Fishback) studies ancient artifacts of all sorts. She happens upon an old statue that the professionals can’t quite spot in history. Although they aren’t aware yet, there’s a carved symbol of a long lost Transformers tribe: the Maximals.
While maybe a tough name to take seriously in an action movie, you’d think differently when you actually see them. The Maximals are unlike Transformers of movies past – they have alternate beast modes that counter their usual forms. We meet them before the current events taking place to start the film: the planet-eating Unicron attacks their home world and nearly devours them before they can escape to Earth (like I mentioned, kind of impossible to fully recall a movie and still seem sane).
And through a few small plot contrivances and character decisions, we’re able to meet the rest of the robotic cast for Rise of the Beasts. Mirage stands out from the usual line of shapeshifters that spawn in these movies – he’s genuinely funny, and expertly cast and voiced by Pete Davidson. The usual faces are all here, too, from Bumblebee and Arcee to Optimus Prime. The bots look noticeably less plastic and fragile than in Bumblebee, but they don’t contain layers of mechanical wallpaper like they have in the past.
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Rise of the Beasts doesn’t have a real meaningful story to write home about beyond these small elements, but when have these movies? The Autobots and Maximals need the Transwarp Key to return to their own planets, while Scourge (this movie’s main, and very plain, villain) and his cronies want the same key in order to devour more planets at a higher rate.
And thus the chase begins, filled with large action set pieces and an ambition attempt to legitimize humans in a film where robots tower over them. This movie doesn’t do the second part as effectively as Bumblebee, but at least it’s trying. The friendship between Nate and Mirage is the second emotional core to the movie behind Nate’s brother, which is an accomplishment compared to past attempts between LaBeouf and Bumblebee’s radio voice box.
There’s also a pretty cynical, “remember we need to be a franchise” ending to Rise of the Beasts as well, where the film chooses to set up an odd crossover that may or may not go over smoothly (or happen at all). I’m not sure who needed it, but the 1980’s toy crossover is gaining momentum whether you like it or not.
But beyond studio interference, there are some neat elements. Steven Caple Jr. infuses his usual set of nostalgic thumbprints to land a few noteworthy needle drops and settings. Ramos and Fishback largely hold their own in a franchise where that’s almost never the case. Maybe I’m grading on a curve, but it passes.
Where to watch Transformers: Rise of the Beasts: Paramount+, VOD
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Film Cast and Crew
Anthony Ramos as Noah Diaz
Dominique Fishback as Elena Wallace
Peter Cullen as Optimus Prime (voice)
Ron Perlman as Optimus Primal (voice)
Peter Dinklage as Scourge (voice)
Michelle Yeoh as Airazor (voice)
Pete Davidson as Mirage (voice)
Liza Koshy as Arcee (voice)
Director: Steven Caple Jr.
Cinematography: Enrique Chediak
Composer: Jongnic Bontemps
Transformers: Rise of the Beasts movie on Letterboxd
Transformers: Rise of the Beasts movie on IMDb