How do you solve a problem like Transformers? Go big, like Michael Bay did in each of the five swaggering block-blasters he directed between 2007 and 2017, and you end up tumbling down a wearying wormhole of deafening incoherence. Go small(er), as Travis Knight did in 2018’s Bumblebee, and you’ll win back the critics – but you won’t deliver the sort of billion-dollar return Paramount expects from its Hasbro-inspired cash-cow.
In Transformers: Rise of the Beasts, Creed II director Steven Caple Jr. tries to find a middle ground, with fair-to-middling success. A first hour based in ’90s New York keeps things appealingly human-scaled, with Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen) and his laying-low Autobots largely playing second fiddle to former soldier Noah (Anthony Ramos), museum researcher Elena (Dominique Fishback), and their gradual realisation that a glowing artefact at her place of work is one half of a beacon-like key sought by ’bots both benign and nefarious.
By the time second hour rolls around, alas, it’s business as usual. A jump to Peru and the arrival on the scene of robo-gorilla Optimus Primal (Ron Perlman) and the rest of the bestial ‘Maximals’ paves the way for an overblown final face-off with evil automaton Scourge (Peter Dinklage) and his equally despicable Terrorcons.
At stake is the universe itself; turns out that aforementioned key is what gigantic planet-eater Unicron (Colman Domingo) needs to continue its gluttony in our galaxy. If only Caple Jr. and his five credited screenwriters had found a way to make us invested in the outcome, instead of merely assaulting us with another energy-draining orgy of bombastic Bayhem.
Beasts is at its best when building a pleasing bond between Noah and wisecracking Autobot Mirage (Pete Davidson) that feels much like the one Hailee Steinfeld forged with Bumblebee five years ago. Fishback, too, is a likeable presence who stays relatable throughout, mainly by behaving as most of us would were we ever to find ourselves pursued by mechanical spiders through an underground temple.
Period-specific needle drops offer a nostalgic bonus, with LL Cool J’s ‘Mama Said Knock You Out’ injecting a thunderous energy into one pivotal set piece. Sixteen years on from the Shia LaBeouf original, though, the many brains behind this franchise have still to figure out how to satisfy an audience without leaving it bludgeoned.