In 2007, the Transformers movie ushered in the modern era of blockbuster filmmaking. Over ten years, Michael Bay directed five films based on the iconic ‘80s cartoon and toy line, raking in massive earnings at the box office.
But despite the series’ financial success, it failed to capture the magic of the classic Transformers TV series. Bay’s films offered glimpses of what fans wanted, but the director’s flashy style prioritized spectacle over compelling storytelling and strong characters. Each entry in the series felt like a Michael Bay movie first and a Transformers film second.
Now, director Steven Caple Jr. steps in to revitalize this dying series. Caple Jr. knows a thing or two about taking over the reins of a revered series. (As demonstrated by his work on 2018’s highly underrated Creed II).
So, is Caple Jr. once again the right man for the job?
Transformers: Rise of the Beasts is the most outlandish Transformers film to date, and yet, it’s also the best all-around Transformers movie. Rise of the Beasts may lack the Bay-directed films’ gonzo highs, but it also avoids their mind-numbing lows.
Noah Diaz (Anthony Ramos) can’t catch a break. After serving his country, the ex-soldier hasn’t been able to land steady work because of a few “blemishes” on his record. With his sick baby brother’s medical bills piling up, Noah gets persuaded to steal a fancy car from some rich jerks with more cash than they know what to do with.
It turns out the car is a fast-talking Autobot soldier named Mirage (Pete Davidson), who gets called to action by his commander Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen) just as Noah breaks in. Rather than jacking the car, Mirage jacks Noah and enlists him in a life-and-death mission to save the planet.
Unicron (Colman Domingo), a colossal sentient machine who feeds on planets is stranded in the far reaches of the galaxy. The only way for Unicron to traverse the universe is by using the Transwarp key. And unfortunately for humanity, it’s hidden away on Earth. When a young archaeologist named Elena (Dominique Fishback) discovers the Transwarp key, it alerts Unicron’s henchmen to its whereabouts.
Optimus Prime and his Autobots join forces with the key’s original protectors, the Maximals (robots which transform into animals), to stop Unicron from attaining the key and acquiring god-like power.
Rise of the Beasts strikes a satisfying balance between action and story. It provides all the epic robot-on-robot action you want from a Transformers flick while also delivering engaging human and Autobot characters you want to spend time with.
Transformer versus Transformer combat has never looked better. Bay’s films get so chaotic it’s difficult to keep track of what’s happening. Tussling heroes tend to devolve into an indistinguishable blur of fire, metal, and sparks.
This film doesn’t feature massive set pieces that rival Bay’s movies. But the action sequences are still thrilling and much easier to follow. Instead of going for the most technically impressive shot, cinematographer Enrique Chediak captures the action with the viewer’s perspective in mind. You always have a sense of where characters are located in the heat of battle. Although these digital combatants still defy the law of physics, fights feel weightier and grounded compared to past films.
Rise of the Beasts provides all the car chases, shootouts, and metal-on-metal mayhem you could hope for in a Transformers movie. But unlike Bay’s movies, this installment settles down long enough to get you invested in the characters.
Joby Harold, Darnell Metayer, and Josh Peters’ screenplay is earnest to a fault, occasionally dipping into cloying. Yet, I appreciate the film’s willingness to go for big emotional moments instead of settling for dull, one-dimensional characters.
Even Optimus Prime gets an actual emotional arc this time out. Here we meet a younger, jaded Optimus Prime, grappling with his failures as a leader. He’s colder and angrier than we’ve ever seen him, making no effort to hide his contempt for humanity. He’s a far cry from the inspiring, selfless leader we witnessed in previous films.
Much like Travis Knight’s 2018 spinoff Bumblebee, Rise of the Beasts feels rooted in a specific time and place, and I love the film’s hip-hop swagger.
The old-school wardrobe choices, musical selections, and production design breathe personality and emotional texture into the story. These choices also scream out that Rise of the Beasts is the most ‘90s-ass movie since Jonah Hill’s Mid90s. Characters rock oversized teal hoodies, play Game Boy, and pirate Tupac movies with hacked cable boxes.
The film’s soundtrack is a gift to early ‘90s hip-hop fans. One needle drop had me so pumped I felt like I could wrestle the Cocaine Bear. Expect the golden era sounds of Nas, Wu-tang Clan, LL Cool J, Black Sheep, Digable Planets, and The Notorious B.I.G.
Any movie about giant alien robots requires you to turn off your brain’s logic centre and accept some utter nonsense. But Rise of the Beasts’ plot doesn’t make a lick of sense, not even by Transformers movie standards.
When the Maximals show up, they give Optimus Prime a vague statement about being from his future and his past. And somehow the characters just leave it at that without further explanation. It screams out, “Sorry folks, we won’t explain how these important characters stories fit together.”
It doesn’t make sense to call the movie Rise of the Beasts and then treat the Beast Wars characters and mythology like an afterthought. As much fun as it is to see Optimus Primal (Ron Perlman) and his crew fight alongside the Autobots, this film does Beast Wars fans dirty.
Further complicating matters, this film takes place in 1994, over a decade before the events in the five mainline Transformers films. The series canon barely made sense before these giant alien robots started junking up the timeline in prequel movies.
While Rise of the Beasts revolves around cosmic beings seeking world domination, its themes remain inherently human. The story stresses the importance of seeing the humanity in people you’re at odds with. It also seeks to inspire viewers to be the type of people who build bridges instead of walls. Although the exploration of these themes is as subtle as a jackhammer, the story ultimately builds to a rousing climax.
Rise of the Beasts isn’t the most action-packed or star-studded Transformers movie and it’s a better film for it. Caple Jr. scales back the series signature “Bay-hem” style to deliver an exciting (and coherent) summer popcorn movie with genuine emotional stakes.
Rise of the Beasts proves bigger isn’t always better. For the first time in years, I’m excited to see what this series does next.