England, The Dark Ages. A massive Saxon horde lays siege upon a pitiful British army. Desperate knights plea to their king, a man named Arthur (Liam Garrigan, who also plays King Arthur on Once Upon a Time), but he insists they must hold the line and wait for help from their sorcerer. They are running out of time. Cut to: Merlin (Stanley Tucci, not reprising his role from Age of Extinction) a goofy charlatan giving a jokey speech into a massive mechanical structure. A transformer emerges, gives Merlin a staff, then turns into a dragon and murders the Saxons. We’re back.
In the past, I’ve tried to explain the pain of watching Transformers movies by recapping the plot, pointing out stupidity and confusion as it happened. Transformers: The Last Knight makes that impossible, as it is a fundamentally inscrutable film. Any attempt at a recap would merely be me de-summarizing the plot synopsis on Wikipedia – which is really helpful, by the way. I didn’t understand until checking Wikipedia that the dragon is supposed to be the Transformer knights merged together. I literally could not have summarized even the first five minutes of this movie correctly.
Part of the blame goes to the script, which, as you might expect with this franchise, is attributed to a lot of dudes. You may remember that Age of Extinction was supposed to be the last Transformers film from Michael Bay and after it came out, a team was put together to determine the future of the series. The man in charge of making Transformers into a cinematic universe is Akiva Goldsman. He’s done all sorts of stuff, from writing A Time to Kill to directing Winter’s Tale. Goldsman also produced that King Arthur movie that came out earlier this year – coincidence? Anyway, his writers’ room put together, according to Michael Bay, 14 stories for sequels, spin-offs, and prequels.
Who knows how many of those stories where chosen for The Last Knight, although it was obvious that the movie’s unnecessary WWII flashback was setting up the Bumblebee spin-off prequel which is supposed to come out next year. Oddly, after employing numerous writers to brainstorm, it was somehow decided to pull three screenwriters out of retirement to “write” The Last Knight. Two of them are Art Marcum and Matt Holloway, a writing team that helped on Iron Man (which famously shot without much of a script) and who hadn’t written a movie since 2008’s Punisher: War Zone. The other writer, Ken Nolan, has written only one other movie, Black Hawk Down, which explains why the ending of this movie has a bunch of soldiers trying to escape a giant Transformer city. I’m guessing the three didn’t even meet each other.
The other obvious cinematic universe-ization of this sequel is the return of some characters from the first three movies. Lennox (Tad Hamilton (Josh Duhamel)) is back, still being a soldier man even though Tyrese Gibson was too busy to also return. He’s secretly(?) taking orders from Glenn Morshower’s general-type character, who is also back. Later, we find out that Anthony Hopkins’ character is part of something called the Witwiccan order, and they show a goofy picture of Shia LaBeouf. That order is one John Turturro’s comic relief conspiracy theory character wishes to join, which we find out in his only scene when he simply calls Hops and tells him to go to the library. See? It’s a shared universe!
There are other nods to continuity, little touches like at one part when they show the spaceship from The Dark of the Moon getting crushed. Those nice touches are, at least for me, undone by the incredible complexity of the story. I feel like parts of The Last Knight contradict existing continuity, but it’s all so inscrutable that I can’t say anything confidently. Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg) is now the most wanted man in the world, I guess because he likes the Autobots? But each of the preceding four movies showed that the skeptical world needed to trust the Autobots, does the world’s military really still want to kill them all? Why? At the same time, you’re telling me Bumblebee fought with the Allies in WWII and they still don’t trust him? Why is Putin named drop in this? Megatron (Frank Welker) is alive again? I thought he was Galvatron now!
Something I’ve struggled to capture in these reviews is how hard the tone of these movies makes it to watch them. Everything feels rushed, even though these are long, long movies. Beyond the expected hard swings between serious and (bad) comedic tone, the dialogue is just rough. Everyone’s lines are written the same, like the actors just pulled them from a hat to decide who would say what. They are all slightly juvenile, potty-mouths, and man, it’s weird to hear Anthony Hopkins and Jim Carter sound so stupid. What’s worse, people make jokes and throw insults at each other and no one reacts because the dialogue isn’t written like an actual, you know, dialogue. Towards the end of the movie, Mark Wahlberg gives his big speech, which goes like this: “Optimus Prime, you have to do it. Because only you can do it. You’re the one who’s done things before. Now you can do it.”
Part of the blame also must go to the editors, of which there were six. That’s a lot of editors. The other Transformers movies only had three or four editors each, the average movie only has one. They compliment Michael Bay’s kinetic camerawork and ceaseless explosions with millions of cuts. That’s part of the problem with these hard tonal swings. Visually, on the other hand, this sort of thing is usually tolerable, but it’s not here, at least on home video, because of something else Michael Bay was experimenting with: aspect ratios.
Only recently have we been seeing movies displayed in multiple aspect ratios. The first time I remember it was The Dark Knight, which had a few scenes shot in IMAX shown in the larger format, but the rest of the film wasn’t. Wes Anderson used aspect ratios to help center viewers in time in The Grand Budapest Hotel, which was shot in different formats depending on when the scene was in history. Michael Bay has much less finesse, using eight different aspect ratios interchangeably. Literally every shot in a scene might be in a different aspect ratio. Two characters having on conversation, a shot/reverse shot framed in medium-close up, could be filmed in different formats. It’s insane and gave me a headache and was part of the reason it took me three sittings to finish the movie.
What The Last Knight does have going for it is the acting. It’s fine. Since moving from Shia LaBeouf’s manic douchery, the series has employed consistently professional performers. Anthony Hopkins, perhaps the greatest actor alive, is objectively wasting his time, but he wanted to be here and is clearly the best performance in the movie. Optimus Prime still comes off as villainous, even when he’s not being mind-controlled, and his mouth is still gross to look at. Beyond him, it’s easy enough to tell who the main character Autobots are now – John Goodman is the fat one, Ken Watanabe is the red one with the sword, John DiMaggio is the green one, Steve Buscemi is the gross one – while the villains are still mostly interchangeable. Oh, and Tony Hale is in this movie and just has his own thing going on and it’s not really important or funny or anything except vaguely Roland Emmerich-y.
Oh look, I guess this is the end of the post. Wasn’t that abrupt? Hopefully this rambling, directionless, probably typo-filled review gives you some sense of just how rough it is to watch a movie like this. It’s only going to get worse from here, because after the spin-off next year and the sequel to this in 2019, rumor has it we might get a combined Hasbro Universe movie. What would be crossing over? G.I. Joe is a favorite, but, and this is serious, Jem and the Holograms has a shot too. To quote the Wicked Witch, “Oh, what a world, what a world!”
- Cade has two human friends, a little girl and a complaining guy, they don’t matter and aren’t funny.
- The little girl is saved by a Transformer who dies and spends the rest of the movie saying her only family was dead. But she’s also friends with a Johnny 5-looking Transformer too, who tags along with her. Does she secretly hate him? Does she wish he was dead?
- At one part, Cade uses a sword to block a Transformer’s sword. Wikipedia says that the sword was supposed to be Excalibur, but that wasn’t clear to me. I just thought you should know there’s a scene when a giant robot swings a sword and Mark Wahlberg stops it.
- The other main character is Viviane (Laura Haddock, the mom from Guardians of the Galaxy) a British historian, who, at one point, calls stories about King Arthur “bullshit” to a tour group she’s leading at a museum.
- On a related note, Viviane is a professional polo player and a professor at Oxford, why was she leading a tour? What museum was that? Is that what Michael Bay/the writers think smart people do?
- Despite her accomplishments, Viviane’s home-life is a bunch of moms who are like “why aren’t you dating a boy.”
- Omar Sy joins the cast as Hot Rod. All he does is get made fun of for having a French accent.
- There’s a scene, I shit you not, of Megatron putting his team together, with each of the Decepticons being released from prison and having their names written on the screen. There’s a tiny piece of Suicide Squad in this.