In My Summer of Summer Movies, I have committed to seeing and reviewing every film that opens in Chicago from Memorial Day to Labor Day. The fact that I take this commitment relatively seriously is the only reason I saw Transformers: The Last Knight, and gave Michael Bay my money for the first time since 1998’s Armageddon. (I think I saw 2001’s Pearl Harbor—or as much of it as I could stand, anyway—but I definitely didn’t pay for it.)
This commitment is also the only reason this post exists, because there is nothing I want to say—nothing I possibly could say—about Transformers: The Last Knight.
This will not be a review: this film cannot be reviewed, for there are no agreed-upon standards that seem to apply to it. And this will not be a summary: this film’s stunningly incomprehensible story can’t even be followed, let alone summarized. I am not completely sure, to be honest, that Transformers: The Last Knight even qualifies as a “film” at all, at least by any definition of the word that makes sense to me. Perhaps it is some new, bastardized, avant-garde art form that I just don’t get, and don’t want to get. We may need an entirely different vocabulary, one that I have absolutely no desire to ever learn.
I can’t even describe my own personal experience of sitting in the theater for two-and-a-half hours while whatever this thing was happened on a screen in front of me. I simply don’t have any basis for comparison. I can think of no prior experience on which I could draw—a bad acid trip? a diarrhetic fever? my father’s funeral?—that would not feel like flattering Transformers: The Last Knight with a falsely generous analogy.
My urge, upon leaving the theater, was not to come home and write a review. It was to come home, take a handful of Advil with a large glass of whisky, and write letters of apology to every other filmmaker I have ever demeaned in print or disparaged by word. I owe James Cameron an apology for how much I hated Avatar. I owe Peter Jackson an apology for finding his Tolkien movies overlong and unwatchably dull. I owe George Lucas an apology for how shitty I thought the Star Wars prequels were. I owe Gore Verbinski an apology for ever suggesting that the Pirates of the Caribbean movies were incomprehensible, overstuffed crap.
(Guys, you are artists all: gentlemen and scholars. You have remarkable grasps on the basic principles of narrative. You admirably understand simple causality. You know how to put two shots together in a way that does not brutally sodomize the senses, and even how to put simple words together in an order that occasionally resembles human language. I am sorry, so sorry, if I ever failed to give any of you sufficient accolades for at least understanding that a movie was supposed to be roughly movie-shaped.)
Hell, I owe an apology to this summer’s The Mummy, and to anyone who read my review and said, “C’mon, it wasn’t that bad.” I’m sorry. I didn’t fully understand the curve upon which we were grading, but now I get it. You’re absolutely right: The Mummy wasn’t so bad. The Mummy could have been worse. The Mummy was practically Shakespearean. In retrospect—now that I think about it—I fucking love The Mummy. Everyone, go see The Mummy. It’s great. It has a story you can almost follow, and characters who are vaguely recognizable as humans, and everything.
It’s my fault. I just didn’t understand. I had never seen a Transformers movie before, and so I didn’t know how far the bar for a summer blockbuster had been lowered. I assumed, if nothing else, it would have impressive action scenes and stunning special effects. (It doesn’t.) I assumed there might be some humor. (There isn’t.) I assumed the appeal of these films was big, dumb fun, but Transformers: The Last Knight never feels that big and never provides a single ounce of redeeming fun. (Dumb, it provides.)
I didn’t know that fundamental principles of storytelling could be so completely disregarded. I didn’t know that basic competency and coherence were now considered elitist. I didn’t know that every rule of continuity that film editors have agreed upon, over more than a century of cinematic progress, had been completely jettisoned. I didn’t know that disconnected nonsense now passed for plot, or that incomprehensible noise now passed for fun. I didn’t know that stunningly racist robots were now considered funny, or that sexually objectifying 14-year-old girls was now considered acceptable. I didn’t know that the degradation and denigration of the cinematic art form—and the systematic dumbing-down of the worldwide cinematic audience—had reached such a tipping point that millions of people would voluntarily pay money to sit through Transformers: The Last Knight.
But I get it now. I’ve re-calibrated my scales accordingly. From here on out, I’ll be grading movies on a bell-curve, because I have seen, at last, the clapper.
Only last week, I warned myself against the dangerous temptations of critical hyperbole. And I want you to know that I have not forgotten that. I am bearing those dangers in mind. I have interrogated my own emotional reactions, and challenged my own unreasonable expectations. I came home from the theater, and wrote these words, but I did not publish them. I went to bed, and slept on it, so I could reconsider my verdict in the clear light of day.
And now I am saying—with calm, carefully-reasoned certainty—that Transformers: The Last Knight is probably the single worst thing I have ever seen in a movie theater.