Transformers: Rise of the Beasts is part of My Summer of Summer Movies, in which I am attempting to see and review every movie that opens (in Chicago) between Memorial Day and Labor Day, 2023. Read all about this ill-advised plan here

I have to admit, Transformers: Rise of the Beasts (2023) is not the worst thing I've ever seen in a movie theater. That honor is still held by the second-to-last entry in the franchise, Michael Bay's Transformers: The Last Knight (2017), which was a "film" in only the loosest definition of the word as I understand it, and which provided roughly the same pleasures as a massive cerebral embolism. Unlike The Last Knight, Beasts—directed by Stephen Caple Jr. (Creed II)—actually has nearly recognizable human characters, a plot that is vaguely story-shaped, and relatively negligible quantities of casual racism and lechery.

So if we're comparing it to the other Transformers movies, Rise of the Beasts is a slight improvement. By any other measure, however—by the standards of actual movies—it's pretty bad.

Let us begin with a brief summary of the plot of Transformers: Rise of the Beasts, if only because I am so relieved that its plot can be summarized. There is a planet-sized robot god called Unicron, who himself eats planets. (Unicron, it should be noted, is voiced by the great Colman Domingo, and we do not begrudge him the paycheck. Nor do we blame fine actors like Peter Dinklage, Ron Perlman, or recent Oscar-winner Michelle Yeoh, all of whom gamely feed lines of dialogue through voice filters that make them so unrecognizable one wonders why good actors were hired in the first place.)

Unicron has evil "heralds" called Terrorcons who scout his advances and do his bidding, and they are led by the lethal and villainous Scourge (Dinklage). (If any of this strikes fans of Marvel Comics as sounding a lot like Galactus, that's because it's a lot like Galactus.) At some point in the distant past Scourge attacked the jungle homeworld of a race of Transformers called Maximals—who look like animals instead of cars—to steal from them their greatest piece of technology, a "Transwarp Key" that can open portals through space and time. The Maximals fled to Earth, and hid the Transwarp Key in two pieces, to keep it safe from Unicron.

But on Earth, in 1994, archaeologists have dug up a piece of the Transwarp Key. A clever museum intern, Elena (Dominique Fishback), uncovers the Key fragment one night, summoning the attention of both Unicron's minions, who want to use it to summon Unicron, and Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen), who wants to use it to bring his Earth-stranded Autobots back to their homeworld. Another human, Noah (Anthony Ramos)—an ex-military electronics expert—happened to be breaking into the museum's parking garage at the time (to pay for his little brother's medical treatment), and so he and Elena soon find themselves caught up in a race-quest and battle between Maximals, Autobots, and Terrorcons, for the fate of the Earth.

If I assure you that I found this to be a relatively simple and straightforward plot, it will perhaps communicate to the uninitiated just how disastrously incomprehensible I found my last outing with the Transformers franchise. Here, at least, we have "characters" (I use the term charitably) with clear motivations, and a trite but graspable cosmic Macguffin to build their quest and clashes around. There is even—credit where credit is due—20 minutes or so of good-faith effort, at the beginning of the film, to establish Elena and Noah as recognizable human beings about whom we might care. (That effort does not entirely succeed—Fishback, in particular, is a wonderful actor woefully wasted here—but I appreciated the gesture.)

Do I have questions about Transformers: Rise of the Beasts? Of course I have questions. (Why are you introducing a race of Transformers we've never seen before in a prequel? Why do the Maximals look like Earth animals, even on their homeworld, long before they ever come to Earth? Why do they even have a Transwarp Key to open portals in space and time? Why does Unicron need the Transwarp Key to come to Earth, when his minions are already here? Why are any of the Transformers gendered, and why does the female-coded Autobot have the chrome-plated equivalent of tits?)

But it is one of the fundamental problems of this entire franchise—since its cartoon inception in the 1980s—that there is only one possible answer to literally any question we could ask about the narrative: "To sell more toys." The Transformers films have made an inexplicable $4.8 billion (and counting) at the box office, but even that soul-crushing number is but a small fragment of the multi-billion-dollar bounty that toy company Hasbro has made on action-figures, merchandising, video-games, and amusement park rides.

It is probably unreasonable, therefore, to expect the films to function as narratives: that is not, and never has been, their purpose.

(I have heard reports that 2018's Bumblebee—the spin-off prequel released between The Last Knight and this—was fairly enjoyable. Alas, not even my adoration of its star, Hailee Steinfeld, has yet persuaded me to confirm those unlikely rumors. But I do take note of two interesting facts: it is the only film in the franchise with a "fresh" score on Rotten Tomatoes, and it is by far the lowest performing film at the box office. So making good movies is not only far from being the purpose of the Transformers franchise, it may actually be counter-indicated under their business model.)

So how does one review one of these things? Presumably they provide something somebody likes, but I confess I'm bewildered as to what that might be. Absent an exciting story, artistic merit, emotional stakes, or humor—and all of these, I assure you, are absent—I am left to assume that spectacle is the draw. There is spectacle, of a sort, but none of it registers as impressive—the CGI is muddy, the action sequences loud and busy but weightless—and none of it registers as fun. I actually enjoy a big, dumb action movie. (I say this as someone who was shocked to love Michael Bay's Ambulance (2022), and who, alongside my wife, worked amusedly through the entire Fast and the Furious franchise over the past year.) But, with all the willingness in the world, I can find nothing to enjoy in the Transformers movies.

If you do, it's your lucky day: here's another one. I suspect it is mildly better than the others, if that distinction matters in some way I have yet to understand.

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2 thoughts on “TRANSFORMERS: RISE OF THE BEASTS (2023)”

  1. This is a wonderfully scathing review that is far more enjoyable to read than the movie probably is to watch. It's great to have you back.

    "and hid the Transwarp Key in two pieces"

    How many times have we seen the trope of a key to something being split into pieces in order to protect it? I've lost count.

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