In 1986, the gigantic Unicron made its debut in Transformers: The Movie and changed the franchise permanently, for better and for worse. And in this year’s Transformers: Rise of the Beasts, Unicron makes its live-action debut and the seventh entry in the massively successful Transformers film franchise, and looks to deliver the same impact, by finally making a turn in the right direction.
There’s no denying that the first five films in the series, directed by Michael Bay, have been popular but also derided by fans and audiences as each subsequent film was released. While not as massive a hit as the earlier films, 2018’s Bumblebee gave fans more of what they wanted in a Transformers film, from sticking with character designs from the original cartoon, to moving away from the sci-fi Cybertronian elements that weren’t much of what fans loved of the franchise.
It showed Paramount Studios that in the right hands, the franchise was salvageable, and for fans, that there was still a way to turn the series into much more than meets the eye. Set seven years after Bumblebee, and more than 20 years before the first Transformers film, Rise of the Beasts is still very much an overblown toy film with explosions, giant robots fighting and an even bigger, gigantic robot proving to be a massive threat, but under the watchful hands of director and massive Transformers fan Steven Caple Jr. (Creed II), there’s a lot more care to tell a stronger story about the humans on Earth, rather than just have things take place around them.
Having been stranded on our planet since Bumblebee, Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen) and his team of Autobots, including Arcee (Liza Koshy), and Mirage (Pete Davidson), are resigned to never returning to Cybertron, until they discover the presence of an ancient transwarp key that could send them home. The trouble is, Unicron and his minions are also searching for the key, to unlock passage across the multiverse and have free reign in consuming any planet he wants.
If the premise sounds familiar, that’s because Caple Jr. knows the search for a McGuffin is the set-up for every earlier film in the series, so he does one better, by introducing a new faction of the Transformers, that of the Maximals, from the Transformers: Beast Wars animated series that he grew up with. It’s Optimus Primal (Ron Perlman) and his crew of Maximals, including Airazor (Michelle Yeoh), Cheetor (Tongayi Chirisa) and Rhinox (David Sobolov) who have hidden the transwarp key on Earth, so naturally, Scourge and his Terracons, working for Unicron, are coming.
So it’s up to Optimus Prime and the team to save the humans? Not quite because this is an earlier, younger Prime and he doesn’t have an affinity for the humans yet – all he wants is to get the key and go home. Fans will know where this story is going because the familiar mantra of Til All Are One, again from the 1986 film, is repeatedly hammered in throughout the movie.
And what’s a Transformers film without humans, so we have Anthony Ramos (Hamilton), Dominique Fishback (Project Power) and rapper Tobe Nwigwe, leading the charge, with Ramos taking the lead as Noah Diaz, an ex-soldier who chances upon the upcoming war between the Autobots, Maximals and Terracons, and is meant to represent mankind, because for some reason, every ancient artifact or special weapon seems to end up here, making Earth the focal point for interplanetary conflicts left and right.
What’s new here, are the character moments that shine more than the giant robots tearing things apart. Prime, while the leader, is not the wise Autobot fans know, and he’s very much filled with self-doubt, and not yet the heroic character that fans recognize. At times, he comes across as stubborn and inept, but through the course of the movie, he gains a greater appreciation of his adopted planet and the humans.
Diaz will also go down in franchise history as the only human that audiences will remember across the series because the team has spent time and effort crafting his character into someone who matters. Okay, for those of you who say, Megan Fox, can you even name her character?
Fishback’s role as antiquities expert Elena Wallace gives her a role with regards to the thousands of years the Maximals have spent on Earth, and she eventually joins the Autobots and Maximals on their cause, despite initially being an unwilling participant. In forging that friendship and bond, much of the movie focuses on the relationship between Diaz and the Autobot Mirage, who is by far the breakout star of the movie. After six movies with Bumblebee serving as the friend, it’s great to see another Autobot take on the role. That said, Davidson is one talkative race car, so we’re seeing two extremes here – Bumblebee as the vocally challenged companion, and Mirage as the one who just can’t shut up.
As Optimus Prime undergoes multiple internal conflicts, it often falls onto Mirage to lighten the tone and seek a solution to the problem at hand. He’s like the popular kid in school everyone wants to be friends with, and his dynamic with Diaz comes across more as a buddy partnership as opposed to the puppy dog-feel we saw in Bumblebee. The duo leans on their strengths as they forge together a friendship that does not feel forced and endears their characters to the audience over the course of the movie. And it certainly does pay off during the third act, as audiences understand their bond.
Like most ensemble movies, it’s tricky to give all characters equal attention throughout the movie. With much of the show focusing on Diaz and Mirage, the rest of the Autobots and Maximals do fall by the wayside. Apart from major action set pieces where each character is given a cool move to execute, the efforts of Optimus Primal and Airazor are often relegated to the role of narrator, and this will be one sore point that fans of Beast Wars will have. The original cartoon was well-written with strong character arcs, and this film doesn’t do the characters justice. For fans, there’s also the mentioned but unexplained origins of the Maximals, when Primal says they are the past and future of the Autobots, but no one ever asks him what that means. For fans of the series, it’s never stated if the origins here follow the animation, so bummer.
Caple Jr. knows what it takes to propel the movie forward and unlike the Micheal Bay era of movies, when giant robots eventually clash on screen, the visuals are coherent and the audience will be able to comprehend what’s happening. This is in comparison to the senseless collision of metal which we had grown accustomed to over the years, so that’s a good thing.
Following the refreshing adventures of Bumblebee, Transformers: Rise of the Beasts continues the winning streak that the franchise is moving towards, and for those who stay to the end, the reward is an avenue of possibilities, of future crossovers that will finally present mankind as having the means and technology to fend off any evil robots who seem hellbent on destroying Earth.
After all, freedom is the right of all sentient beings, and we fight for freedom whenever there’s trouble.
GEEK REVIEW SCORE
The only thing that the movie lacks, is Megatron and the Decepticons. Otherwise, Transformers: Rise of the Beasts offers fans plenty to look forward to, and we’re certainly excited to see what the series has in store.
Story - 7/10
Direction - 9/10
Characterisation - 7/10
Geek Satisfaction - 9.5/10