Picture the scene: high-flying A-list action director Michael Bay sits astride a trebuchet, grinning madly as he hurls flaming balls of pitch, along with anything else he can get his hands on, in your direction. Medieval knights? You got it. Anthony Hopkins saying “bitchin”? Chuck it in. Plot? More than you can shake a wizard’s staff at. The kitchen sink? Not big enough. Try the bathtub.
The fifth film in the Transformers franchise amps everything up to preposterous levels of unnecessary: it’s a dizzying mix of revisionist history and alien invasion, with some sci-fi trappings and medieval romance thrown in for good measure.
Much has been made of Hasbro and Paramount’s decision to construct a writers’ room to guide the future of the Transformers franchise (featuring, it must be acknowledged, a fine smorgasbord of writing talent). It feels as though, with The Last Knight, nobody could decide whose ideas to use, so everybody got to throw one idea each into the plot blender before they turned it on and mixed them all together at high speed. The plot of this film is, however, the least of its problems. In fact, the ludicrous plot just points out the biggest disjunct in the film: its dogged refusal to have fun because it’s too busy trying to be cool.
It is, undeniably, incredibly exciting to think about Transformers fighting off Saxon hordes and kicking Hitler’s arse. And this is a film stuffed to the gills with moments exactly like this. At one point in the film Optimus Prime flies in on the top of A TRANSFORMER DRAGON WITH THREE HEADS then decapitates a mass of robots by spinning in a circle. It’s a robot dragon with three heads that used to belong to Merlin. So why on earth does this film feel like such a laborious slog? Michael Bay’s insistence that no shot can last longer than about five seconds is definitely a factor. Any time a character moment might be about to occur it isn’t allowed to settle. If anything remotely human might be about to emerge we snap to a different angle or something else comes flying past at high speed. This is a film in which every single thing looks beautiful but says nothing. Michael Bay shoots a polo match like it’s an intergalactic space battle with planets for balls. It’s hampered by its own inability to realise what the script is trying to be.
Said script, however, doesn’t fare much better. Only Hopkins’ madcap Sir Edmund Burton seems to do well, and this is merely because there is a childish delight to be taken in seeing one of the world’s finest actors repeatedly speaking like a pubescent jock (for the first five times anyway). The film’s use of profanity is about as witty as a dirty protest, yet it seems to think that it’s operating at Iannucci levels of brilliance. And, while there is something funny about hearing Optimus Prime repeatedly shout “VIVIAN”, Laura Haddock’s character, through no fault of the actor, is the worst kind of fetishised British-ness. She’s all tea and crumpets in a trademark Bay cocktail dress. It’s with this in mind that I must take a moment to praise the cast who, though their performances suffer under Bay’s editing style and eye, are certainly doing their best. Hopkins, Mark Wahlberg (returning as maverick inventor Cade Yeager) and Haddock give their all into a film that’s simply too cool for emotions. The voice cast too, stacked with some of the best actors around, seem to be trying to have fun. And special mention must go to Isabela Moner for giving a strong performance as young rogue Izzy. Hopkins fares slightly better than the other two leads simply by virtue of the fact he’s playing off his reputation as a classical actor of the highest calibre. In essence, this is a classier version of Robert De Niro’s turn in Dirty Grandpa. But this, again, points back to the film’s major issue: there’s no room for sincerity. Hopkins is a highlight because he’s self-aware in a way the film never manages to be, because he’s not conforming to the film’s po-faced view of itself.
This isn’t, however, a film without its charms. As aforementioned, the cast put in good performances and the film is visually spellbinding. The Stonehenge set climax looks like a billion dollars, all lush greens and incredible production design. And one should never, even for a second, overlook the artistry that goes into creating these films. The effects work from ILM is peerless, Johnathan Sela shoots the film with breathtaking beauty and the production design and set building is second to none. Ultimately this is a film that suffers from a dogged determination to stay tonally dark and avoid the fun it should so clearly embrace. These are bright and colourful characters that have been turned into machines of war and carnage. And it isn’t even fun war and carnage.
Michael Bay has undoubtedly created a cinematic spectacle to rival the best, but he’s completely failed to tell a story. There’s some fun to be had in this blockbuster behemoth, but you’ll have to try hard to get at it because the film is intent on keeping it from you.
Transformers: The Last Knight is out now in UK cinemas. See the final trailer below: