NON-SPOILER MOVIE REVIEW
Notes: This is my NON-SPOILER review of Transformers: Rise of the Beasts. Any reveals about the movie are story elements that have already been released via toy reveals, press releases, trailers and/or interviews. A more detailed spoiler filled review will be written up after I have seen the film at least one more time this week.
Special thanks to Paramount Pictures for kindly inviting me to both the premiere of the film and the Red Carpet event. I am eternally grateful for such a once-in-a-lifetime experience! All stills below are courtesy of Paramount Pictures.
There is a point in the lifespan of any entertainment series when it becomes known for a series of tropes. This can be a good or bad thing. In the case of the Transformers live action movies, the years have not been kind to the series. At its inception the series was criticized right off the bat for being loud and confusing (to the point where it became a gag on The Good Place). The stories were criticized for being hard to understand and inconsistent. The merits of these films can be debated, but when the 2018 Bumblebee movie was released it felt like a chance to reset public expectations of a Transformers film. The movie was smaller in budget, featured less characters and was more character focused than its predecessors. It was also met with many positive critic reviews (including the New York Times and IGN).
When it was announced there would be a sequel film, fans were low key excited but also worried that the next film may return to the spectacle over substance films of the past. The first teaser trailer definitely featured more robots and hinted at action more akin to what we had seen before in the series. Some folks also feared the movie would lack any emotional core (not unfair considering the first five films sometimes struggle with that aspect of their respective stories). I want to be clear: I have enjoyed every live action Transformers film to date. Personally I found something to enjoy in each film (yes, that includes The Last Knight). Fortunately for fans everywhere, Rise of the Beasts knows what you've been saying about the films since 2007 and believe me, they listened. The focus of this film is to tell a fun story, deliver some action all while remembering that it must make its audience care about its characters.
One of the big questions that has been asked by many fans is: Is this a sequel to the Bumblebee movie? The answer is yes. There are two direct references to Bumblebee in this film. Whether or not this is a prequel to the 2007 film? That's a whole article in itself so I won't address that here.
It is the year 1994 and a new threat looms over the universe: Unicron! Dispatching his minions to Earth led by the powerful Scourge, the Autobots and Maximals must team up with a former soldier and an archeologist to save the Earth and possibly, the universe.
The original 2007 Transformers movie used a slow burn approach early in the film, introducing one Decepticon, then slowly building up the teams before we get to a major battle involving multiple 'bots and 'cons. In heavy contrast, this film kicks off with a bang, introducing us to several characters right up front and establishing its villains and a new MacGuffin within the first ten minutes. Unlike the ambitious but flawed The Last Knight, the film doesn't spend an hour peeling back layer after layer of B, C, D and E stories for you to chew on. This is important as it grabs you right away with spectacle and the film is basically telling you "This is what you need to know, let's move on shall we?".
The film then shifts gears to introducing us to our human protagonists. For many fans, this is often the part of the film where they are bored while possibly checking out for a brief nap. However, this film manages to give us stories for both Noah Diaz (Anthony Ramos) and Elena Wallace (Dominique Fishback) that immediately make them sympathetic figures and you want to root for both of them. They are both underdogs trying to make it in their respective worlds. Ramos plays the older brother to Kris (Dean Scott Vazquez) and the two play off each other very well. You immediately care about their relationship and it drives a large portion of the story. Fishback gives us an intelligent and smart aspiring archeologist who will play a significant role in saving the world.
Autobot/Maximal Standoff (Paramount Pictures)
Caring about humans is one thing, but what about the robots? The film does a great job of encouraging us to care about several of the Autobots and Maximals. As opposed to the Bumblebee movie which focused on the titular character's emotional journey, this film expands the emotional emphasis to Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen), Optimus Primal (Ron Perlman), Mirage (Pete Davidson) and (unexpectedly) Airazor (Michelle Yeoh). The film finds Optimus Prime at a low point and he goes through an emotional arc through the film. Long time Optimus Prime actor Peter Cullen is masterful as always with the role and you buy every gravitas-filled word he says as the Autobot leader. Primal offers some nice contrast with his namesake with Airazor serving as his emotional and sage advisor. While it's likely Perlman and Yeoh were never in the same studio, the two characters play off each other beautifully and I found their relationship one one of the most engaging in the film.
A lot of marketing for this film has been directed at Noah's relationship with Mirage, which takes the place of the traditional live action "Car-Robot/Human" relationship. This may be a controversial statement on my part but I found the Mirage/Noah relationship more effective than Bumblebee and Sam's and possibly rivaling the Bumblebee/Charlie team up from the Bumblebee movie. Mirage comes off as a young hot shot with a good heart and he plays off Noah's more serious demeanor in ways that are heartfelt at times and humorous at others.
The Terrorcons Nightbird, Scourge and Battletrap (Paramount Pictures)
Okay, relationships are great but let's be real, we go to these films partially to see robots beating the tar out of each other. One of the biggest complaints of the first five live action films was the inability to follow some of the action sequences. Michael Bay's style often involved a human's eye view of a battle, so you were in the thick of combat but that often meant seeing what was actually happening could be challenging at times. Not so in this film. The camera definitely pans out in this film, giving you a good looks at who is fighting who, how certain moves connect to others and so on. There is a huge focus on melee combat in this film with Optimus Prime and the Maximals generally fighting with their bare hands or weapons like Optimus Prime's iconic axe. The other Autobots tend to rely on energy weapons and blasters while the Terrorcons utilize both with deadly efficiency. The net effect of the melee combat is every hit and blade strike feels extra visceral and at times, frightening as you worry for our heroes.
Let's talk bad guys. The Terrorcons are some of the most effective and powerful villains yet in this franchise. The Terrorcon leader, Scourge (Peter Dinklage) scared me in ways that Megatron never did in any previous film. His followers Battletrap (David Sobolov) and Nightbird (Michaela Jaé Rodriguez) are frighteningly effective warriors who never show fear or concern as they fight Autobots and Maximals alike. These villains were a force to be reckoned with and I really appreciated them being so powerful as it forces the Autobots and Maximals to team up against them. Also refreshing? These are bad guys through and through. They are not misunderstood anti-heroes or characters on a redemption arc. They are just evil and very early on in the film you want them taken down, and taken down hard. I loved them and I hated them, and that is exactly what I want from my bad guys in a film.
Elena Wallace and Noah Diaz (Paramount Pictures)
Part of this film is set on the streets of Brooklyn in New York City where Hip Hop music filled the air. Much of the licensed music in the film is used to great effect. One particular sequence using LL Cool J's "Mama Said Knock You Out" had the crowd at the premiere roaring because it fit the scene perfectly. In terms of the score, Jongnic Bontemps takes over the duties from previous composers Steve Jablonsky and Dario Marianelli. Bontemps' score is fantastic and keeps the energy level up when necessary but scores quiet scenes equally well. That said, the score does borrow several pieces from previous Transformers theatrical films so fans of past films will be very pleased!
Final Non-Spoiler Thoughts:
I had an absolute blast with Rise of the Beasts. It had an engaging story, characters I cared about, intense action and Easter Eggs (both visual and audio) for long time fans. Whereas the Bumblebee movie was a very standalone film, this film is clearly setting up franchise building opportunities, and I am here for it. This film sits alongside the 2007 film and Bumblebee as my top three favorite live action films. I cannot wait to go see it again!