"Transformers: Rise of the Beasts" SPOILER-FILLED Movie Review



It is incredible to think about, but Transformers live action films have been part of the pop culture zeitgeist for sixteen years now.  At one time, the films seemed critic proof, bringing in big box office dollars despite bad reviews and becoming the subject of jokes in pop culture about being loud and incomprehensible.  However, after the relative box office let down of Transformers: The Last Knight, Paramount Pictures course corrected with a much smaller and character focused film: BumblebeeBumblebee received a positive critical reception and its box office take was considered a success, partly thanks to its much smaller budget compared to previous films.  In many ways, it felt like Bumblebee had been a gamble that paid off.  It was very much the antithesis of previous films with only three main Transformers characters appearing throughout the film and a human-centric story that had its roots in films like E.T. rather than slapstick comedy.

When the first trailer for Transformers: Rise of the Beasts was released, I felt a mixture of excitement and trepidation.  This film would be bringing the Maximals, inspired by Beast Wars to the big screen.  Given my past involvement and emotional attachment to Beast Wars, I was predisposed to cheering for this film.  However, as more footage was revealed in various trailers it was clear that this film would be returning to some of the level of bombastic chaos that so defined the Michael Bay directed films of years past.  After Bumblebee, it felt like audiences had grown past those films and wanted more character enriched stories along with their robot rock'em sock'em battles.  Would Rise of the Beasts deliver this?  In my opinion the answer is a resounding yes.


It's cliche at this point, but the phrase "Go big or go home" definitely applies to the opening of Rise of the Beasts.  Right off the bat we see the Dark God himself, Unicron attacking and then consuming the Maximal homeworld, a Cybertronian colony inhabited by beast-Transformers similar to Cybertron's Jungle Planet.  The movie boldly establishes its identity in this opening scene.  We see the Maximals led by Optimus Primal escape the planet using a Transwarp device, we see the Maximal leader Apelinq defeated by the Terrorcon leader Scourge and we are even treated to a homage to 1986's The Transformers: The Movie where Unicron attacks the Maximal homeworld with a sun in the background as Vince DiCola's haunting Unicron theme plays in the background.
Setting a Tone
First, by setting up Unicron as our Big Bad who is free floating out in space, the film further separates itself from the timeline that started with the 2007 Transformers film and (seemingly) ended with The Last Knight.  In that timeline, Unicron was established as being Earth itself, with Quintessa serving as his agent on Earth [Correction: Quintessa was his adversary].  This Unicron is much more of the traditional "model" of Unicron: a Dark God floating around space munching on planets and turning unwilling subjects into his minions to do his work. He is also in another galaxy, far from Earth and it is implied later in the film that wherever he is he has consumed so much he is starving and in desperate need of a new source of fuel: namely more planets in our galaxy!  It should be noted that there is some debate among even those behind the film whether or not the Bumblebee timeline is a reboot or not, but that's a subject for a whole different article.  That said, establishing Unicron in this way gives the film ample breathing room to do its own thing and not be heavily constrained by the first five Transformers films.
Anyone wondering if this is a sequel to Bumblebee can rest assured it is.  The film is set in 1994 and Optimus Prime mentions that the Autobots have been on Earth for "seven years", which lines up with the timeline of the Bumblebee movie.  Later in the film, Optimus Prime questions whether humans can be trusted.  When Bumblebee protests, Prime acknowledges that one human was "good" to 'bee, referencing Charlie Watson from the Bumblebee movie.

Unicron (Colman Domingo) attacks the Maximal Homeworld
There is also a very meta moment played for laughs that (sort of) messes a bit with the idea that this is a prequel to the 2007 film.  At one point Mirage mentions that he is shocked at the news that "Marky Mark is leaving the Funky Bunch".  This is a fun reference to actor Mark Wahlberg who played the character Cade Yaeger in 2014's Age of Extinction and again in The Last Knight.  So if Mark Wahlberg is indeed the actor/musician Mark Wahlberg in this role, are we to presume that Cade Yaeger is running around this world as a doppleganger for him?  I wouldn't think too deeply about it, but it is an interesting way the film separates itself from the first five films while making a joke at the same time.
The opening scene also establishes that this film is willing to go deep into lore for Easter Eggs.  In the opening the Maximal leader is Apelinq.  Who?  In short, Apelinq was a relatively obscure character first developed as part of a Botcon exclusive storyline.  For a full rundown of the character, check out this article by David Willis that explains the character in detail.  It was really quite a kick to see the writers were willing to introduce such obscure characters into the mix.   The film's MacGuffin is the Transwarp Key, a device that allows travel through "space and time".  This is a direct callout to the Transwarp Drive that allowed the Maximals and Predacons to travel into Earth's past in the 90's Beast Wars cartoon.   As the film progresses, there are plenty of Easter Eggs that will pop up which I really appreciated as a long time fan.

Apelinq (David Sobolov) fights Scourge (Peter Dinklage)
Caring About Characters
One of the biggest criticisms of previous films were the way human characters were handled and how they were often played more for laughs than as sympathetic characters.  As we meet our human protagonists Noah Diaz (Anthony Ramos) and Elena Wallace (Dominique Fishback) we see two characters in sympathetic positions.  Noah is trying to help support his family including his sick younger brother, Kris but the world doesn't seem to want to give him a break.  Meanwhile Elena is an intern at a museum who is not respected by her superiors for her skill (even as they take credit for her work).  I found myself rooting for both characters immediately, having known people in my own life who went through similar situations.
I was also very pleased to see both characters were not written like previous leads.  Noah may crack jokes but he is nowhere near as silly as Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) was in past films.  Elena is presented as a smart, brave young woman without any of the intense sexual innuendo that was portrayed with Mikaela Banes (Megan Fox).  This helps ground both characters and to me at least, made them more sympathetic.

Noah Diaz  and Elana Wallace (Dominique Fishback)
Okay, humans are cool and all but what about the Transformers?!   By showing us the Maximals losing their homeworld off the bat, and giving them Earth-like animal forms, it is very hard not to feel sorry for them.  The emotion they get out of Optimus Primal's face really pulled at my heartstrings, especially when we get a shot of him seeing his planet being destroyed.   A lot has also been made of Mirage (Pete Davidson) and his friendship with Noah, and justifiably so.  Davidson plays the role with a breezy, care free attitude that is infectious.  This is grounded by Noah's more down to Earth view of the world and the two play off each other brilliantly.  There is even one joke that could go disastrously wrong but it somehow landed with all three audiences I have seen this film with thus far.  Airazor (Michelle Yeoh) shines in this movie (even though she never transforms, which I'm kind of mad about).  While Optimus Primal is the leader of the Maximals, she acts as a sage advisor who is wholly dedicated to the mission of defending life "No matter the cost" (another Easter Egg).  When Airazor dies in the film (I won't detail how) it is painful because by that point I had gained such an affection for the character.  The CG animation in her death scene is powerful and the emotion they pulled out of the character faces rivals almost any other emotional scene in every Transformers film to date.
Kudos go out to the voice acting in this movie.  Ron Perlman delivers a sympathetic performance as an Optimus Primal with the weight of the universe on his shoulders.  Peter Cullen's Optimus Prime is weary but finds his stride again and it plays out beautifully in his voice.  Peter Dinklage as  Scourge delivers a creepy, rumbling performance that is wonderfully unnerving.  While she does not have many lines, Michaela Jaé Rodriguez's performance as Nightbird is sinister and unnverving.  No one was phoning in their performances here and I was grateful.
Maximized Action
Of course, no one goes to a Transformers film to watch characters stand around and talk for two hours.  You expect intense combat, transformations galore and more.  In that respect this film delivers for the most part, but short changes the audience a bit in others.  Michael Bay's directorial style is often featured "Bayhem" shots where the perspective focused on a human-centric POV where robots would tower above you with lots of rapid camera movements and a very "shakey" camera.  While this style has its merits, after five films audiences wanted to see the robots better, they wanted to be able to tell where one action movement connected with the next, and they wanted the camera to just slow down now and then.  The Bumblebee movie delivered on this with a smaller scale, often focusing on robot battles involving only 2-3 characters.  This time out there are scenes were over a dozen CG characters are on screen at the same time and one of my biggest worries was that we would not be able to follow any of the action.
Thank goodness I was wrong.

Arcee (Liza Koshy) and Wheeljack (Cristo Fernández)
The film's action is heavily choreographed with the intention of audiences being able to see what is happening.  One of the best examples is a fight scene where Scourge and Optimus Prime trade blows early in the film.  It is mostly melee combat, with Optimus using his axe and arm blade and Scourge using his own arms and blade as weapons.  Instead of being an Asian Martial Arts style fight, it looked more like something out of a gladiator movie, but the important part is that you could follow blow by blow.  When Scourge gets the upper hand at one point, Bumblebee attempts to intervene and tracking the battle from Scourge and Optimus to Bumblebee is seamless and you are never confused about who is where on the battlefield.  This is not something I can say for many of the past films and I was very pleasantly surprised.
This choreography becomes especially important in the final climactic battle where there are literally dozens of robots littering the landscape (stock up on those Scorponok and Freezer troop builders!).  It would have been very easy to just show lots of silver, sharp metal clanging around (and there is some of that), but a lot of the action closes in on a few characters at a time.  In the trailer below you see Optimus Primal fighting in this battle (at about 2:03) and this is a great example of how the camera tracks a character through combat in this film.  I found the combat riveting and fun, perfect for a popcorn film.
The Sounds of an Era
Rise of the Beasts is partially set in Brooklyn, NY in 1994.  This was an era where Hip Hop bathed the airwaves and some of the greatest artists of the genre were thriving.  The movie uses this to great effect, integrating hits like  “C.R.E.A.M (Cash Rules Everything Around Me)” by Wu-Tang Clan,  “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)” by Digable Planets, “The Choice Is Yours” by Black Sheep and  “Mama Said Knock You Out” by LL Cool J into key scenes.  What is important is the music is there to support the scenes.  They are not just jammed in there to provide some background noise.  For instance, “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)” plays during a scene where Noah is sneaking into a building and trying to keep his cool.  “Mama Said Knock You Out” plays when Bumblebee gets a big battle scene to himself where he indeed knocks out (or just flat out blows up) several bad guys (this is one of my absolute favorite scenes in the film and every audience I saw it with cheered).  The music choices are on the nose, but that type of audio bombast is most welcome in a film of this franchise.
Jongnic Bontemps takes over the composer reigns from previous composers Steve Jablonsky and Dario Marianelli.   He does a good job, with the score blending nicely with the licensed Hip Hop music.   His version of Vince DiCola's Unicron theme is less synth based but very  much recognizable and frightening to those who know the character.  It was a joy to hear what is essentially an "audio Easter Egg" in the filmThere is a rousing moment at the climax of the film where the main theme from the 2007 Transformers film plays and it is a reminder of how glorious Jablonsky's music was in previous films.  However, Bontemps does contribute one piece of music that really affected me to my core, and that was his "Unicron/Scourge" theme.  Its tense, screeching sounds broadcast that a malevolent, destructive force is coming.  It encapsulates the character of Scourge perfectly in music form and I really liked it.
Easter Eggs
Long time fans of the Transformers franchise will appreciate the long bullet point list of Easter Eggs in the film.  I plan to write an article just about them down the line but here are some of my favorites:
  • As Unicron attacks the Maximal homeworld, a sun is in the background as Vince DiCola's Unicron theme plays, a fun visual and audio callback to The Transformers: The Movie
  • Scourge himself is a double reference.  In the 1986 animated theatrical film, Unicron creates a minion names Scourge.  Also a "dark leader transforming into a truck" was a trope used in the 2000 Japanese Car Robots series with the character Black Convoy, who was then renamed Scourge outside of Japan.
  • Nightbird is a direct reference to robot of the same name featured in the G1 episode "Enter the Nightbird", though she never spoke in that episode she did seem to display sentience.
  • Apelinq is a relatively obscure Botcon exclusive character (more details towards the top of this review).
  • The Transwarp Key is able to open up Space and Time, a callback to the Beast Wars Transwarp Drive which could do the same.
  • Mirage is able to transform into a variety of vehicles and one of them is an F-1 style race car, a callback to G1 Mirage's alt-form.
  • When Elena is reading an article on her PC, one of them has authors with the last names of "Takara" and "Tomy", a reference to the Japanese toy company Takara Tomy.
  • Airazor describes the Maximals as being from both the past and future which is an oblique reference to the Maximals being the descendents of the Autobots but possibly having traveled to the past at some point in their history.
  • Optimus Primal explains he is named after Optimus Prime.  This is similar to Optimus Primal calling Optimus Prime his ancestor in Beast Machines.
  • During a conversation between Optimus Prime and Primal, Primal describes human beings as being "More than meets the eye.", one of the original Transformers catch phrases.
  • During the climactic battle scene, Optimus Primal orders Rhinox and Cheetor to "Maximize!" and both warriors transform to robot mode.  This is a shout out to the transformation "activation code" used by the Maximals in the Beast Wars animated series.
  • The phrase "Til All Are One" has been used in Transformers stories since the 1986 animated theatrical film.  It is used multiple times in this film and is a huge theme in the Autobots, Maximals and humans working together to defeat Unicron's minions.
  • At one point in the final battle, a Scorponok drone bursts out of the ground and lunges at Optimus Primal.  This shot is rendered very similarly to Scorponok's attack on human soldiers in the desert in the 2007 Transformers film.
  • Unicron firing round projectiles that form into minions on the ground is reminiscent of Armada Unicron's "Dead End" Drones.

Okay, I could go on (there are a few more) but you get the idea.  This film tips its hat multiple times to the past, and I appreciate that kind of respect in acknowledging the source material for the film.  However, the film does have a whopper of an Epilogue scene so let's get into that.

A mysterious agent (Michael Kelly)

As soon as the climax of the film closes, we fade out and back into what appears to be a produce warehouse business where Noah is visiting for a job interview.  After sitting down with an unnamed interviewer for a few minutes, it quickly becomes apparent that this person is not what they seem.  The man knows about Noah's trip to Peru and saving the world with the Autobots and Maximals.  He explains that he is part of an off the books government organization seeking to protect the world from destruction.  He also explains that as thanks for Noah's brave actions this organization would be handling his brother's health care to help him with his illness at no cost to him.  He gives Noah and business card and walks up to a wall, moves a plaque which then opens up the wall into a giant hangar with a scifi vehicle in it telling Noah that an offer is on the table to join his organization.

Noah marvels at the sight and then flips the business card over to see a familiar logo: Sector 7!

No wait.

That was the obvious choice right?  Well instead, the logo looks more like this:

That's right!  After many movies where the military was featured in various guises such as N.E.S.T. or Cemetary Wind, it is finally time for the universes of G.I. Joe and Transformers to come together!  The two properties have crossed paths both in animation and comic book form many times before.  After many failed G.I. Joe movie launches, it makes complete sense that the more successful Transformers brand can serve as a launchpad for a revived Joe franchise.  I've seen the film three times to date and each time this reveal happened the audience cheered (well, in two of the showings the audience roared their approval).  This is a very exciting development and it shows that Rise of the Beasts may be just the beginning for a new era of Transformers and G.I. Joe films!

As an aside, there are two Easter Eggs buried in this Epilogue scene outside of the Joe logo on the business card.  The agent that Noah meets with is credited as "Agent Burke".  This is likely a deep cut reference to a character who appeared in the G.I.Joe episode "The Spy Who Rooked Me" which featured a James Bond-like character named "Matthew Burke".  Special thanks to my friend Bowser Flatliner for pointing out this specific Easter Egg to me.

The second Easter Egg has to do with the plaque on the wall that Burke moves to open up the wall.  The plaque says "Real Hero Award", a callback to the G.I. Joe tagline "A Real American Hero"!

Final Thoughts
It has taken a few years since The Last Knight but I believe Bumblebee and Rise of the Beasts work together to prove there is still life left in the live action Transformers film franchise.  Bumblebee was a foundation and Rise of the Beasts builds on top of that, offering us enticing glimpses into possible futures for the movies without the confusion that many fans encountered when The Last Knight tried to do the same thing.  This movie has heart, awesome action, humor and more Easter Eggs than you can shake a stick at.  After three viewings I still love this flick and I believe it portends good things for the franchise going forward.  Highly recommended!