Transformers: Rise of the Beasts review – limp, lifeless robot sequel

<span>Photograph: Courtesy of Paramount Pictures./AP</span>
Photograph: Courtesy of Paramount Pictures./AP

During his tenure as chairman of the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, industrialist Lee Iacocca declared the small hunk of land off the coast of New Jersey a “symbol of reality” to Lady Liberty’s “symbol of hope”. A fitting gesture, then, that Ellis Island should be obliterated as collateral damage in the first hour of Transformers: Rise of the Beasts, in light of its deafening disregard for anything in the general galaxy of real.

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As obligatory human Noah Diaz (Anthony Ramos, looking like he’s just walked into a party and realized he doesn’t know anyone) stumbles through a cosmic clash between opposing hunks of dinged-up CGI, he briefly questions the need of alien robots to disguise themselves as Earth-faring vehicles. His perfectly valid thoughts are hand-waved away by Mirage – voiced by Pete Davidson, saying things like “yo!” – with the instruction not to worry about it. It behooves a viewer to set their suspension of disbelief at a generously accommodating looseness in dealing with a film featuring Airazor, the extraterrestrial cybernetic eagle that speaks in the voice of Michelle Yeoh. But all parties involved with the production deliver a level of effort suggesting that these Saturday morning implausibilities have been seized as cover and cause to not give a shit.

Everything has a vague partial finish, as if director Steve Caple Jr and the five-person brain trust responsible for the script banked on the audience’s familiarity with the shape of a movie to fill in the gaps they’ve left. Noah used to be in the military, until he got fired or whatever, for being bad at teamwork or something. An unspoken aside of “who cares?” punctuates every line of dialogue, most nearly audible in those about the glowing rock that’s going to stop planet-sized monster Unicron (voiced by Colman Domingo and who has nothing to do with unicorns) from snacking upon our little blue marble. Noah and archeological intern Elena (Dominique Fishback, patiently awaiting the role worthy of her talents) must track down the Transwarp Doodad with the help of otherworldly droids taking the form of animals instead of hot rods, long absent due to cloudy rationales ultimately agreed upon as none of our business.

The dashed-off servicing of IP – though the word “intellectual” has no place in this conversation – sets a low ceiling for itself, and doesn’t strain in attempting to reach it. The foregrounding of non-white characters, perhaps in an effort to erase the memory of jive-talking Autobot twins Skids and Mudflap, amounts to little more than platitudes about working twice as hard to go half as far, and one “is this racist?” joke too nonsensical to say anything at all. The ostensible comic relief provides little of it, laugh detail left to the piercingly annoying Mirage and a Twizzler-chewing crook (rapper Tobe Nwigwe) fluent in a distinctly modern self-help vernacular out of joint with the setting of 1994. Going prequel and turning the clock back contributes nothing beyond a playlist consisting of the most played-to-death Golden Age hip-hop soundtrack cuts. And they can’t even do that right; in the most flummoxing moment, the accursed Mirage bounds onto the scene and announces “Wu-Tang is in the building!” as the Notorious BIG blares in the background.

Is this a mistake, or an inexplicable creative choice? Did no one at any point of the process notice this error in judgement, or did they (fairly, perhaps) conclude that none of this really matters? These bleak considerations hang over the latest and sweatiest bid to assemble a Hasbro Cinematic Universe, a brazen licensing gambit with the troubling implication that the content of these little-liked films counts for less than the broad shape of their existence, leaving no difference between having a thing to sell and something worth selling. Whether in the abrupt jettisoning of Elena from the plot or the suspense pinned on the death and resurrection of a character already shown to be alive in the future, the writers and directors place no internal investment in the mechanics of their story. So if this is all stupid crap for overgrown and actual children, then why bother the undiscerning with anything above the bare minimum? Anyone who’s ever cared for a kid of their own can see the callous flaw in this reasoning; you get out what you put in and that also goes for the American moviegoing public, conditioned a little further into complacency with every passing summer.

While scanning the haphazard, oppressively grey compositions onscreen, one will eventually notice that the Transformers have faces, yet lack expressions. Like the assorted critters of Disney’s unholy photorealistic remakes, no emotion animates these animated creations, a lack of spark unsettling until it turns plain depressing. Every trace of personality has been scrubbed from a series that could once claim the cold consolation of being bizarre in its badness. Even the movies about the hulking, anthropomorphic heaps of space junk require some semblance of a human touch.

  • Transformers: Rise of the Beasts is out in cinemas on 9 June