The banging. The clashing. The clanging. The bludgeoning. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, it’s time for another Transformers movie.
As there are few more immutable truths in film criticism than that the next Transformers movie will be bad, let’s surprise everyone by concentrating on the good things about Michael Bay’s fifth instalment in a series about alien robots who change shape into planes and cars.
No, there aren’t any. Transformers: The Last Knight is 100% exactly the movie you would expect it to be, and by this point, let’s hope those expectations were minimal. A passable first film in the series ten years ago was succeeded by one that was nearly unwatchable, and then two more that were somehow worse than that. The bar for this series is very low, but The Last Knight still can’t clear it.
The plot is something about something something King Arthur something something Merlin something something talisman something something Stonehenge something something Marky Mark. It doesn’t matter. At any given point in this movie you can snap to attention for a moment and wonder exactly how the hell you got to this point in the story. Nothing on screen is coherent or even worth trying to make sense of. But because it’s customary to give you some idea of the plot – as though that’s what’s got you on the precipice between seeing this movie and not seeing it – it posits the idea that the Transformers’ home planet has a prehistoric rivalry with Earth that dates back to the time of Pangea. Was that posited in a previous movie? Who can remember.
But the not-quite-prehistoric period the film opens in is the time of King Arthur and the legendary magician Merlin, as we get an opening scene in which Transformers help Britons of the Middle Ages defeat hordes of, I don’t know, Vikings or something. Some kind of super-powerful staff comes into the hands of Merlin (played by Stanley Tucci, making jokes about wine and women like a modern day stand-up comedian). Sixteen hundred years later, some bad Transformers come looking for it. Because, you know, they need it to blow up something. Sorry, because they need it to help heal their planet by sucking the life force out of Earth. That kind of thing.
The series has no returning five-time veterans, thank goodness for them, but returning for their fourth each (after taking Age of Extinction off) are Josh Duhamel and John Turturro, both in what amount to glorified cameos. In Turturro’s case, it’s actually a cameo; in Duhamel’s case, it only feels like one because the character is given so little to do. (And in a truly dispiriting sign for the highly respected actor who was a regular collaborator of Spike Lee and the Coen brothers, when you search Turturro on IMDB, it offers Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen as the movie you might know him from.)
They’re joined by another celebrated actor who should also know better, but is becoming far less selective as he approaches age 80: Sir Anthony Hopkins. Hopkins still has some life in him and it’s kind of pleasant to see him engage in his trademark verbal gymnastics, but that only does a small bit to mitigate the depression one feels at seeing him in this movie in the first place. He does make a somewhat tolerable tandem with Jim Carter, who plays Hopkins’ Transformer butler as a variation on his Downton Abbey butler, Carson. (And in a true sign that you shouldn’t trust IMDB, Hopkins is apparently best known for his role in Meet Joe Black.)
Oh, and there are women in it too. One is a British professor played by Laura Haddock, as Bay still seems to be trying to cast women in Transformers movies who look as much like Megan Fox as possible. But there’s also a plucky young Latina who can handle herself, played by Isabela Moner. Because the movie has entirely too many characters, it sidelines its most promising new character for an hour of the middle of the movie.
If it seems I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time on actors who don’t really care that they’re in this movie and give performances to match, it’s only because every other element of the film should be exhaustingly familiar by now. Bay’s swirling camera makes an appearance. As does his fetish for displays of military force. As does his tendency to shoot people backlit against the sun to give them more of an iconic appearance. As does the awkward dialogue of jive-talking robots. As do slow-motion shots of whirring metal gizmos blurring from one crappy digital creation into another.
Strictly on its own merits, Transformers: The Last Knight might deserve no worse than a 2/10. But to judge the extent of the failure of this movie, one must consider it cumulatively. That Michael Bay has made five Transformers movies and still hasn’t learned a single goddamn thing about how to do it better is a disgrace, and his cynical disdain for our intelligence is shocking. Don’t reward him for it.