“Transformers: Rise of the Beasts” is a Much-Needed Return to Form

EntertainmentBy 2023-07-12T13:02:27-04:00July 12th, 2023|
  • Credit: Paramount Pictures

The release of “Bumblebee,” in 2018, marked a major shift in the “Transformers” franchises, which always performed well commercially but never really won favor with critics. Its spin-off, set in the late 1980s, redirected the franchise into something more character driven and intimate — well, as intimate as a “Transformers” movie could reasonably be.

The latest installment in the franchise, “Transformers: Rise of the Beasts,” owes a lot more to “Bumblebee” than Michael Bay’s 2007 original. The story picks up in 1994, just a few years after Charlie teamed up with Bumblebee in the previous film. This time around, we follow Noah Diaz (played by Anthony Ramos), an out-of-work veteran and electronics enthusiast, who accidentally befriends an Autobot named Mirage (voiced by Pete Davidson) after unsuccessfully trying to steal a Porsche 911 Carrera RS 3.8.

Instead, Noah gets wrapped up in an intergalactic battle that could determine the fate of planet Earth, as well as just about every other planet in the universe. As Mirage explains at one point, the threat they face, Unicron (voiced by John DiMaggio), is “bigger than a planet,” and can literally devour them whole. Unfortunately, Unicron has set his sights on Earth after learning that it’s home to two halves of a key that will allow him to resume his planet-eating agenda. Without the entire key, he is powerless.

Noah is joined by an aspiring artifact researcher named Elena (played by Dominique Fishback) who joins him and the Autobots, as well as the Maximals, another alien race of Transformers that lost their planet to Unicron after fleeing to Earth. What follows is a globe-trotting adventure to find both halves of the key before Unicron does and prevent unthinkable amounts of destruction. Eventually, the unlikely team of humans and robots must face off against the aptly named Terrorcons and Predacons.

Incorporating the “Beast Wars” stories that were previously featured in comics, video games, and the popular TV shows, “Rise of the Beasts” differs from “Bumblebee” in that it’s more of a soft reboot for the franchise instead of a one-off standalone film. There’s a decent amount of table-setting going on, especially in its labored second half, but director Steven Caple Jr. doesn’t seem interested in withholding too much for the sake of a hypothetical continuation.

In everything from title to setting, “Bumblebee” resonated with audiences as a pleasant surprise in spite of how divorced it was from the rest of the franchise. With “Rise of the Beasts,” there’s a lot more at stake with its transparent ambitions of building on this latest reintroduction. Restoring the dreaded T-word to the title, which was all but ruined by at least three of Bay’s five “Transformers” films, “Rise of the Beasts” occasionally buckles under the weight of the expectation to perform, but that’s only because the weight seems so insurmountable.

The film’s first hour, in New York, is almost bafflingly strong, rolling out a series of it’s-the-90s winks and nods with a bustling pace and genuinely likable assortment of characters. Ramos and Fishback, who has already given one of the year’s best performances in the Amazon Prime series “Swarm,” are two of the most eminently watchable young actors around. But abbreviated appearances from actors like Tobe Nwigwe, who stole his fair share of scenes in Netflix’s “Mo,” are a welcome change of pace from the cartoonish and forgettable cast of side characters in Bay’s films. They are more than vessels to inexplicably drink a Bud Light during a battle or hold a Beats Pill in an extreme, prolonged close-up.

Credit: Paramount Pictures

However, it’s Pete Davidson as Mirage that deserves a lion’s share of the acclaim, delivering a vocal performance that teems with life. One of the most inexplicable movie stars of our time, Davidson imbues Mirage with something childlike but not infantile, and finds gravitas in his character without dipping into overwrought self-seriousness. Between his appearances in “Guardians Vol. 3,” “Fast X,” and “Rise of the Beasts,” the summer belongs to Pete Davidson in more ways than one, and his work here only reaffirms his surprising versatility.

Speaking briefly with Anthony Ramos, we learned that the two never interacted throughout production, with Davidson coming in to record his lines after principal photography. “Pete actually got the role after the movie was shot,” Ramos said. “That was just him getting in the booth and being free with it. He’s a beast.” The relationship between Noah and Mirage will undoubtedly be crucial to the franchise moving forward, and the film is already positioning him as a Bumblebee-like character for the next generation.

Unfortunately, the film starts to falter in its second half after taking the characters to Peru. Despite the gorgeous on-location landscapes and a final battle that helps “Rise of the Beasts” ultimately stick the landing, the lack of energy through most of the film’s second act is a noticeable downgrade from its propulsive first hour. Judging by Ramos’ comments on his experiences shooting in Machu Picchu — including one anecdote about the entire crew carrying equipment up mountains and using specially rigged cameras to preserve the environment — the forthcoming behind-the-scenes featurettes documenting the Peru shoot will be far more interesting than the final product.

Moving away from the metropolitan setting that gives the movie so much of its initial energy, the film swaps it out for an endless, grassy battlefield that just screams “we wanted to do a big, explosive set piece but we didn’t want people complaining about civilian casualties.” Although that final showdown is fun to watch, the technobabble that precedes it is as uninteresting as the setting and “Rise of the Beasts” settles for being less than the sum of its parts.

Thankfully, it’s bookended by some of the franchise’s strongest offerings across the board. Caple Jr. is a more-than-capable action director, staging coherent chaos, especially when it comes to a handful of car chases that may be better than anything in “Fast X.” Ramos’ generous and charming performance makes room for two very different relationships to develop throughout the film, and it’s refreshing to see him and Fishback play it as a firmly platonic pairing. As for him and Davidson, we’ll hopefully see them actually share the screen in the upcoming GameStock biopic, “Dumb Money.” But, separated by a recording booth and a lot of CGI, the chemistry still shines through. As in the film itself, sometimes the most unlikely collaborations end up being the ones we didn’t know we needed.

Grade: B

Josef Rodriguez is a writer, filmmaker, and film critic living in New York City.