For better or worse, no other franchise bears the mark of its director to the same extent as the Transformers movies. These are Michael Bay’s movies through and through, and feature the un-distilled vision of its bombastic director. Transformers movies are by definition critic-proof, with bad reviews having little to no impact on their blockbuster earnings. Now Bay and these creatures that are more than meets the eye are back for their fifth go round on the big screen in Transformers: The Last Knight. This latest sequel isn’t by any stretch of the imagination a good movie, but its ample absurdity at least makes The Last Knight more enjoyable than the previous sequels, which have felt increasingly punishing and inane.
There’s no purpose in trying to provide a summation of the plot of Transformers: The Last Knight because doing so would require more effort than the team of screenwriters put into the story itself. Simply, The Last Knight somehow finds a way to tie the Transformers with King Arthur, the Nazis, Stonehenge, and more. As the ludicrous story unfolded, all I could do was think about the Key & Peele sketch about Gremlins 2. Safe to say, I believe that gentleman is still working nearly 30 years later.
The movie opens, and I shit you not, in England during the Dark Ages. King Arthur and his men are engaged in a battle where Bay seems to be taking his cues from Gladiator. The men are sweaty, dirty, and bloody, and Bay revels in the chaos of the violence. King Arthur is waiting for Merlin (Stanley Tucci in a crazed cameo) to deliver them with a secret weapon which is bestowed upon him by a Transformer in hiding, a mystical staff. Merlin wields staff and summons a Transformer dragon with three heads that provides the British with a resounding victory. This is just the tip of the iceberg of the ample crazy that runs throughout The Last Knight.
Present day, Mark Wahlberg returns as Cade Yeager from Age of Extinction, but now the mechanic and inventor is a fugitive from justice for helping the Transformers which have been outlawed and hunted by the governments of the world, though for some reason Cuba has granted them exile. In an early scene where he’s helping a Transformer against the government forces, Cade meets an ancient Transformer who gives him a talisman which operates as a half-MacGuffin with the staff from earlier. In this area, Cade encounters Izabella (Isabela Moner), a young girl who lost her family. It would seem that she’s destined to be the new young protagonist of the Transformers films, only the film completely loses track of her for an hour in the middle.
As Cade and his friends, human and Transformer alike, are hunted by the anti-Transformer government forces, Sir Edmund Burton (Anthony Hopkins hamming it up for a paycheck) is following his sworn duty of some secret society that protects the secret of the Transformers, something that somehow connects to Albert Einstein and Frederick Douglass and countless other historical figures but doesn’t make a lick of sense. Sir Edmund and his faithful Transformer servant Cogman (Jim Carter) track down Vivian Wembley (Laura Haddock), a professor of history and last living descendant of Merlin. Only she can touch the staff that’s at the center of the increasingly insane story, but she can only do so with Cade because he’s been given the talisman. You got all that?
Meanwhile, Optimus Prime (voiced once again by Peter Cullen) has drifted off into space to find his creator, who turns out to be Quintessa (Gemma Chan). She wants the return of her staff so she can destroy Earth and make it a new Cybertron, and quickly hypnotizes Optimus to carry out her deeds. Somewhere out there, the villainous Megatron is out there crafting evil schemes. Trying to keep track of all these dangling threads of half-baked story ideas grows tiresome but there’s a certain entertainment factor to all the bewilderment before the film begins to beat the audience with another bombastic, seemingly never-ending final battle that answers nothing and only ensures that Spinal Tap is no longer has the dumbest thing associated with Stonehenge.
Most of Bay’s worst tendencies are reined in for The Last Knight, with the director pulling back on the Transformers as racial stereotypes and the objectification of women. But Bay’s oddball sense of humor remains and the intentional attempts at humor consistently fall flat, though there are plenty of laughs to be found in the mounting absurdity that is the plot. Michael Bay still can’t rein in his running time, and the two and half hours of The Last Knight is just another example of Bay’s endless excess. And yet, for all its stupidity and ample flaws I didn’t hate this film with the same intensity that I did the previous Transformers sequels.
Returning to the series are John Turturro and Josh Duhamel with brief roles that feel shoehorned into the already excessively overstuffed plot. It’s a vain attempt to inject a bit of series-based nostalgia into The Last Knight, though the human characters of Transformers have never been all too relatable or memorable. To that same extent, few of the Transformers themselves are memorable with the exception of Optimus Prime and Bumblebee. This is incredibly apparent when Megatron unleashes a roster of villainous Decepticons, and their names are introduced and immediately forgotten. These aren’t characters with any noticeable depth or traits. That is also true of the returning Transformers voiced by John Goodman and Ken Wantabe. Without looking it up, I couldn’t tell you their names.
One thing that stood out to me while watching Transformers: The Last Knight is exactly where these movies have gone wrong. Because it’s Michael Bay, these movies have to bigger, louder, and dumber than any other movies out there. Each of these movies rewrites history to inject Transformers and their bombastic conclusions always hinge on the end of the world while pummeling the audience into abject apathy with a parade of violent visual effects. It’s that overwhelming scope that Bay wants to inject in these increasingly outlandish stories that rob them of any emotional connection to drive the story and the action. I respect Bay for his commitment to blending practical effects with CGI, but the human aspect of these stories are lost on him. Transformers: The Last Knight is bad, but it’s not reprehensible like the previous sequels. It clears the remarkably low bar of being the best of the Transformers sequels.