Transformers: The Last Knight is either one of the worst films ever produced by a major studio, or a future schlock classic that will stand alongside Plan 9 From Outer Space, Robot Monster, and The Room – the difference being that while those examples were made by lunatics who thought they were making great art, Michael Bay has here tipped his hand, and we can now be in on the joke. Our mistake all along was in taking these goddamn things seriously, it seems; measured against the standards of classical Hollywood filmmaking, the Transformers series – Revenge of the Fallen onwards, at least – are abominable wastes of time, money, and effort. Viewed as a knowing parody (not satire, mind you – if there’s any Starship Troopers-style political allegory here, it is remarkably elusive) of action movie excess, this latest addition to the franchise is kind of amazing.
It’s the only sane and charitable reason such a terrible piece of cinema got this far. The Last Knight leaves behind recent large-scale failures like Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales and The Mummy, like they were standing still, gasping in its dust, while it pops a wheelie and its horn plays a dubstep remix of “La Cucuracha”. It’s bad, not just in a pedantic or nitpicky way – although if you have any knowledge of history, art history, geography, nuclear physics, astrophysics, plain old everyday physics, archaeology, architecture, small unit tactics, hydrodynamics, and the basic nature of the human soul, you better strap the hell in – but as a narrative, leaping all over the place, compressing time and shaking up spatial relationships like it was filmed at the Event Horizon of a black hole. At one point Marky Mark makes a big deal out of leaving all his friends behind to jump on a plane to England by himself. When he gets there, Bumblebee is suddenly with him. Presumably he swam. Or teleported. It still doesn’t explain why the film’s version of Britain, where much of the action takes place, appears to be maybe five miles across, judging by travel time.
Teleportation is possible – characters exhibit new traits as the plot demands all the time. Hot Rod (a new Autobot voiced by Omar Sy) whips out a gun that can slow down time. Bumblee’s voicebox is still broken – right up until it suddenly isn’t. Marky has a magic disappearing sword. It’s incredible – there are times when you’ll swear you blacked out, because some new element will crop up and surely, surely, they’ve taken a second or so to explain it. God knows the film stops for long stretches of just risible dialogue at enough points.
Much of that dialogue is delivered by Academy Award winner Sir Anthony Hopkins and Academy Award watcher Mark Wahlberg, and they do okay. Hopkins is clearly having an absolute ball, having no illusions about the type of film he’s in and barking his lines with glee. Wahlberg is Wahlberg, the hero of the story – it’s now a longstanding tradition that Transformers movies aren’t about Transformers. Bay clearly has no affinity for the robots- but he also doesn’t care for people much, either. His ideal film would involve nothing but spinning tracking shots of non-talking vehicles filmed against a sunset, with a lot of particulate matter in the air. For three hours.
Here, though, he’s lumbered with a plot that he must at least pay lip service to, much to his clear disgruntlement. The story, credited to Akiva Goldsman, Art Marcum, Matt Holloway, and Ken Nolan, pushes in two directions. There’s the problem at hand, which sees Autobot leader Optimus Prime pull a Dominic Toretto and turn against his comrades – which would be quite a twist if that particular hero of a million childhoods hadn’t been portrayed as violent, arrogant, unpredictable and downright murderous for the last three movies. Prime returns to Earth (just go with it if you’ve blocked out the last movie) as the herald of robot goddess Quintessa (Gemma Chan), who wants to destroy the Earth for reasons that would be spoilers if such things mattered here, but we’ll defer to the delicate sensibilities poor, deluded Transformers fans, may Quintessa have mercy on their soul.
This leads into the other narrative thread, designed to expand the Transformers Cinematic Universe in a number of franchise-friendly ways. Essentially, the goofy change-o-bots have been here all along, participating in human history since the time of King Arthur (don’t even start) right through to at least World War II, and somehow the wider world never noticed, despite Tony Hopkins owning a room of artworks that basically look like this. He owns them because he’s a member of a secret society called the – wait for it – Witwiccans, who have worked alongside the Transformers for over a millennium, hiding their existence from the waking world. And let’s face it, that basic conceit – the Illuminati, but with giant robots – is kind of beautiful in its audacious stupidity, even if its only narrative payoff is a search for a MacGuffin that feels like what you’d get if you asked Koko the Gorilla to rewrite The Da Vinci Code. At least we get a sassy robot butler out of the deal in the form of Cogman, Tony’s mouthy manservant.
Previous elements are re-introduced without much rhyme or reason, including Josh Duhamel’s army dude, now working for an anti-robot task force called TRF. He’s just kind of there, flipping from protagonist to antagonist depending on how long it’s been since something blew up, but it’s interesting to note that, following Sector 7, N.E.S.T., and Cemetery Wind, that’s four different shadowy Transformer-hunting teams this series has seen over five movies. Also just kind of there is John Turturro’s Simmons, for no good reason except that Bay seems to be collecting cast members from The Big Lebowski; John Goodman reprises his voice role as Autobot soldier Hound, and Steve Buscemi crops up as a weird robot scavenger. Do not be surprised if Jeff Bridges turns up as a toaster or a waffle iron next movie.
We also get the Decepticons back, with Megatron (Frank Welker, not Hugo Weaving this time) and co. introduced into the plot because apparently it’s easier for the military to cut a deal with a team of towering metal sociopaths than engage in a dialogue with the Autobots. The plot moves as though the basic question the screenwriters kept asking themselves was “What actions, however implausible and unmotivated, will lead to the worst possible outcome for all concerned,” and this particular wrinkle is just one of many instances.
The whole thing winds up in a massive, FX-heavy, literally earth-shaking climax that would be impressive if it weren’t so patently ludicrous, and leaves the next film with almost nowhere to go in terms of scale except, say, blowing up the sun (don’t put it past ‘em). If you’re turned on by the best work the rendering farms of South Korea can provide, you’re in for a good time here, and a three headed robot dragon is always a good time, generally speaking.
But here’s the thing – The Last Knight is ridiculous, so obviously, unmistakably aware of its own crass and bombastic nature, that it’s rarely unenjoyable. It’s fascinating: the way almost every character is inhumanly mean to every other character until the time comes for them to pull at some heartstrings. The way Wahlberg’s Cade Yeager’s essential function is as a salve to the shattered machismo of American men – at one point Hopkins actually lays out that it doesn’t matter if he’s an unemployed, perpetually broke loser with a dead wife and an absent daughter, he can still be a hero – a bit of business so on the nose it simply cannot be anything but deliberate. The unmotivated camera moves, the golden hour light, the way explosions only hurt exactly one character out of the dozens who get blown up (Shockwave exists in this universe, but shockwaves don’t). The stentorian tones of Prime voice Peter Cullen mouthing the most awful, hackneyed lines about heroism and brotherhood, even though seconds earlier he’d been doing his level best to remove his best mate’s head. The sheer, money-sucking, egregious excess of the whole enterprise – in its own weird way, it’s admirable. And hilarious.
Unless you take it seriously for a second, which Bay and the boys certainly don’t. Transformers: The Last Knight is clearly Michael Bay seeing how far he can push his long-running, multi-billion dollar savage indictment of blockbuster cinema. Let’s hope it makes a trillion dollars, just to see what he does next.