2018’s Bumblebee breathed new life into an ailing Transformers franchise that had essentially become a CGI slugfest between alien robots. Director Travis Knight created a real connection between Hailee Steinfeld’s Charlie and the Autobot Bumblebee, making the stakes feel all the more intense when war broke out between transformers. It’s something Steven Caple Jr. attempts to capture with his two leads for Transformers: Rise of the Beasts, Anthony Ramos and Dominique Fishback, but ends up falling back into old habits reminiscent of Michael Bay’s later films. A few good ideas isn’t enough to keep Rise of the Beasts from retreading old themes.
Taking place in 1994 and following the events of Bumblebee, Optimus Prime and the other Autobots have remained hidden on the Earth all while searching for a means to return home to Cybertron. Purely by accident, museum researcher Elena Wallace (Fishback) uncovers and activates an ancient Transwarp key that had been hidden on the planet by the Maximals in an effort to prevent the planet-devouring Unicron from destroying the entire universe. With the key sending out a beacon, both Autobots and the Terrorcons under Unicron race to acquire the key. Optimus needs the key to return to Cyberton, while Unicron plans to destroy the Earth on his way to devouring the entire universe.
As the title suggests, Transformers: Rise of the Beasts features the debut of the Maximals to the live-action franchise. Optimus Primal, a gorilla transformer voiced by Ron Perlman, and Airazor, a falcon transformer voiced by Michelle Yeoh, are the two main Maximals who get the most screen time, although they still take a backseat to the main Autobots. Rise of the Beasts should be renamed to “Rise of Pete Davidson” because his character Mirage gets most of the screen time and action. Depending on how much you like the comedian, this can either be a good thing or a bad thing. I found his constant jokes and nonstop talking to be grating after a few scenes. There’s an attempt to develop a relationship between Mirage and Anthony Ramos much in the same vein as Bumblebee and Hailee Steinfeld, but it just doesn’t work.
Once again, the film falls back on old Michael Bay themes of massive CGI explosions and transformers duking it out over the fate of the planet. The human characters are just caught in the middle. Rise of the Beasts tries to give them more to do by giving Ramos a full blown Iron Man suit at one point, but I found it to be hilariously bad. I know there’s precedent of an exosuit in the animated series, but there are some things that should just be left alone. Besides, it just looks awful too.
I did find Optimus Prime to be quite interesting, however. Since this is a prequel, Optimus Prime is not the leader and defender of Earth we see in all of the other films. Here he views himself as a failed leader who stranded his team on an unknown planet. He doesn’t trust humans yet so this Optimus is much more aggressive. He’s still a good guy, but at this point in the timeline he is more concerned with retrieving the key to return to Cybertron and using the humans is just a means to that. It’s a layer of Prime we haven’t seen before, and I wish the film would have explored it more.
Transformers: Rise of the Beasts can be boiled down to another film about alien robots fighting over the earth while humanity can only watch in horror as they wreck havoc across the planet. It’s the same thing we’ve seen time and time again in Michael Bay’s films, and at this point it’s tiring. The new Maximals are hardly given anything interesting to do and are just more transformers added to an already packed cast of Autobots. I thought the franchise was headed in the right direction following Bumblebee, but it has appeared to do a U-turn with Transformers: Rise of the Beasts.
Transformers: Rise of the Beasts ends up falling back into old habits reminiscent of Michael Bay’s later films. A few good ideas isn’t enough to keep Rise of the Beasts from retreading old themes.