Here’s a fun exercise: try to rank the “Transformers” movies. Go on – see if you can do it. Tough, isn’t it? I don’t think I realized just how tough until I actually tried to do it myself. How do you judge movies that all fall somewhere in the “bad” to “insufferable” range? But with each bigger, badder-er entry, I can’t resist the urge to see if the bar has been lowered or if it simply meets cynical expectations. As I sat in the theater watching Michael Bay’s latest bombastic mess unfold through 3D lenses, I came to a startling realization: “Transformers: The Last Knight” may be the second best entry in the franchise. And that really isn’t saying much.
I think the only aspect I can unequivocally state as a positive is (once again) Optimus Prime’s voice. His steely, assured baritone almost makes me forget how bad these movies are. But with such a fierce and competitive race to the bottom, it’s far easier to count what the filmmaker’s didn’t get horribly wrong than what they got right. Chiefly among that category is the noticeable restraint in over-sexualizing female characters when compared to predecessors. From pseudo-pornographic shots of Megan Fox, to an overwhelmingly uncomfortable conversation about the legality of dating a minor, this franchise has a pretty abysmal track record of unabashed objectification. “The Last Knight” still has your token female love interest (Laura Haddock), but thankfully she spends most of her time fully clothed and serving the plot in some small way. It says a lot about a franchise when you feel the need to take note when it doesn’t sexualize women, but here we are.
While we’re on the subject of plot, this one is a doozy. I couldn’t begin to explain it in full, even if I remembered the glossed-over finer points. For whatever reason, the actual Transformers themselves are largely relegated to secondary roles, showing up when things need to go “boom” and quickly fading into the background when the next ludicrous plot point needs explaining. And explain this movie does, casting Sir Anthony Hopkins as a glorified narrator. My suspicion is that in an effort to utilize him to his fullest extent (might as well use him if you got him), the filmmakers opted to give Hopkins as many lines as possible. This would be good news if 99% his lines weren’t purely expository. Even Hopkins, one of the finest actors around, can’t sell a plot revolving around wizards and alien robots intervening in human history as anything more than the drivel that it is.
Mark Wahlberg is a fine actor in his own right, but he seems to know what he’s dealing with here. He puts forth just enough effort – the minimally required amount – to remain top-billed actor. He often looks bored or otherwise preoccupied when he isn’t speaking, doing exactly what he has to and nothing more. Frankly, I can’t blame him. He doesn’t deliver a bad performance and this movie doesn’t deserve a good one. I’m sure we’d all think twice before pouring too much of ourselves into a movie based on a Hasbro toy that runs over two hours.
That’s right: over two hours. Those familiar with the franchise will not be surprised by Bay’s penchant for bloated runtimes. However, what they may find surprising (or even insulting), is that at 149 minutes, “The Last Knight” is just six minutes shy of being the shortest movie in the series. And, I might add, that’s one minute longer than “Inception.” No one will ever be able to explain to me why these movies need to be longer than a cool hours and forty-five minutes (two hours, absolute tops). They’re about nothing, they leave you with nothing, and the fact that they consistently take up so much of my time doing so is something close to a sin.
Five entries into the series, a moment of reckoning is long overdue. It’s finally time to look myself in the mirror and ask, “Why?” Why do I keep shelling out way too much money for a pair of 3D glasses and a ticket to something I know I’ll hate? Well, because I don’t want to hate these movies. In theory, I love the idea of Optimus dropping witty one-liners as he punches a robo-dragon in the face. And I could embrace such over-the-top insanity if it was accompanied by a self-aware script and beating heart at the center. Bay’s take on the franchise offers neither. These movies feel like they were made less by people than focus groups, and poor ones at that. They represent the absolute worst corporate and franchise filmmaking has to offer, supplanting fun and charm with cold, effects-driven action and half-hearted attempts at humor.
Still, “The Last Knight” is disallowed from falling to the very bottom of the heap simply because it occasionally manages to entertain in spite of itself. That might not sound like a plus, but when the competition is this weak, you take what you can get. For the first half, I giggled constantly at the silliness of it all, busting out every time an ultra-serious actor said the word “wizard” or “prophecy.” In many ways, this is the best “Transformers” movie one could hope for from Bay — one that is so blatantly stupid, it flirts with actually becoming fun again. For an hour and a half, I probably could have suffered through it for a few cheap yucks. But tack on an extra hour, and the only word that sums up the experience is “punishing.” When this is among the best a franchise has to offer, it might be time to start throwing the word “reboot” (or perhaps “retire”) around the executive boardroom.