[Editor’s note: Craig J. Clark had somehow never seen a Michael Bay film until recently, when he watched all of them. He wrote about the experience here: Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV. Given his expertise, it seemed fitting to have him review the new Transformers movie, too.]
A few weeks back, film critics and pop-culture writers were all in a tizzy over a troubling report that the new Transformers had a running time of 182 minutes. This was swiftly debunked — by no less an authority than director Michael Bay, who took to Twitter to declare it was “shorter than the last 3 movies by a lot” — but the reason such a story got any traction in the first place is because the Transformers movies have been overlong from the start. The first one clocks in at 143 minutes, and they’ve progressively grown longer with each installment, to the point where one with a runtime comparable to Pearl Harbor seemed within the realm of plausibility. As much as they’re intended to be expensive eye candy, these films are first and foremost endurance tests. That The Last Knight is a minute shy of two and a half hours (partially thanks to a closing-credit crawl that zips by in about four minutes) doesn’t change this.
Having previously jettisoned its entire human cast for Age of Extinction, the franchise makes a show of bringing back two ringers in the form of Josh Duhamel’s Colonel Lennox (now embedded with the TRF, an anti-Transformer paramilitary force that makes no distinction between Autobots and Decepticons) and John Turturro’s Simmons (who literally phones in his entire performance from Cuba, where he’s hanging out with the alien robots who have taken refuge there — don’t ask), but The Last Knight still belongs to Cade Yeager, Questionable Parent/Guardian. Introduced heroically coming to the rescue of four dumb kids who have gone in search of alien artifacts in the Chicago neighborhood that was leveled in Dark of the Moon and is patrolled by ED-209 knockoffs, Cade is swiftly saddled with 14-year-old orphan Izabella (Nickelodeon veteran Isabela Moner), because Mark Wahlberg needs someone to sass him since his character’s daughter is off at college.
A fugitive from the law after the events of Age of Extinction, Cade comes into possession of the film’s first MacGuffin, a mercuric talisman that leads to its second, a staff that has the power to revitalize the Transformers’ home planet of Cybertron and was last seen in the possession of Merlin. (Yes, that Merlin, who’s played by the returning Stanley Tucci, which means at least his part of the prologue, set in England during “The Dark Ages,” has some levity to it, in sharp contrast with the panicky knight who wails, “This … this is what the end looks like.”) Not only are these objects sought by the reconstituted Megatron, who inexplicably negotiates with the TRF for the release of his personal Suicide Squad for that very purpose, but also the dotty Sir Edmund Burton (Anthony Hopkins), an unending font of non sequiturs with an excitable Transformer manservant named Cogman (Jim Carter) and the bulk of the film’s tangled exposition. This he delivers not only to Cade, but also Oxford professor Vivian Wembley (Laura Haddock), who seems to require more convincing than is strictly necessary that her world isn’t what she thought it was.
Sliced and diced to within a frame of its life by no fewer than six editors (a franchise record), The Last Knight continues the noble traditions of undisguised product placement (Cade’s light beer of choice hasn’t changed) and rampant anti-intellectualism. (The latter is exemplified by Tony Hale’s thankless role as a Jet Propulsion Laboratory engineer who’s the first to recognize the Cybertronian threat and the first to get hysterical about it.) It also gives Bay another ticking clock to have his characters fret about and the latitude to harp on one’s extended sexual dry spell. He’s even able to include a variation on one of his old fallback gags, only this time instead of a homosexual proposition, what’s overheard sounds like pent-up heterosexual passion. And, out of action since 2005’s The Island, Steve Buscemi is back in the thick of it as a hoarder called Daytrader who’s barely tolerated by his fellow Autobots, which was probably good for an afternoon’s worth of work.
As is par for the course with this series, Bay delivers copious quantities of sound and fury with little regard for what either signifies. The result: such inanities as Bumblebee’s secret past as the Forrest Gump of the Transformers universe and Optimus Prime’s abrupt heel-turn when he confronts his maker and receives new marching orders from her, only for his resolve to falter thanks to a contrivance that rivals Batman v Superman’s “Martha” reveal. If that’s the kind of note Bay wants to end what he’s calling his final Transformers movie on, so be it. Whoever winds up in the director’s chair for the sequel it blatantly sets up has nowhere to go but up.
Craig J. Clark lives in Bloomington, Ind., and will probably never watch another Michael Bay movie.