Big and weird and surprisingly fun

As someone who has long been fascinated and horrified by the Transformers movies’ bizarre mixture of idiocy, amorality and brutal violence, Transformers: The Last Knight took me off guard. Don’t worry, the latest in the franchise is still dumb as a bucket of bolts, and a lot of the surface-level annoyances are still present, but it manages to ditch the worst of the series’ sociopathic tendencies. When I buy a ticket to one of these monstrosities I expect a certain level of double-you-tee-eff, but The Last Knight feels like it was written by someone with a functioning moral compass. I was a bit disappointed by that. Fortunately, there’s a different flavor of craziness to this film.

The movie opens in Dark Ages England, with King Arthur and Company getting their butts kicked on the battlefield. Luckily, Merlin (a drunken charlatan played by Stanley Tucci) has made friends with some refugee Autobots.1 They give him a magical2 staff that enables him to lead a three-headed, fire-breathing robot dragon into victorious battle. Like ya do.

Once the film moves to modern day it becomes unexpectedly dystopian, with Autobot faces being stomped on by the authoritarian boot. Robo-refugees are falling out of the skies every day, and the governments of the world have formed the Transformers Reaction Force to round them up. Transformers are on the run, some of them hiding in “alien quarantine zones,” former neighborhoods that are now war-torn ruins, patrolled by ED-209 style bipedal drones. One bot, Canopy, adopts “pile of rubble” as his disguise. Living among them is Izabella (Isabela Moner), a precocious fourteen year-old orphan and self-taught gearhead who has become adept at fixing injured Transformers. To my immense relief, Michael Bay manages to avoid sexualizing the kid. This was a concern.

Also on the side of the underdog Autobots is the amazingly named inventor, Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg, reprising his role from Age of Extinction). He’s running a sort of Underground Railroad hideout operation in a junk yard located in an Indian reservation. No, really. What you might be wondering at this point is if Bay has used the opportunity of his latest murder-bot explosion-fest to construct a science fiction allegory about immigration, colonization and the refugee crisis. Short answer? No. Of course not. This is Michael Bay. Long answer? The elements are all there for that, but instead the movie loops back around to crazy Knights of the Round Table secret history nonsense and all the political stuff is abandoned. Given Bay’s capacity for nuance, that’s A-okay with me. The doofy Dan Brown stuff is way more Bay’s speed.

And it’s fun! Anthony Hopkins plays Sir Edmund Burton, an off-kilter nobleman and the final surviving member of the Witwiccan Order, a secret society devoted to protecting the Transformers themselves as well as their hush-hush history on Earth.  As near as I can tell, just about every famous good guy in history was a member, from Albert Einstein to Harriet Tubman. Burton is aided by a steampunk “ninja butler” with the rather on-the-nose name of Cogman. This mood swing-prone self-described sociopath plays like a critique of the Transformers franchise as a whole, which is not entirely out of the question given the several times the robot breaks the fourth wall. Hopkins, who apparently has nothing but good things to say about working with Bay, is having a ball cackling through action scenes, delivering absurd exposition, and bantering with Cogman. I assumed this would be the performance of a bored Oscar-winner sleepwalking through something below him, but it really ain’t.

Of course, all of this secret history turns out to be wrapped up in mystical claptrap about prophecies and chosen ones, which is perfectly in line with how dumb these films are. Being a Transformers movie, there is also the ancient, potentially world-ending MacGuffin that has been hidden on Earth for millennia. You’d think the Autobots would remember that all this crap is buried somewhere before the baddies start gunning for it, but apparently not. This franchise plays as fast and loose with its own canon as it does with real world science and history.

Also in line with the franchise is the film’s obnoxious version of comedy. While there are genuine laughs to be found, a lot of the attempts at comic relief are in the form of extended, cacophonous squabbling between characters who are ostensibly allies. Humor is apparently measured in words and punches per minute. It’s no wonder that their home planet of Cybertron was destroyed when even the Autobots are as thin-skinned, blustery and prone to violence as drunken frat boys. Here’s a memo to the new Transformers writing room.3 The novelty of giant robots calling each other things like “punk ass bitches” evaporated the first time it happened. Probably in film number two? None of these robots seem to like each other, except for Optimus Prime, who is the subject of inexplicable Poochie-level adoration. Seriously, this stuff is interminable, although not quite as bad as the “stoned mom” sequence in Revenge of the Fallen.

Despite the presence of these irritating franchise tropes, I found myself enjoying The Last Knight, and not just in the sense of being pleasantly baffled by a filmic (and moral) train wreck. The movie is gigantic and goofy and weird in an endearing way. The climactic scenes are huge in scope, making the city battle at the end of the first film seem teensy by comparison, and the action in general is shockingly coherent and exciting by Michael Bay standards. Even though there are probably millions of off-screen deaths, there’s little of the horrifying robot gore and disregard for life in general that has come to define the series. It took a movie where he’s corrupted by the enemy for the supposedly heroic Optimus Prime to actually seem heroic and not like a brutish authoritarian. He is, however, still a dick. He announces his own name several times in ways that reflect Ron Burgundy levels of ego.

Hopefully without spoiling too much, I’ll say the state of the Transformers universe at the end of this movie is so crazy that I’m actually wondering what this lunkheaded franchise has in store for us next. Last year I wrote a review of Inferno that mentioned how the bonkers ending of that novel was discarded by the adaptation. That ending looks pedestrian by the standards of this movie. The Transformers franchise had thus far stuck with the conceit of a normal Earth with planet-threatening robot madness going on here and there, but any direct sequels to The Last Knight will have to take place in a bizarre new status quo, and I find myself curious as to how they’ll drop the ball.

I’ve never been a fan of Bay, and I think Transformers: The Last Knight is one of the only times since The Rock that he’s made something that was entertaining without also being deeply unpleasant. This isn’t a good movie by most rational standards, but its oddness, spectacle and audacity put a smile on my face most of the way through the unnecessarily long running time. There’s also a cute robot who is clearly supposed to transform into a vintage Vespa but never does. What a tease.

If there’s hope for this horrifying weirdo franchise, maybe there’s hope for us all.

  1. For those of y’all who didn’t grow up with this stuff, Autobots are supposedly good Transformers. Decepticons are, on the other hand, known for their honesty.
  2. In the Arthur C. Clarke sense.
  3. Michael Chabon? Seriously?