Leave it to Michael Bay to release the most gorgeous film of his career while making you not care for even a second about what’s actually happening onscreen. Transformers: The Last Knight crams in so much mythology and backstory, from Arthurian legend to Nazi Germany to secret societies and more, you almost miss that the narrative owes as much to Kevin Smith’s Dogma as it does to Lars von Trier’s Melancholia. It’s not an experiment that works, but Bay has always marched to the beat of his own very loud drum.
Picking up more or less where Age of Extinction left off, Cade Yeager (Mark Walhberg, playing the character a little lighter, and certainly funnier, than in his first outing) is still searching for wounded Transformers, a one-man salvage crew awaiting the return of leader of the Autobots, Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen). The military is after Yeager. Decepticons are invading the Earth. Good guys embrace evil. Bad guys see the light. And there’s a message in there somewhere about family and patriotism and all the other easy-to-swallow themes that are par for the course in these films.
To be fair, some of this isn’t all that terrible. The romantic subplot, while useless, is sweeter and more human than you might expect from Bay or the genre in general. As Transformers historian Edmund Burton, Sir Anthony Hopkins is having the time of his life, hamming it up and chewing planet-sized holes in the scenery, much as he did in this year’s Collide. John Turturro, returning as Simmons, is great for the few seconds we get of him. And, again, it often looks fantastic, particularly the battle at Stonehenge. Cinematographer Jonathan Sela seems to be cribbing from Wally Pfister’s natural light IMAX compositions here. Sela is no Pfister, but he does a serviceable impression.
But as with the previous three entries in this endless series, it’s a film without meaning or purpose. One quick shot in Bay’s 2007 Transformers of a Ford Model T was all we needed to see how deep the history of the Transformers on Earth really went. It was cool, funny, and hinted at a larger scope for the story. To now decide that King Arthur, Merlin and seemingly every major world figure of the last thousand years (and Shia LeBeouf) were keepers of some secret alien knowledge just seems like overkill. There’s a better movie to be made from that idea, one that isn’t focused on gigantic shape-shifting toys.
Bay, for his part, is indulging his every whim, all of which we’ve seen before. Whether it’s actors sliding down 45-degree angles, military helicopters soaring against the sunset, or characters sharing one brief, powerful kiss before the world ends, it would seem that Bay has officially run out of ideas. For a director who has built a career on showing us the same old action cliches in cooler, more innovative ways … well, I want to say it must be keeping him up at night, but something tells me he’ll be fine.