Michael Bay’s Transformers series now stretches to five films (some of them fun, some lugubrious) and almost 13 hours of screen time, yet so many questions remain unanswered. Like, how many of these toyetic alien motoroids are there? How big are they when they aren’t disguised as cars, trucks, planes, etc.? And how is it that, despite being based on a variety of gross human stereotypes, they’re so damn hard to tell apart? Popular wisdom says that the Transformers movies are indifferent to human characters, but it’s not like they give a crap about the jabbering, clanking robots either; at best, they’re cannon fodder for the weightless splendors of pyrotechnics and slow-motion twisted wreckage that are the likely reason why Bay keeps making these things. Because while the decade-long run of Transformers seems to have exhausted Bay’s love of fast, sleek cars (barely featured in this latest film, The Last Knight), his passion for dismembering geared, greeble-crusted robo-chasses amid fireballs and tumbling chunks of concrete remains unabated. The plot he could not care less about.
That’s almost regrettable, as Transformers: The Last Knight concocts the most enjoyable trashy plotline yet to grace a series that is already about a millennia-long war between different factions of vehicle-bots. It’s equally indebted to Dan Brown potboilers and Roland Emmerich disaster movies, with a quasi-dystopian setting (which the movie quickly forgets) and a crazy pseudo-historical backstory that recounts, among other things, how King Arthur and The Knights Of The Round Table were real (but Merlin was a drunk), how the Transformers killed Hitler, and how Shakespeare and Frederick Douglass both knew about the cybernetic organisms that turn into cars. Of course, the third film, Transformers: Dark Of The Moon, revealed that the Moon landing was a cover for a secret mission to recover alien artifacts, complete with a cameo from Buzz Aldrin himself. Here, the looniest exposition slips from the mouth of Anthony Hopkins. His eyes twinkle with the glee of a man who can’t believe how much he’s being paid to talk about magical Nazi-fighting robots while standing in front of a bookcase.
Reprising his role from Transformers: Age Of Extinction, Mark Wahlberg stars as Cade Yeager, a brilliant movie scientist of the “yeah, right” variety. As the film opens, Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen, who has voiced the character since the original 1980s cartoon series), the big-rig-bodied leader of the good Autobots, is floating through space on his way back to the techno-fungoid ruins of Cybertron, the home planet of the Transformers; Megatron (Frank Welker), the leader of the evil Decepticons, remains at large; and Yeager is scouring the ruins of Chicago for surviving Autobots and parts that he can take back to his junkyard hideout at an Indian reservation in South Dakota. Soon, he is joined by a teenage stowaway (Isabela Moner) and her cutesy, roly-poly-bot sidekick—just two of the many characters that The Last Knight will make periodic and sloppy cuts to without involving them in the plot. Like all of its predecessors in the series, this is a lavishly expensive movie, budgeted somewhere north of $200 million, and it stinks of the ennui of the super rich.
The first three Transformers films were characterized by visual hyperactivity and bad taste, but the default palette is now one of casual disregard, with a “who cares” approach to character introductions and spectacle. It’s made all the more obvious by the usual blatant product placements (for Bud Light and, more bizarrely, a Chinese used car auction site) and notes of self-parody that poke fun of everything from the series’ original star, Shia LaBeouf, to Bay’s reputation for over-heated bombast, which The Last Knight never completely delivers on. The loud, super-saturated vehicular mayhem that should be a Michael Bay Transformers movie’s whole raison d’être is nowhere to be found; the design of the big-screen version of the popular robots has always been bad, but here they are just shapeless mounds of parts and pistons, slugging and slicing each other in front of ruins and spaceships as they gush sparks and dribble oily green robot juice.
There are dozens and dozens of new and returning human and alien characters in The Last Knight, though only five really seem to do anything: Yeager; Vivian Wembley (Laura Haddock), a skeptical English historian who turns out to be the last direct descendent of the Arthurian wizard Merlin; Col. Lennox (Josh Duhamel), a member of a government squad tasked with hunting the vilified Autobots; Sir Edmund Burton (Anthony Hopkins), the keeper of the exposition; and Sir Edmund’s psychotic, 4-foot-tall robot “ninja butler,” Cogman (Downton Abbey’s Jim Carter), one of the more tolerable members of a long and mostly sad line of sassy, diminutive comic-relief-droids in the Bay Transformers-verse. (There are several more in this film alone.) Actually, if it weren’t stated out loud in the dialogue, the audience probably wouldn’t know that Cogman is 4 feet tall, as Bay continues to invent new ways to combine human and Transformer characters that make it tough to discern their size and weight in relation to each other.
Anyone who can figure out Megatron’s present height or tell him apart from most of the other Decepticons deserves what the letters pages of Marvel comic books used to call a No-Prize. And yet the more striking moments of The Last Knight—this is an ostentatious Michael Bay movie, after all—speak just as loudly to its director’s indifference to both source material and visual scale. These include extended, Bay-ified homages to James Cameron (a little Terminator 2: Judgment Day, a lot of Aliens and The Abyss) and Ridley Scott (specifically Gladiator) and a debris-clogged free fall climax that embraces the weightlessness of the Transformers style by making it literal. But though The Last Knight gets a few legitimate laughs out of its readiness to mock itself, it concludes on the same inane note as every Transformers movie before it, with Optimus Prime looking to the sky as he informs the audience and all those unlucky enough to share his fictional world that the real battle is yet to come. Perhaps robots don’t get bored. Michael Bay, at least, is only human.