By Preston Wilder
A yellow car transforms into a robot. A posh English girl plays polo. A knight is entrusted with a magical staff. The staff depends on a magical talisman. Simmons complains that his mojito’s too warm. Optimus Prime is on Cybertron. Cade Yeager hangs from a flagpole. Cade has been Chosen to carry the talisman. An evil queen flies and has tentacles. Megatron preens in Namibia. The world will be ending in three days. A feisty Latina calls a robot “cabron”. A gang of old ladies play poker. There is a flashback to WWII. There is a weapon that freezes Time. Optimus Prime is back on Earth. A blue robot fights with a yellow robot. The action shifts to Stonehenge. The film lasts 149 minutes.
Here’s roughly all you need to know about Transformers: The Last Knight, the fifth and final instalment in a franchise that’s made close to $4 billion worldwide: it looks great, it’s often funny, it’s too long and it’s incoherent – or not exactly incoherent, insofar as it does tell a story, but that story could fit on the back of a postage stamp and the way it’s told never gathers momentum. At one point there’s a slick, Suicide Squad-style series of intros for a posse of fearsome robots with names like Onslaught and Berserker. These are the elite warriors being gathered by Megatron – but in fact it doesn’t matter who they are, since we never see them again. Later, Sir Edmund Burton (Anthony Hopkins, hamming with abandon) breaks into the Prime Minister’s office and tells him to summon the troops because the world is ending, “I know where, and I know when!”. The film then cuts to something else, and Sir Edmund barely features in the rest of the story.
There’s only one way to enjoy this remarkable (or remarkably bad) movie, and that’s to succumb to its craziness. It starts at a disadvantage and director Michael Bay knows it, the disadvantage being that giant robots are inexpressive. Bay and his writers try hard, sketching an array of different robots. There’s a small WALL-E-ish robot named Squeaks. There’s a robot with “a gasoline-drinking problem”. There’s a green robot with an Aussie accent, and a yellow robot who’s lost his voice. They have names, of course, and are also divided into two teams (Autobots and Decepticons) but even hardcore fans will have trouble attaching much personality to these machines – and of course they don’t do very much, which is another disadvantage. Robots that transform into cars make for good children’s toys (the franchise is based on a line of toys) but have little dramatic use, unless Cade and Co. happen to be in a jungle and need a ride back to civilisation. Which they’re not.
Faced with this basic hollowness, Bay does what he’s always done: cut every couple of seconds (not just in the action scenes, but throughout), and fill the time with bombast and jokes. On the one hand, we have talk of world-ending threats and magical objects; on the other, everyone keeps riffing and insulting each other. Irrational rage played for comedy has always been a Transformers hallmark, and everyone here behaves as if auditioning for a film set in New York circa 1975. Simmons (John Turturro), as already mentioned, grumbles about his drink: “A mojito needs ice. Ice!!! We are not animals!”. Sir Edmund shushes the shushers in a library, and barks at the tourists in a beached submarine. His robot butler is actively psychotic. An angry scientist explains how to save the world, adding a snappish “You’re welcome!”. Cade (Mark Wahlberg) bristles at being called a “failed inventor” then gets into some bad-tempered banter with the posh English girl (Laura Haddock) over whether he’s “chaste”, as a hero should be. It’s been a while, he admits; “I’m saving myself”. “What for – old age?”
Your inner 14-year-old boy will love The Last Knight. It has a short attention span, a testosterone-fuelled sense of humour, and can barely string two sentences together, just like him. That sounds like the ultimate insult, but in fact I’ll take this amusingly adolescent fantasy over most of the self-importantly adolescent fantasies we see at the multiplex – and it’s unlikely your inner 14-year-old could’ve crafted some of the magnificent images Bay comes up with, especially at the climax when mechanical jellyfish seem to hang in the sky and two planets (Cybertron and Earth) are joined by a kind of steel-girded placenta.
Come for the jokes and visual sense of scale in The Last Knight, stay for the weirdly inarticulate plotting. Alien ‘horns’ appear in six seemingly random locations. The talisman slides across Cade’s pecs, and threatens to slip down his shorts. The TRF keep chasing our hero – except in Britain, where they call themselves “the British TRF”. Squeaks saves the day. The robot butler makes sushi. This hugely expensive movie is mad and bad, ridiculous and headache-inducing. If you want to play it safe, there’s always Spider-Man.
DIRECTED BY Michael Bay
STARRING Mark Wahlberg, Laura Haddock, Anthony Hopkins
US 2017 149 mins