One of the last lines of dialogue uttered by a human in the fifth and allegedly “final” installment (which is nonsense, since this film sets up a new one just before the end credits roll) of the TRANSFORMERS film series is simply “Is it tomorrow yet?” After two-and-a-half hours of seemingly swords clanking, explosions, metallic screeching, gunshots, and above all, enough exposition for 17 movies, I had to ask the same question. Granted, the TRANSFORMERS films have always run on the long side, but there was something particularly endless about THE LAST KNIGHT, also brought to us courtesy of director Michael Bay and a team of writers (Art Marcum, Matt Holloway and Ken Nolan), who were asked to think outside the box of the usual mythology surround the sentient robot race and think of create an all-new story, which they manage to accomplish with flying colors and not at all.
The idea of injecting Transformers into the history of the human race is hardly new. But this time around, we’re told that it’s because of the wizard Merlin (Stanley Tucci, in a strange bit of casting) that the robots were first introduced into the world of humans by joining King Arthur (Liam Garrigan) and the knights of the Round Table in an epic battle they otherwise would have lost. Twelve robot knights joined Arthur’s key 12 knights after Merlin was given a staff of power that would allow him to control these protector robots. The staff was buried with Merlin to keep it safe and out of the hands of those who would use it for nefarious purposes, but the search for it has begun in earnest in the present day.
Mark Wahlberg returns from TRANSFORMERS: AGE OF EXTINCTION as Cade Yeager, a would-be inventor who has somehow become the best human friend the Autobots have ever known in the fight against both Decepticons and a newly minted human fighting force, the Transformers Reaction Force (TRF), whose sole purpose is to track down and eliminate the alien robot threat. The TRF is led by Santos (Santiago Cabrera), who just follows orders and offers up no signs of owning a distinct personality. Yeager is working with Jimmy (Jerrod Carmichael) at an auto junkyard to hide as many robots as possible, and they’re joined by Chicago teen Izabella (Isabela Moner), who is apparently orphaned and has been living among the surviving Autobots left over from the battle of Chicago and heaped into a robots graveyard in Soldier Field.
The TRF is closing in on Yaeger and his scrappy bunch of ’bots (which include Ken Watanabe’s Drift, John Goodman’s Hound, and sometimes Steve Buscemi’s black-market parts dealer Daytrader (considering John Turturro also returns as Agent Simmons, you’ve got a nice start to a BIG LEBOWSKI reunion). The villainous Megatron (the voice of Frank Welker) is still around and gathering his troops once again, while Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen) is floating through space in the hopes of finding and repairing his decimated home planet of Cybertron. What he finds instead is a terrible new force named Quintessa (Gemma Chan), who turns Optimus evil and activates something ancient under the surface of the earth that is designed to drain the planet’s energies and repair Cybertron in the process.
Now if you think I’m going on a bit too long with plot summary, then you clearly haven’t laid witness to TRANSFORMERS: THE LAST KNIGHT, which features another new character in Sir Edmund Burton (Anthony Hopkins), who only objective is to verbally lay out the long history of the Transformers species on earth (I particularly liked seeing a battle-gray Bumblebee fighting Nazis). With the help of his robot Butler Cogman (voiced by Jim Carter, “Downton Abby’s” own head butler Carson), Burton gathers key players in the race to save the world from being sucked dry from the core on out, and the quest leads to the location of Merlin’s magic staff. Since only a direct relative of Merlin’s can wield the staff, the last key player is an Oxford history professor Vivian Wembley (Laura Haddock, best known as Peter Quill’s dead mother from the GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY movies), who also happens to be both beautiful and single, not that strapping, single-dad Yeager is looking.
The three talk about and look over books, maps, and other ancient artifacts, searching for clues to Merlin’s tomb, but really it’s just an excuse for Hopkins to tell everyone what to do rather than letting them figure it out on their own. Josh Duhamel returns to the franchise as Col. Lennox (after skipping the previous film), but he doesn’t really have much to do except provide a familiar face in a sea of background military types. A ready-to-bust Tony Hale is on hand as a Jet Propulsion Laboratory engineer who is called upon for some quick calculations regarding the husk of Cybertron hurdling toward earth. And the aforementioned Tuturro literally phones in his performance, as his character hides out in Cuba with a couple of Autobots, while he feeds Burton information on the phone. Because what THE LAST KNIGHT really needed was more talking.
For a Michael Bay movie, there are surprisingly few sustained action sequences. Most of what’s here is the beginning of a battle, followed by a quick escape by our heroes. By the time things get to the potentially planet-killing, everyone-versus-everyone climax in the film’s last 30 minutes, I was exhausted. Say what you want about Bay’s directing and editing preference, but he’s a master of staging battle sequences. But I was lost in some of the more crowded battles, which take us from a submarine to a spaceship to Stonehenge at such a rapid pace it made my eyes blurry. And for those of you really itching to have the first three TRANSFORMERS movie tied a little closer to the fourth and fifth, we even find out that the Witwicky family name is crucial in the history of the alien robots on earth. That piece of information really completes the picture, like a nice throw pillow.
It seems strange to introduce the Izabella character only to sideline her for a great deal of the film, but not nearly as noticeable as Yeager’s daughter from the previous film having suddenly vanished for this chapter (she’s at college, we’re told). Everything about THE LAST KNIGHT feels a bit off—the pacing, the action, the humor; half the time, I couldn’t even tell who were the good guys and bad guys were in a given action sequence.
While I’ve hardly been a TRANSFORMERS or Michael Bay apologist over the last 10 years, I’ve been pretty damn patient with this series, even finding a great deal to like in the third film, DARK OF THE MOON. And if there’s such a thing as a lesser TRANSFORMERS movie, THE LAST KNIGHT is probably that. What’s missing isn’t energy or adrenaline; it’s enthusiasm and creativity. I’m guessing that whatever comes next, it will feel like another reboot, which is probably for the best, especially if they finally make good on the promise of bringing in a new director. Bay has had an extremely successful run with these grown-up version of the toys, but it feels like what might breathe some new life into these old ’bots is a new human on the helm.