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In the world of action cinema, the Transformers series has always been a cinematic spectacle to behold. Transformers: Rise of the Beast, the latest in this high-octane franchise, doesn’t stand out amongst the previous films as anything more than a cash grab. Directed by Steven Caple Jr. and written by a team that includes Joby Harold, Darnell Metayer, and Josh Peters. The film boast a stacked cast including Anthony Ramos, Dominique Fishback and Lauren Luna Velez, with voice acting by Michelle Yeoh, Peter Dinklage, Peter Cullen, Ron Pearlman, Coleman Domingo, Pete Davidson, Liza Koshy, MJ Rodriguez, John DiMaggio, and Cristo Fernandez.
It all starts on an alien planet with the Maximals, alien robots with animal likeness. Unicron is a world eating entity, aiming to destroy their world while henchmen Scourge (Dinklage) does its bidding. The leading warriors AirRazor (Yeoh), Cheetor (Tongayi Chirisa), Rhinox (David Sobolov), and their leader Optimus Primal (Pearlman), are given a key to protect from Unicron. They have to flee their world to hide the key in hopes they are never found. Unfortunately, things just aren’t that easy.
Noah Diaz (Ramos), an inner-city guy living hand-to-mouth in the heart of Brooklyn, 1994. He’s had trouble finding work and needs money to help take care of his mother (Velez), and brother Kris (Dean Scott Vazquez). An opportunity for money arises when approached by the neighborhood hustler to boost expensive cars from a museum parking lot to which Noah reluctantly agrees. In the same museum, Elena (Fishback) works as an art historian specializing in foreign artifacts. She finds a Hawk that looks like Air Razor with an alien symbol which sets off a signal within the universe. The two converge when Scourge and company find them at the museum where Optimus Prime and his crew also show up to do battle against the bad guys. Now, the two humans are a part of a larger purpose to help the Autobots and Maximals defeat Unicron or die trying.
The plot itself treads a well-worn path, rather than pushing the boundaries of storytelling within the franchise. Travis Knight’s Bumblebee breathed new life into the series which gave me some hope that this would go in a different direction. Rise of the Beast walks all of that back as another generic intergalactic menace from the sky carries all the plot predictability of a broken clock.
Adding to its detriment, the pace lurches awkwardly in the second act. The thrill and urgency of the first act screeches to a halt, replaced with exposition-heavy scenes that disrupt the rhythm of the narrative. The action sequences in the latter stages are undoubtedly impressive, though they can’t quite shake off the nagging feel of convenient placements and obvious outcomes.
The Maximals creates an interesting dynamic, often outshining the more familiar Autobots, and humans in terms of intrigue and character interest, but it all fails to match up to the standard set by previous entries, with the Autobots and Maximals lack texture. A step back for a franchise known for at least providing a visual feast for the eyes. Optimus Prime is back to his usual wet-blanket attitude, whining about how everything is their fault, while Ramos and Fishback characters’ struggle to compete with it all. This was truly a missed opportunity in a series that could benefit from more nuanced character work.
For all its faults, the movie does make a noteworthy stride in inclusivity. The setting in Peru, and weaving Peruvian indigeneity into Autobot lore offers an interesting departure from previous films. The writers use that to weave some social commentary into the narrative and while it doesn’t dig deep, it’s an effort considering the expectations of a typical Transformers film are known more for robotic brawls than social introspection.
Rise of the Beast exhibits the usual tenets of the Transformers universe, filled with plot armor thicker than Optimus Prime’s metallic exoskeleton. The narrative crutch of invincibility seems permanently welded to our robotic heroes in which they are far more fascinating than their human counterparts, a trope that by the franchise’s seventh film, should have been reimagined in a more balanced way. There’s the usual thrills, a commendable lead cast, and a fresh setting, but it suffers from repetitiveness. Perhaps the series needs a touch of that Autobot innovation to truly transform and rise to new cinematic heights.