The early “Transformers” films — in fact, just about all the “Transformers” films — were two things at once. They were industrial showroom expos of chop-shop magicianship, with cars and trucks and motorcycles turning themselves inside out, their guts flipping as if a trash compactor had exploded into bits and pieces, only to reassemble themselves into towering robots. The spectacle of those gigantic shape-shifting droids is something that I, more than a lot of critics, always found to be fun. But, of course, the “Transformers” movies were also unrestrained pileups of sheer Michael Bay-ness — kiddie diversion on processed steroids. The plots sprawled all over the place yet somehow never mattered; the films went on way too long; the endless clashing titans made you yearn for the human nuance of a “Godzilla” movie.
When “Bumblebee” (2018) came along, and Michael Bay finally stopped directing the films, it became clear — in case it wasn’t already — that the “Transformers” movies had never needed to be so bombastic in their Mighty Entertainment Imperative. They could have relaxed more and still delivered that robot-as-wrecking-machine buzz. “Transformers: Rise of the Beasts” isn’t as stylish as “Bumblebee,” but it’s an example of how a “Transformers” movie can serve up the escapist-junk-food amusement it promises without giving you a synthetic sugar headache.
The film was directed by Steven Caple Jr., who made “Creed II,” the most prosaic entry in the “Creed” series, and when I say that he has staged “Rise of the Beasts” in a scruffy plain grounded way, I mean that as a (moderate) compliment. The film invites you in. Set in a hip-hop-inflected 1994, it’s got a relatable human story that works, and thanks to a script that actually has sustained bursts of dialogue, the robots felt more real to me as characters than they usually do. But they’re still the Transformers.
At a certain point I realized that the entire film can be seen as a contest between no less than four titans who speak in ominous electronic how-low-can-you-go Darth Vader tones, even though two of them are the good guys. There is, of course, our old friend Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen), leader of the Autobots, who transforms out of a cool red Freightliner semi-truck and issues his commands in a voice that’s noble, stentorian, maybe even a dash Shakespearean. There is Optimus Primal (yes, Primal, his moniker a shade away from Prime’s because he was named after him), the gorilla robot who is the leader of the Maximals, the wild-animal Transformers who are being introduced into the franchise with this film. (As characters and Hasbro toys, the Maximals date back to the 1996 update of the “Transformers” animated TV series.) He’s voiced by Ron Perlman in bass notes that are a shade away from Prime’s, though more warmly casual in their stateliness.
There is Scourge, the central villain and leader of the Terrorcons, a fascist hulk voiced by Peter Dinklage in tones so dark and ominous they just about shake the earth. And then there is Scourge’s boss, Unicron — a metallic outer-space ring of evil with pincers large enough to wrap themselves around an entire planet. He’s voiced by Colman Domingo with a scary dark majesty that sounds like it could scrape the bottom of the ocean.
One of the best decisions Caple made was not to let any of these figures overstay their welcome. The human story in the foreground is an obligatory and often boring part of any “Transformers” movie, going back to Shia LaBeouf maniacally zooming around in the first few. But the way that Anthony Ramos, from “In the Heights” and the original Broadway production of “Hamilton,” plays Noah Diaz, a military veteran from Brooklyn who’s trying (and failing) to land a job as a security guard, even as he looks after an 11-year-old brother (Dean Scott Vazquez) with sickle-cell anemia, he gets us on Noah’s side. Ramos reminds you of the nervous dudes, all antic jokes and feelers, that the young John Leguizamo used to play. Especially when Noah gets drawn, against his better judgment, into participating in a robbery, and the silver Porsche he’s stealing turns out to be Mirage, an Autobot voiced by Pete Davidson as a winningly good-hearted trickster bro.
The plot, which coincidentally mirrors that of the upcoming “Indiana Jones” movie (the film is aware enough of the parallel to try and defuse it with an Indy in-joke), revolves around the Transwarp Key, a space-time conduit that’s been split in two. One half of it shows up inside an ancient artifact that’s being studied by Elena Wallace (Dominique Fishback), a museum researcher whose boss likes to take credit for her research. Elena and Noah, after bonding over their Bushwick youth, join forces to help the Autobots locate the other half of the key in the Aztec wilds of Peru.
Peru, with its photogenic ruins, gives the movie a nice vibrant spacious green backdrop for the robot showdown to come. If Scourge gets his metal claws on the key, Unicron will use it to destroy Earth; Optimus wants the key so that the Autobots can return to their home planet of Cybertron. And the Maximals? They’re on hand to provide the novelty a franchise needs, and do, though I’m not sure if animal robots will prove as compelling to viewers as monster trucks. I expect a box-office ground-rule double, rather than the home runs the old Bay overkill used to provide. That said, Michelle Yeoh makes her valorous presence felt as Airazor, a glittering peregrine falcon whose devotion to the cause takes a surprise turn.
Several key characters in “Rise of the Beasts” wind up facing their deaths, which turns the movie into a fable of loyalty and sacrifice. I’m not saying that this is Rutger Hauer expiring in the rain in “Blade Runner,” but it’s still the rare “Transformers” movie that makes its heavy-metal characters into figures of emotion. The battles are clash-bang spectacles of torn coils and gears, staged as if Optimus, Scourge and the rest were knights or gladiators. The use of Wu-Tang, Biggie and, at one strategic moment, LL Cool J’s “Mama Said Knock You Out” makes you wonder how these movies ever got by without hip-hop. There’s a bombast built into the material, but let it be said that the “Transformers” movies have been transformed. They’re no longer the kind of fun you have to hate.