‘Transformers: Rise of the Beasts’ Review: Who Knew Robot Gorillas Could Be This Boring?

At a certain point, watching a new “Transformers” movie becomes an exercise in expectation management. Since launching with a bang in 2007, the franchise first spearheaded by Michael Bay has spent 16 years sliding into a sludgy pit of CGI malaise many hold up as the epitome of Hollywood’s worst impulses. The well-received “Bumblebee” may be the exception that proves the rule. But in 2023 — when you have no one but yourself to blame for paying real, human money to a robot gorilla named Optimus Primal — it’s not unfair to wonder if the series has irreparably bottomed out.

Still, the temptation to let films like “Transformers: Rise of the Beasts” off the hook via state-of-play victim blaming should be avoided. The Hasbro franchise has long benefitted from low expectations, but the latest entry doesn’t come close to a passing grade on the massive curve we’ve already agreed to score it on. Steven Caple Jr.’s 1990s-set prequel fails to provide either merit or escapism, seemingly begging you to turn your brain off while bombarding you with stimuli that keep you painfully awake and aware for an unusually long two hours and 16 minutes.

Our story begins centuries before the dawn of man, when a planet-devouring force of evil known as Unicron tries to devour a planet in a very evil way. A group of robotic animals, known as Maximals, who inhabit the planet are forced to flee — which is a fairly straightforward process because they have a doodad called the Transwarp key allowing them to open wormholes and travel through time and space. The ragtag gang led by Optimus Primal (Ron Perlman) soon end up on a little rock called Earth.

Fast forward to 1994, where Noah Diaz (Anthony Ramos) is looking for a break. The unemployed Brooklynite desperately needs a job to help pay his adorable kid brother’s medical bills, but his reputation as an uncooperative soldier from his Army days is making work hard to come by. He reluctantly agrees to help his anti-capitalist friend steal luxury cars to get some much-needed cash, but the first Porsche he breaks into ends up being a Transformer who kidnaps him. When it rains, it pours.

The Porsche takes him on a harrowing police chase through New York, but none of the near-death experiences are as horrifying as the blue machine’s personality. Mirage (Pete Davidson) is an easygoing stoner robot whose language capabilities appear to be limited to “well that happened”-style one-liners. On a normal day, his insufferable running commentary would easily be the biggest problem facing our new “Transformers” hero. But there’s not much time for comedic analysis when the world is about to end.

Mirage and his Transformers friends, led by the infallible Optimus Prime, reveal that Unicron has sent a lackey named Scourge (Peter Dinklage) to Earth to retrieve the Transwarp key. If he gets it, our planet could easily be devoured. They convince Noah to break into a museum to steal an antique vase that it’s been hidden in — before revealing that the vase only contained half of the key. The other half is hidden with the Maximals in Peru, so Noah, Mirage, and a plucky museum intern named Elena (Dominique Fishback) head to the Southern Hemisphere to save the world before Scourge can get there.

Despite the misleading title, the first half of “Rise of the Beasts” is devoted to watching the regular non-beast Transformers hang out in Brooklyn. The Maximals don’t have a real impact until we get to Peru, and even then they spend most of their time standing around and lamenting that the world is going to end. Scourge seems dangerously close to destroying the planet on multiple occasions, only for Optimus Prime to reveal that he can’t end the world until he finds another McGuffin. (First he needs the key, then we learn there was a second half of the key, then he needs a code to operate the key that — you guessed it — is also split into two parts). By the time the Maximals team up with Optimus Prime for a half-assed final battle (which just so happens to result in the destruction of Machu Picchu?), audience emotions have been transparently manipulated so many times it’s impossible to muster any kind of investment.

The most tragic part of the entire debacle is the realization that Hasbro saw this movie as an opportunity to introduce grander storytelling ambitions. A final scene teases an “Avengers”-style team-up between the Transformers and another iconic toy franchise, presumably against a cosmic bad guy whose evil impulses are so generic that completely unrelated IPs can unite against them. It’s as if some executive saw Mattel and Greta Gerwig turning “Barbie” into genuine art, so they made a George Costanza-style decision to veer in the opposite direction purely out of spite.

Grade: D

A Paramount Pictures release, “Transformers: Rise of the Beasts” opens in theaters on Friday, June 9.

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