Saturday, June 10, 2023

Less That Meets the Eye:

Let’s start by acknowledging that there’s a lot that’s just fine about Transformers: Rise of the Beasts. It has a capable director in Creed II’s Steven Caple Jr., who knows how to work with actors, deploy a needle-drop, and make the computer-generated effects for the eponymous extraterrestrial shape-shifting vehicles look passably personable and, more importantly for the Hasbro overlords, pleasingly toyetic. It has engaging leads in Anthony Ramos (In the Heights) and Dominique Fishback (Judas and the Black Messiah), who show a lot of star charisma as they occasionally overpower the flimsy material and breathe a little bit of life into cliched figures made up mainly of characteristics needed for plot utility. He’s an electronics-expert ex-military underdog with a heart of gold; she’s an ambitious museum employee dreaming of making an archeological discovery. They each get little moments up front to look something like real people before they're thrust into the explosions. That’s all fine. There’s also a decent use of a 1994 setting to allow for the plot to bump into some old tech in the set and car designs, and play era-appropriate hip-hop on the soundtrack—Digable Planets and LL Cool J get satisfying showcases. It’s also the right time period to introduce the Beast Wars characters, 90s-era Transformers that turn into animals. I can’t complain about any of that. These are good ideas deployed in largely non-irritating ways. But, as barely a sequel to the Bumblebee prequel and only vaguely a prequel to the original Michael Bay Transformers, the whole movie is pinned in by that larger overall sense of indecision.

Say what you will about Bay’s work, it makes huge decisive choices about what to show—staging the central alien robots towering over their human castmates, hurtling through action sequences shot for heft and scale. Those movies, for all their chaos and confusion, grounded outsized spectacle with a real sense of gravity and space, always filling the frame with a flurry of activity across multiple planes of perspective, placing its giants in motion against backdrops of forests and skyscrapers and small streets and recognizable architectural features to consistently place us amid the careening clashes and explosions in a state of concussed awe. Rise of the Beasts doesn’t bother. It largely takes place in wide open places or in frames that barely explore the spacial possibilities of its enormous aliens. It hops around the usual MacGuffin chase—to get Optimus Prime and his Autobots home they need to beat Unicron’s minions to the trans-warp key! Yes, the trans-warp key! I practically shouted it with them at a certain point of peak repetition—every stop on the journey loaded up with rumbling quips and bland formula. Then it ends in the usual all-CG conflict in a bland, grey field of nothing in the middle of nowhere as a portal in the sky threatens to explode the world. It’s all curiously small, holding back from the excesses of Bay’s efforts—shorn of most of his high-impact militarism, the leering objectification, and the casual prejudices, but the process has also leeched the enormity of the fireballs and visual weight. The memorable fun, in other words. It’s just a play-it-safe, by-the-numbers franchise entry where all the good ideas are buried in the vague nothing of its aesthetic choices and narrative familiarity.

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