There’s a couple moments in the new Transformers – a movie about, among other things, King Arthur, WWII, and Mark Wahlberg’s sex life – that are so bizarre, so out-of-left-field, that it all begins to feel like some kind of two-and-a-half-hour-long fever dream.
Over the course of five movies (and counting), that’s pretty much been the prevailing knock on this franchise; that it’s roughly the equivalent of watching a hyperactive kid smash his toys together, only if that kid was Michael Bay and the toys cost well over $200 million. Once upon a time, these movies seemed worth getting excited about, whether you were an ’80s kid, or a real, actual kid. Now? Transformers is just yet another franchise continuing to trudge on well past its Best By date, churning out a steady stream of sequels no one asked for.
The movies keep making money though, maybe because watching two-plus hours of chaotic apocalypse porn in industrial-grade A/C still counts as an upgrade over watching the fresh horrors of the real-world news cycle. But franchise fatigue is already beginning to set in, same as it did for last month’s Pirates of the Caribbean: Part Whatever. Early estimates have The Last Knight on pace to make well under what Age of Extinction did at the North American box office, which was already the lowest in the series.
This is a franchise that started out as one thing – a seemingly Spielberg-esque, ’80s reboot for a new generation of kids – and then transformed into another – a gritty, relentlessly bombastic spectacle too violent for children and too childish for adults. Here’s a quick recap for those of you who haven’t been following along at the multiplex: Optimus Prime, once the benevolent, honourable, kid-friendly leader of a race of alien robots now straight-up decapitates his foes while screaming “Give me your face!” (or, alternatively, shoots them in the back as they beg for mercy).
Not much has changed by The Last Knight. The movie starts off dark – literally, on a battlefield during the Dark Ages – and figuratively, with more impalements per minute than your average Game of Thrones episode. But since this is still ostensibly a series meant to sell toys as much as movie tickets, it then quickly introduces a plucky new tween protagonist and her sidekick Sqweeks, a turquoise Vespa-bot seemingly built solely to shout “Aye Chihuahua!” during firefights. (For whatever reason, this series’ approach to comedy has long been, “Just give all the robots ‘funny’ accents.”)
It’s all the product of an increasingly corporate approach to franchise moviemaking; the story dreamt up by committee in a writers’ room meant to brainstorm endless potential spinoffs and sequels. Because in 2017, no one’s satisfied with just trilogies or franchises anymore – now everyone’s got to have their own “universes.” Blame Marvel.
As a result, plot points and characters careen in and out of The Last Knight, seemingly at random, but the main story revolves around yet another shiny, meaningless MacGuffin in a franchise overflowing with them. This time, it’s a magic staff that in theory allowed Merlin (and all his direct descendants, hint hint) to command Transformers, but in practice is just another interchangeable doomsday device capable of destroying the Earth in the third act if it falls into the wrong hands. There’s a sociopathic robo-butler (voiced by Downton Abbey’s Jim Carter) and adorable baby Transformers. Steve Buscemi shows up in a voice cameo to pointlessly/humourlessly bicker with John Goodman’s Hound. Sir Anthony Hopkins flips people the bird and screams obscenities at bewildered tourists. And it’s all wrapped up with a message straight out of an after-school special about the importance of “working together.” (To decapitate your enemies, presumably.)
None of it’s even mildly coherent. But like so many summer movies these days, The Last Knight is perfectly enjoyable, or at least watchable – which, considering the last few outings for Bay and his Autobots, qualifies as high praise. The problem is, in trying to construct the perfect, billion-dollar blockbuster franchise, one that appeals to every demographic, young and old, and all to four corners of the world, you get a series of movies made for no one. And it doesn’t matter how many cities you blow up, there’s just no disguising that.