There’s something I’ve been wondering for a good many years now: What the fuck is Paramount/Hasbro doing?
Granted, Paramount has earned a lot of renewed goodwill lately — ever since Sumner Redstone died and Top Gun: Maverick gave the studio a new lease on life, it doesn’t feel like Paramount is floundering for want of direction anymore. (Or any less…) But then we got Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins, which tried and spectacularly failed at rebooting G.I. Joe onscreen. And that’s after all the other times Paramount/Hasbro tried making a film franchise out of G.I. Joe or any of its other non-Cybertronian properties, all of which either failed to catch fire or fell apart entirely in development.
(Side note: Ouija: Origin of Evil was a Hasbro film made in conjunction with Universal, not Paramount. Still, it deserves mention as a prequel that was somehow legitimately good enough to redeem the shitty original, yet no sequel was ever made to capitalize on this success. What the fuck.
(Jem and the Holograms was another Hasbro/Universal juncture. The less said about that, the better.)
Which brings us to Bumblebee, easily the greatest live-action Transformers film ever made by a long shot. And I’ve got a hunch that its success took everyone in the C-suite entirely off guard. Not only did it take ages to get a sequel greenlit (Granted, COVID was a factor.), but none of the filmmakers can seem to get their facts straight about whether this takes place in the same continuity as the Bayformer films. Even after Bumblebee made it flagrantly clear there’s no possible way Sector 7 could have Megatron frozen in the basement, the filmmakers are still laughably unable to firmly and decisively jettison the Bay movies for good.
So here we are with Transformers: Rise of the Beasts, in which Travis Knight hands off the reins to Steven Caple Jr. of Creed II fame. I might add that the film has no less than FIVE (5) credited writers, not one of whom is Christina Hodson, the sole credited writer on Bumblebee.
What the fuck is Paramount/Hasbro doing?
Let’s start with the gorilla in the room: This movie’s big selling point is the introduction of characters from “Beast Wars”, the landmark ’90s animated show that was one of the very first to be done entirely in CGI. More to the point, the Maximals and Predacons were the Transformers that I grew up with — this is the series that introduced a whole new generation of fans to the franchise.
And they’re practically unrecognizable here. Seriously, the Maximals could’ve been replaced with the Dinobots, the Aerialbots, the Technobots, or any other Autobot subgroup and it would’ve made just as much sense with no appreciable changes to the plot whatsoever.
As portrayed in the film, the Maximals come from a lush green planet that couldn’t possibly be Cybertron. Yet the Maximals overtly resemble Cybertronians and Optimus Primal (Ron Perlman) clearly states that he was named after Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen, natch). How is this possible? How are the two factions connected? Never explained! We get some vague bullshit pertaining to temporal shenanigans, but that’s about it.
Cheetor (Tongayi Chirisa) has no personality to speak of, much less the brash and naive greenhorn of the TV show. Rhinox is not the wise and gentle giant I knew and loved growing up — in fact, I don’t even think he gets a single line in the film. Rattrap missed the cut entirely, more’s the pity. The only one who even vaguely resembles her source material counterpart is Airrazor (Michelle Yeoh), but she never transforms once in the entire movie!
And what of Optimus Primal? Well, it turns out he and the other Maximals have spent the past several centuries making the Earth their home, depending on the humans to help keep them hidden from the grand galactic threat (more on that later). This in direct contrast with Optimus Prime, who’s grown distrustful of humans and has spent the past several years obsessively searching for some way back to Cybertron.
To be clear, Prime is still very much the resident father figure in keeping with his traditional characterization. But this is a more protective and aggressive kind of father figure, with significantly more stress and anger than we typically see from the character. Granted, it’s not like he actively hates humans or wants them dead, but he still wouldn’t trust them to help the Autobots or anyone else except themselves. It’s the Maximal leader who has to remind the Autobot leader of his altruistic nature, which is a nice dynamic between the two.
Of course, this is a far cry from the source material, in which Optimus Primal’s process of learning how to be a capable leader was a crucial overarching thrust of the show. But it works well enough for the movie.
Speaking of which, what about the rest of the Autobots? Well, Arcee (Liza Koshy) is there, but she might as well not be. Wheeljack (Cristo Fernandez) is likewise there just to pad out the ranks, and there’s an extended joke about how he talks with a Latino accent for no reason. Bumblebee shows up — speaking in movie quotes picked up from a drive-in theater, which is a neat touch — but he’s sidelined through half the movie. Oh, and there’s Stratosphere (John DiMaggio), who serves no real purpose except for transportation.
Among the Autobots, the lion’s share of screen time and development goes to Mirage, so named because he’s got the unique ability to project holograms. Oh, and he speaks with Pete Davidson’s voice, so of course he’s got attitude and snark more than worthy of a kids’ franchise from the early ’90s. (Oh yeah, did I mention this film is set in 1994?) Presumably, this was so our human protagonist (more on him later) would have an Autobot companion he could actually hold a conversation with, and we’re stuck with a Bumblebee who can’t talk even though making him mute in the first place was a really fucking stupid idea. That still doesn’t mean we had to take Bumblebee out from so much of the movie like that, but still.
But enough of the good robots, what about the bad ones? What’s the plot and the crisis this time around? Whoo boy.
The plot kicks off with the introduction of Unicron (Colman Domingo). For those who aren’t familiar with Transformers lore, Unicron is a large planet who eats other planets, he can transform into a giant robot in some iterations, and he’s basically the Transformers equivalent of Satan.
Anyway, Unicron shows up to devour the Maximals’ homeworld. But first, he wants to steal the Transwarp Key, a MacGuffin in the Maximals’ possession that would allow Unicron access to all of space and time, thus putting every planet in the cosmos on the menu. Narrowly escaping the end of their homeworld, the Maximals use the Key to flee to Earth, where they’ve been keeping themselves and the Key hidden for hundreds of years.
I might add that keeping themselves off Unicron’s radar provides a convenient excuse for why the Autobots never knew they were there, so points to the writers for that clever workaround. Points that I have to take right back when the crucially important thing that has to be hidden at all costs throws up a signal flare upon being discovered. The signal flare prompts Optimus Prime to rally the Autobots in search of the Key and we’re off to the races.
There is, however, a wrinkle: Noah Diaz (Anthony Ramos), a disgraced military vet with a penchant for electronics and a little brother (Kris, played by Dean Scott Vazquez) with sickle-cell anemia. Unable to find honest money and with nowhere else to go, Noah resorts to stealing a Porsche. That just happens to be Mirage. Who gets the call from Optimus Prime while Noah’s attempted carjacking is in progress. The guy has shitty luck, is what I’m saying.
Last but not least is Elena Wallace (Dominique Fishback, who’s had one hell of a glow-up in the past couple years), an overworked and underappreciated intern archaeologist. She’s the one who first discovers the MacGuffin, and makes herself exceedingly useful in finding and interpreting certain clues to stopping Unicron.
Thus Noah and Elena tag along with the Autobots on their quest to secure the MacGuffin and stop Unicron, making themselves useful by getting into human establishments and tight spaces where the Autobots can’t go. It bears mentioning that while the both of them come to know and trust each other, they stop comfortably shy of a romance arc. I respect that. More importantly, while Elena admittedly has a greater impact on the plot, Noah does more to explore the film’s themes of courage, teamwork, sacrifice for the greater good, protecting comrades and loved ones, and so on. Some angles work better than others, but the effort is appreciated all around.
But let’s get back to the villains. As Unicron needs the Transwarp Key to travel interstellar distances effectively, he’s sent a legion of disciples to scour the universe in search of the MacGuffin. Thus Unicron is kept as an offscreen threat until the climax, with Scourge serving as our primary antagonist on Unicron’s behalf. Of course Scourge is assisted by a handful of other evil alien robots, but Scourge is the only one who’s anywhere near notable. And that’s primarily because Peter Dinklage sounds like he’s having a blast voicing the role.
What I keep coming back to is that in a vacuum, the movie is fine. You’ve got your straightforward good guys, your clear-cut bad guys, your big epic action sequences, some tastefully articulated themes thrown in for good measure, and so on. It’s nothing particularly new or groundbreaking — not that it was ever intended to be — but it’s good clean summer blockbuster fun with a brisk two-hour runtime.
But in the context of the greater franchise, there are some pretty glaring issues.
First of all, there’s no sign of Sector 7, there’s no mention of John Cena’s character, and the events of this film have no connection whatsoever with Bumblebee or any of the other live-action films so far. Yes, the film continues the Travis Knight approach of bringing us blockier Cybertronian designs more accurate to the ’80s cartoon and less in keeping with the “alien internal clockwork” aesthetic of Michael Bay. (Good call, please keep the blockier designs.) Yes, there’s a vague passing mention of Hailee Steinfeld’s character. Yes, I understand the value of a franchise picture that stands on its own merit and it’s not like anyone comes to see these movies for the plot at any rate. But on a macro level, it’s still frustrating to have a franchise picture with such gossamer-thin connections to Bumblebee or any other live-action film thus far.
(Though we do get the Autobot theme written by Steve Jablonsky, triumphantly quoted at a key point in the climax. Not gonna lie, that was fucking awesome.)
Secondly, though we get both Optimus Prime and Optimus Primal, we get absolutely nothing about their respective iterations of Megatron. We get the Autobots, but there’s a giant gaping hole where the Decepticons should be. We’ve got the Maximals, but no Predacons. In other words, we’ve got plenty of franchise heroes in place, but without even so much as a post-credits teaser to introduce their most iconic villains.
In point of fact, this whole movie feels surprisingly — dare I say alarmingly self-contained. Every plotline feels neatly wrapped up, and the human leads aren’t interesting or compelling enough to sustain more than this one movie. But then comes the closing minutes right before the end credits.
That last big reveal puts this movie in a terribly awkward position: It’s a launching point for a Hasbro cinematic megafranchise. And I can already tell that it’s doomed to fail.
They stumbled out of the gate because they made the classic megafranchise blunder of promising big goals without any clear idea of how we’re getting there. They want to set up Unicron as the big Thanos-level threat that would take a huge crossover event to truly defeat once and for all? Sounds great, that makes perfect sense in theory. But establishing Unicron before bringing up Megatron is a bit like introducing us to Thanos before Red Skull. It feels like we’re putting the cart before the horse here, is what I’m saying.
But for better or worse, the die is cast. Those closing minutes dropped a bombshell and made a huge promise, so now Paramount/Hasbro have to follow through with that promise or they’ll have no choice but to reboot the whole damn franchise AGAIN.
If Transformers: Rise of the Beasts was only a standalone film, I’d have no problem recommending it. Most especially if you don’t care about the property or the franchise and this is your first time seeing a live-action Transformers movie in a while, you’ll have a much better time enjoying the action and spectacle without all that baggage. But as an adaptation of “Beast Wars”, it’s frankly a slap in the face to anyone who grew up watching the show. Moreover, this is a franchise picture, which inherently means that it has to be considered a trailer for the next movie. And the picture for this series’ future remains cloudy.
I honestly have no idea what Paramount/Hasbro think they’re doing with this Hasbro Cinematic Universe project they all but officially announced. Given how enjoyable Bumblebee and Rise of the Beasts turned out to be, you’d think it’d be easier to give them the benefit of the doubt. But I’d be a lot less skeptical if those movies had any kind of continuity, if the filmmakers and execs could simply pick a continuity and vocally commit to it, and if we had any kind of timeline or concept for how the franchise’s most iconic baddies are involved in all this. Oh, and of course we can’t forget the self-inflicted black eye that was Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins, that’s another point against their established competence.
The good news is, we have a film that’s serviceably enjoyable in the here and now. As to whether Paramount/Hasbro are competent enough to capitalize on that in any appreciable way, time will tell.