‘Transformers: The Last Knight’ sets a new low for Michael Bay’s franchise

Michael Bay’s fifth installment of the Transformers franchise has arrived! Here’s our Transformers: The Last Knight review.

Say what you will about Michael Bay’s live-action Transformers movies, but the franchise has generally been a reliable source of dumb fun — that is, until Transformers: The Last Knight came along.

The balance between “dumb” and “fun” in the Transformers movies has shifted from one installment to the next over the years. The first film offered enough entertainment to excuse its sillier elements, only to have the needle swing back the other way for 2009’s terrible Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. Bay seemed to right the ship somewhat with 2011’s Transformers: Dark of the Moon, which raised the bar enough on the visual side to make up for its other shortcomings (and there were a lot of them), only to embrace the series’ worst attributes again in 2014’s Transformers: Age of Extinction, which introduced a fresh cast but amplified many of the same old problems.

Given that back-and-forth cycle, it would seem reasonable to expect the fifth entry of the series, Transformers: The Last Knight, to bring the fun back when it arrives in theaters this week, including IMAX 3D.

It feels like a rough cut of a movie that could use significantly more editing.

If there’s one important takeaway from The Last Knight, it’s that defying expectations isn’t always a good thing.

Directed by Bay from a script penned by Iron Man screenwriters Art Marcum and Matt Holloway along with Black Hawk Down writer Ken Nolan, Transformers: The Last Knight finds its inspiration in the lowest points of the franchise so far, and offers up a story that’s as messy as it is frustratingly long.

Set some indeterminate time after the events of Age of ExtinctionThe Last Knight follows Mark Wahlberg’s rogue mechanic and inventor Cade Yeager as he’s dragged along on a globe-spanning quest to stop the remnants of the Transformers’ home planet, Cybertron, from draining the Earth of its energies (or something to that effect, as it’s never clearly explained). During his adventure, he learns the previously untold history of the Transformers rooted in Arthurian legend, gets involved with a secret society led by an eccentric British lord played by Sir Anthony Hopkins, and becomes “the chosen one” in this planet-saving quest for an ill-defined reason.

Cade also becomes the reluctant mentor of a 14-year-old girl played by Isabela Moner and her cute, big-eyed robot pal, who occasionally disappear entirely from the story only to magically reappear anywhere around the world when the story has gone too long without a scene of plucky young characters exhibiting bravery. As if that wasn’t enough to juggle, Cade’s mission is eventually joined by an Oxford University literature professor played by Laura Haddock (Da Vinci’s Demons) whose relationship to a character played by Stanley Tucci — but not the same character played by Tucci in a previous Transformers movie, for some reason — might hold the key to humanity’s survival.

Oh, and there are robots, too.

Peter Cullen gives Optimus Prime the gravitas to make any line of dialogue sound inspiring

The live-action Transformers franchise has never been about its human characters, so Bay’s decision to devote so much screen time to them in The Last Knight is curious. Sure, it makes sense to give an actor of Hopkins’ caliber as much attention as possible, and Bay wisely does so. Hopkins delivers just about any silly line he’s given with the expected level of entertaining gusto.

It’s when any characters not named Anthony Hopkins are on the screen, though, that the otherwise frantic pace of the movie grinds to a slow, annoying crawl.

The Last Knight seems strangely determined to alternate between desperate dialogue that piles on the pop-culture references in a sadly over-played attempt to seem timely and flat banter between Wahlberg and Haddock clearly intended to sound more witty than it really is. There also seems to be some deal in place that pays per-use for soft obscenities like the word “bitch,” as many of the characters — particularly the robots — use them with the over-exaggerated frequency of a teenager trying hard to sound edgy.

Individually, these issues are annoying, but collectively they’re indicative of the sense of desperation that runs through the film. At a loss for ways to hold its audience’s attention visually, it leans on cheap gags and bad jokes as a distraction — which end up creating more problems. All of this just serves to make the movie’s 150-minute runtime (a staple of Bay’s films at this point) feel exponentially longer.

Surprisingly, The Last Knight even has problems in some of the areas Bay can typically be trusted to do well.

Neither the sound editing nor the digitally created fight sequences in The Last Knight feel up to the same standard as the prior films or Bay’s films in general. Along with some rough audio that distracts from the action instead of amplifying the tone of a scene, the film also feels conspicuously light on the sort of spectacle that the fight sequences in previous installments of the franchise offered. There are some huge set pieces in The Last Knight, but most of the action melts together and few — if any — of the sequences elicit anything resembling the sort of dramatic, emotional response generated by the climactic showdowns in some of the earlier films (usually involving Optimus Prime).

The stories in the Transformers movies have never been the series’ main selling points, but the plot feels more disjointed than usual (even by the franchise’s already low standard) in The Last Knight. Characters jump from one place to another in the story without any regard for where they were last seen (or in some cases, what they were wearing), and the minimal effort that is invested in making sense of the narrative takes the form of shamelessly forced expositional dialogue.

In fact, the failings of The Last Knight might be most evident in the movie’s inability to let even the most open-minded, forgiving audience turn off rational thought and get swept away in flashy giant-robot action.

The film is peppered with a mix of sadly desperate dialogue that piles on the pop-culture references.

The few positives to be found in The Last Knight lie among the franchise’s (and the filmmaker’s) most reliable attributes: Its veteran voice actors and Bay’s knack for complicated, explosive action sequences.

As he’s done in nearly every iteration of the Transformers franchise in movies and television, Peter Cullen gives Autobot leader Optimus Prime the gravitas to make any line of dialogue sound noble and inspiring. Sloppy dialogue that might sound laughably hokey from any other voice becomes grave and vitally important when uttered by Cullen, and he’s owed much of the credit for making — and keeping — Optimus Prime such an iconic character that maintains its dignity in less-than-optimal surroundings.

Bay also does a nice job of letting action unfold around particular characters in a way that keeps you aware of what’s happening with the massive robots as the camera follows the human characters. There’s an impressive amount of detail in the movie’s most frantic, chaotic moments, and the film’s action sequences never lack for ambition, even when they fall a bit short in execution.

At its best, Transformers: The Last Knight is a messy pile of digitally created visual-effects sequences that are nice to look at and capable of sweeping you up in their momentum, only to bring you crashing down to Earth when the action stops. Too often, the film feels like the rough cut of a movie that could use significantly more editing.

With its erratic pacing, disjointed story, laughably silly dialogue, and too many other problems to count, Transformers: The Last Knight might be the most unsatisfying film in the Transformers franchise so far. Bay has indicated that this will be the final installment he directs, and The Last Knight makes a strong argument that the director has saved the worst for last.

If you’re looking for a better movie to see in theaters, we recommend Wonder Woman.

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