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Optimus Prime (voiced by Peter Cullen) points a giant, glowing gun-arm pretty much at the audience, which seems a bit irresponsible (or like something out of a ’70s 3D movie) in Transformers: Rise of the Beasts Image: Paramount Pictures

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Rise of the Beasts was a new chance to make the Transformers look great on screen, but…

The Maximals and Optimus Primal get the same visually noisy approach as everyone else

In terms of quality, Transformers has the lowest batting average of any modern movie franchise, a record that stays firmly intact thanks to Rise of the Beasts. Where Michael Bay’s five (yes, five) entries in the franchise are all visual soup splashed across the screen, the latest installment — helmed by Creed II’s Steven Caple Jr. — similarly defies comprehensibility, albeit for slightly different reasons. To some extent, each shot is a little more neatly composed. But they’re all strung together with the barest visual and narrative connective tissue, resulting in a baffling film that feels strange not only for a modern blockbuster, but for a Transformers movie as well.

Based on the Beast Wars line of comics, games, toys, and TV shows, the seventh entry in the exhaustive saga begins with a lengthy prologue about a planet-devouring Transformer, Unicron (Colman Domingo), forcing a number of animal-themed Transformers, the Maximals, off their Earth-like home world. Before their planet is destroyed, an ape, a cheetah, and a falcon Transformer manage to steal the latest in a series of plot-driving artifacts related to the Transformers’ home world of Cybertron.

This time, it’s called the “Trans Warp Key,” though its function is similar to that of at least two previous series McGuffins: It opens up a giant portal in the sky. Even before the plot kicks off, this supposed franchise relaunch is already in firmly familiar territory, a trend that continues for a significant chunk of its 127 minutes.

It’s a tale as old as time: A human character stumbles upon a group of Transformers that includes Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen) and Bumblebee (voiceless yet again), and gets roped into their battle with an evil faction, which inevitably involves a race for a piece of Transformers tech that has the power to destroy the world.

Optimus Prime (a big red-and-blue humanoid robot) points a gun-arm in the face of Optimus Primal (a big black gorilla-shaped robot) while standing in a stream outside a forest cave. Members of their robot factions, in humanoid or animal form (Rhinox, Wheeljack, Mirage, Cheetor, Arcee) array around them, with Anthony Ramos and Dominique Fishback as tiny human figures dwarfed by the giant robots, in Transformers: Rise of the Beasts Image: Paramount Pictures

The year is 1994, signified largely by numerous references to Mario, Sonic the Hedgehog, and several other era-specific video games, plus an clip of O.J. Simpson’s murder trial in progress. There are also a few hip-hop bangers on the soundtrack, courtesy of Notorious B.I.G. and Wu-Tang Clan. If there’s one thing the film gets mostly right while setting the stage, it’s the aural introduction to mid-’90s Brooklyn, even though a couple of these tracks are mildly anachronistic, appearing a few years before their real-world release.

Still, the film’s soundtrack is in the right ballpark, which makes for an energetic introduction to ex-military tech expert Noah Diaz (Hamilton’s Anthony Ramos), his single mother (Luna Lauren Vélez), and his ailing younger brother (Dean Scott Vazquez). While the characters themselves feel real, from their working-class plight to their interpersonal banter, little in the world around them feels specific to a period that was nearly 30 years ago. (I’m sorry, I feel it too.)

The costumes and production design are bland, uninspired, and contemporary enough that the film feels accidentally timeless, though the purpose behind setting it in the ’90s appears to be logistical. In franchise terms, Rise of the Beasts is a sequel to 2018’s Bumblebee, which was set in 1987, and which director Travis Knight ensured was the only visually decipherable movie in this series.

The Autobots still retain their busy designs from the Bay films, but this entry very much continues to rewrite their bizarre continuity. (Alas, we must once again settle for a world in which Harriet Tubman never teamed up with transforming cars.) But Bumblebee may as well not exist in this continuity either, since the Transformers are all back to square one at the top of this story, hiding in plain sight as usual, until they’re discovered for both the first and somehow seventh time.

Dominique Fishback and Anthony Ramos stand in a city at night and gape in horror at something offscreen in Transformers: Rise of the Beasts Photo: Jonathan Wenk/Paramount Pictures

This time around, the mute Bumblebee isn’t the primary human companion — it’s a chatterbox blue-gray Porsche named Mirage, who Noah steals to pay for his brother’s medical bills. Mirage, unlike most of the Bay-formers, has the advantage of a recognizably human face, à la the Transformers cartoons, but he has the disadvantage of being voiced by Saturday Night Live’s Pete Davidson, who’s cast primarily for his proclivity for detached snark. That includes him speaking a line that sounds awfully close to Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker’s infamous “They fly now?!” (Even though there have been flying Transformers since the franchise’s first iteration back in the 1980s.) Mirage’s banter lands about 10% of the time, and is excruciatingly juvenile for the other 90.

There’s also a subplot about museum intern Elena Wallace (Judas and the Black Messiah’s Dominique Fishback, who deserves better) discovering half of the Trans Warp Key and beginning to follow a trail of archaeological breadcrumbs to find the other half. But her investigation amounts to little: She doesn’t discover its location herself, since the arriving Transformers drop in on her armed with all the knowledge she lacks, and whisk her off to its location in Peru.

And so, with its human pieces all in play — the human scenes aren’t really the problem here — Rise of the Beasts engages in the first of its many battles over a technological somethingorother, in which the Autobots leap and attack Unicron’s acolytes, who look distinctly Decepticon-esque: gray and unremarkable, like the series’ previous villains.

In that first major action scene, set in the dead of night, something fundamentally breaks about this movie. Where the Bay films at least — oh God, yes, I’m about to hold them up as a positive example — spewed controlled chaos across the frame, with background and foreground elements hinting at a sense of a vastness that’s hard to visually latch on to, Rise of the Beasts has a visual plainness that lays bare its failures of imagination and artistry, in a way Bay was always able to disguise.

A close-up on Optimus Primal, an alien robot currently in the shape of a gorilla, in Transformers: Rise of the Beasts Image: Paramount Pictures

With the camera at a safe, unobtrusive distance, punches and melee strikes land without much impact. There’s little weight to the CGI of these supposedly clunking machines, and successive shots are seldom related to each other in any meaningful way. Nothing holds together. Screen direction and geography appear to change at random, so while the individual shots might be decipherable for once, they exist outside of space and time, thrown together in a manner that somehow feels even more kaleidoscopic than Bay ever managed.

The one thing Bay always ensured, even amid his dizzying visual pandemonium, was a sense of scale, both through human eyes and through the size contrast between Transformer characters and human-scale objects. It’s scraping the bottom of the barrel to praise Bay for that specifically, but Rise of the Beasts barely manages that much. The relative size of the Transformers (to humans, and to each other) appears to change drastically from shot to shot. This not only makes the action hard to follow, but when certain characters are blocked at different points of depth, the combination of this shifting scale and an artless sense of lighting yields a constant “giant Dom, tiny Hobbs” (and vice versa) effect from that one confusingly staged dialogue scene in Fast & Furious 6. Imagine a whole movie that feels like this, and you have a pretty good sense of Rise of the Beasts.

But what of the Maximals, the actual beasts of the title? Unfortunately, they don’t feature in this film nearly as much as Optimus, Bumblebee, and the familiar Autobot crew. Granted, they at least play more of a role than the thoroughly wasted Dinobots of Transformers: Age of Extinction, and they’re also involved in what might be the series’ only actual moral dilemma to date, involving sacrifice for the greater good, even though the lack of physical weight often results in a lack of emotional weight as well.

Like Mirage, the Maximals’ apelike leader, Optimus Primal (Ron Perlman), has the advantage of a face that can actually emote, resulting in a handful of scenes that border on emotionally engaging, even though his comrades — like the avian Airazor, voiced by a bored-sounding Michelle Yeoh — have no such luxury, and have little function or personality beyond delivering plot information.

Alien robot Bumblebee, in the form of a yellow-and-black Camaro, drives along a brown desert-like plane with Cheetor, a Transformer in cheetah form, as a blurry figure running next to him Image: Paramount Pictures

If there’s one novel action beat in Rise of the Beasts, it’s the way the screenplay (credited to a five-person writing team, including Obi-Wan Kenobi showrunner Joby Harold) finds a fun way for the humans to be actively involved in the Transformer battles as equal participants, rather than onlookers or victims running helter-skelter. Even though the scenes in question are dull as dirt, and completely disconnected from shot to shot.

The climactic action set-piece mimics the final battle in Avengers: Endgame. But rather than putting in the legwork to make audiences care about the characters, the film only apes the aspects of Marvel’s shared-universe climax that don’t work in isolation: the nondescript, wide-open setting, and the anonymous legion of faceless enemies that might as well be a sea of metallic goop. The live-action Transformers movies have always been hard to look at, but with Bay at the helm, they at least felt like the work of a deranged madman allowed to run wild with a camera and VFX budget for the sake of experimentation. (He’s made plenty of good films outside the Transformers sandbox.)

Instead, this time around, the experiment appears to be a studio testing the limits of what technically qualifies as a Transformers film — or a film in general. Transformers: Rise of the Beasts is haplessly cobbled together from CGI elements that appear to have been created by different departments who weren’t allowed to communicate. There’s even a handful of shots in which Airazor is so poorly rendered that she appears almost two-dimensional, as if the crunch likely foisted on the film’s helpless VFX crews were manifesting as an artistic cry for help.

Alien robot cars and their space battles are concepts with such basic, gee-whiz sci-fi appeal that they’ve worked numerous times across decades of comics and cartoons. And yet there’s little childlike wonder to the Transformers live-action movies, which often stuff their frames with visually oppressive, eyesore conceptions of things that ought to be simple and imaginative. Virtually all of the Transformers movies feel like they’re trying to defeat their audience, but this time, the movie wins.

Transformers: Rise of the Beasts opens in theaters on June 9.