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Transformers: Rise of the Beasts

TRANSFORMERS: RISE OF THE BEASTS is the new Transformers picture directed by Steven Caple Jr. (THE LAND, CREED II). It’s not a reboot, but a new chapter set in 1994 – after Travis Knight’s BUMBLEBEE, before all the Michael Bay ones. So technically it’s a prequel, but there’s not much important continuity (as there really isn’t in any of these movies).

Aside from a new director and attitude, the flashy new attraction is the Maximals – robotic animal characters from the 1996 computer animated show Beast Wars. You know how it is, you’re on Cybertron just minding your own business being a mechanical rhino or cheetah made out of metal but with fur on some parts, suddenly you gotta flee to an organic jungle world to hide the portal-opening Transwarp Key from the the giant planet-munching robot Unicron. That character was famously voiced by Orson Welles in THE TRANSFORMERS: THE MOVIE, and here he’s Colman Domingo (ZOLA), a great choice of voice to process even lower and blast through Imax speakers so loud you can feel it vibrating your bones.

During the prologue, set thousands of years ago, the Maximals are tracked by Scourge (Peter Dinklage, BULLET), a henchman of Unicron who transforms into a Mad-Maxified version of the truck from DUEL and wears the hood ornaments of his fallen foes on his grill as trophies. But their leader Apelinq (David Sobolov, voice of RoboCop in RoboCop: Alpha Commando) heroically sacrifices himself as a distraction while a group led by gorillabot Optimus Primal (Ron Perlman, POLICE ACADEMY: MISSION TO MOSCOW) escape to hide the Key on some obscure backwater planet called Earth.

Then “C.R.E.A.M.” plays as we jump to 1994 Brooklyn and meet the series’ historic first likable male human character, Noah Diaz (Anthony Ramos, A STAR IS BORN). His problems are generic but sympathetic: he needs money to support his sick little brother Kris (Dean Scott Vazquez, 9 BULLETS) and their mom (Luna Lauren Velez, also Miles’ mom in SPIDER-VERSE) but no one will hire him so he reluctantly agrees to help his friend Reek (Tobe Nwigwe) steal a valuable car from rich people at a fundraiser for a museum. The car, of course, turns out to be an Autobot, Mirage (Pete Davidson, BODIES BODIES BODIES), who drives off with Noah inside, decides he wants to be buddies with him and brings him to a secret warehouse meeting with the other Transformers, causing Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen, The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour) to pick him up like an action figure and consider crushing him.

Unlike many people my age I don’t have an objection to Davidson, I think he can be pretty funny, but his casting here isn’t great. I can’t be too hard on his riffing because even in its biggest airballs (referencing Marky Mark because, get it, he’s in some of the other movies) it’s never as irritating as almost any “funny” character in any of the Bay movies (Transformers or othwerwise). But the variation on his usual regular dude persona doesn’t really fit with being an alien car-man, and I wish it was someone less recognizable so I could think of it as a character and not a celebrity doing a voiceover.

The other lead human is Elena Wallace (Dominique Fishback, JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH), an intern at the museum who finds one half of the Key hidden inside an ancient relic and gets mixed up in all this because she happens to be there when Noah breaks in to steal it for the Autobots. He sounds crazy telling her about the giant robots from space but then they’re attacked by Scourge and his gang the Terrorcons about two minutes later.

Pictured: Academy Award winner Michelle Yeoh

The Autobots are contacted by fire-breathing falconborg Airazor (Academy Award winner Michelle Yeoh, BABYLON A.D.), who explains the whole deal, Elena figures out from her study of the artifact that the other half of the Key must be hidden in a certain temple in Peru, and everybody heads there together. Optimus wants to reunite the pieces of the Key so the Autobots can use it to return to Cybertron, while Noah plans to destroy it so Unicron doesn’t use it to snack on Earth, a planet he enjoys residing on. Eventually Noah and Optimus will have to get on the same page and work together.

I’ve heard it said this has no connection to BUMBLEBEE, but there’s actually a line alluding to it – Optimus tells Bumblebee he knows he befriended a human once, but he still doesn’t trust them. I think they could’ve gotten away with ignoring Prime’s characterization as a bloodthirsty lunatic in the Bay movies, but they take the prequelizing seriously and have him even worse at this point and learning the lesson that it’s jerky to prioritize the future of his home planet over that of the one he’s been hiding out on. I suppose it helps put Noah over since we, as humans, gotta side with him over Optimus. Also he’s a fellow Wu-Tang fan.

Just as BUMBLEBEE used its 1987 setting as an excuse for all purpose ‘80s nostalgia, RISE OF THE BEASTS represents the ‘90s by giving Kris a Power Rangers t-shirt and (apparently anachronistic) Gameboy Super Mario Bros. obsession. The musical choices are more specific. Noah has Wu-Tang, Nas and POETIC JUSTICE posters in his room, and the soundtrack is made up of the most obvious but also most undeniable ‘90s New York hip hop songs: “C.R.E.A.M.,” “Check the Rime,” “Represent,” “Rebirth of Slick,” “Hypnotize,” “Mama Said Knock You Out.” If I’m not mistaken “Hypnotize” (released in 1997) is the only one that’s a cheat, and that’s on the end credits. Maybe the end credits take place later.

You can’t really say it’s a great soundtrack, because everybody who’s into this type of music has all of these albums. On the other hand, I couldn’t help but be happy to hear them (unfortunate edit right at the peak of “The Choice Is Yours” not withstanding). Maybe this is what boomers felt like when they heard the soundtrack to FORREST GUMP. That said, they’re so consistent throughout that it feels wrong when they set the climax to a modern song. I’m sure the kids are fine with it but let the record reflect that to this old man it was painful.

There’s a pretty long list of ways that, by most normal standards, RISE OF THE BEASTS is better or more tolerable than any of the Bay Transformerses. Its human characters are infinitely more likable and rarely annoying. The corny humor is not wall-to-wall, and for the most part it’s timed competently and not mean-spirited or racially stereotyped like some of Bay’s. It has none of Bay’s objectification of women, so the most sexist thing I noticed was Kris saying “Bros before hoes,” which Noah objects to and which IMDb trivia informs me is a reference to the first film.

It has a different view of the world than Bay’s; there are no weenie bureaucrats who must be humiliated, no soul-crushing ball-and-chain hags to complain about, no girls to get, no daughters whose chastity must be zealously guarded, no worship or fetishism of soldiers and military equipment*. They do use “ex-soldier” to explain some of Noah’s talents, but the reason he was discharged and now gets rejected from security jobs is that he did the right thing and prioritized his brother’s health over his military career.

The detail that Kris’s disease is sickle cell is obviously significant, as is the use of Nubia as the ancient civilization the Transwarp Key is even older than. Otherwise Elena’s underdog story is less culturally specific, unless you count that she’s a hugely overqualified intern with a white boss named “Jillian” (Sarah Stiles, UNSANE) who takes credit for her work.

Like the other ones, the screenplay is credited to a whole bunch of people: story by Joby Harold (KING ARTHUR: LEGEND OF THE SWORD, ARMY OF THE DEAD), screenplay by Harold and Darnell Metayer & Josh Peters and Erich & Jon Hoeber (RED, BATTLESHIP, THE MEG). Adapted from the works of Hasbro and the works of Hasbro as adapted by Michael Bay. But they managed to make something much more coherent and straight forward, and it doesn’t hurt that it’s half an hour shorter. Not only did I follow the plot the whole time, so did my two friends who had never seen a TRANSFORMERS movie before! In that sense RISE OF THE BEASTS is a whole different maximal.

But not in the way BUMBLEBEE was. I loved that that first non-Bay Transformers was made with heart and humanity. I preferred those robot designs and the superior character animation, and I’m glad RISE OF THE BEASTS seems to shoot for those things too. But BUMBLEBEE was also a smaller story, at least halfway a coming-of-age teen movie, pretty much a different genre, while this is closer to the Bay template. That means it asks the question “What happens when someone who isn’t a bizarre lunatic tries to make something in the vein of a Michael Bay movie?” Caple is a whole separate human being, so by definition he doesn’t have Bay’s specific obsessions, hangups, or skills. Unlike Bay he’s a big nerd for the Transformers cartoons, but over time Bay gave in to all the weird Cybertronian mythological shit, and he even started making his overly complicated designs work, so it’s not a whole new ball game or anything. Different team, same sport.

And I have to admit there are aspects of Bay’s movies I missed in this. As obnoxious as they are, I appreciate their onslaught of laugh out loud, brazen ridiculousness. BEASTS has some of those moments (like when Mirage wraps his parts around Noah to make him into what I call a “Person-bot”), but not constantly throughout like in the Bay movies. For sure it’s a less stupid movie, it’s less insane, it makes more sense, you’re not constantly wondering what the fuck. A part of me appreciates that. Another part wonders, do we really want a more reasonable version of these movies? Why go into Hell if you’re worried about catching on fire? Just go somewhere else.

I think there’s also an issue with the Maximals premise. I like these animal robots (Optimus Primal is especially cool looking) but, just like the original toys, they abandon the concept of “robots in disguise.” So the robot melodrama continues, and that’s cool, but for most of the movie they’re in in the mountains of Peru, far from people or civilization, so it’s low on that collision between the robots and human environments. Not just the destruction, but the shock and awe, the terror. Admittedly, few directors would be able to compete with Bay in the spectacle department, but maybe it would be interesting to see how that sort of thing plays from a director who doesn’t hate people, and doesn’t change the tone for no reason every two seconds like somebody sat on the remote by accident. Next time, baby.

(That’s a joke about Terrence Howard not returning for IRON MAN 2, but this movie went over well with the crowd I saw it with, especially the kids, so Caple and/or this series might really get another shot.)

The FX this time are done by MPC and Weta instead of ILM (who are more expensive and also busy doing an all-animated TRANSFORMERS prequel). Unlike the people passing around clips on Twitter pretending it’s the worst shit they ever saw, I think they look good and that there’s lots of really well done robot violence. But it’s also true that they lack the sense of awe of the robots in Bay’s movies, and don’t have quite the same tactile realism that comes partly from how cool their surfaces look reflecting Bay’s pretty sunsets. I don’t know why this one has to be so overcast.

Another very simple thing: we don’t get as many of those shots where a bunch of sports cars and a truck you’d never see all at once are driving around together and we laugh because we know they’re aliens. A simple pleasure of these movies that I took for granted. To be fair, we do get a good part where Cheetor (Tongayi Chirisa, PALM SPRINGS) runs next to Bumblebee driving in car mode. That was cool.

The bottom line: TRANSFORMERS: RISE OF THE BEASTS is a competently made, well-meaning and reasonably fun movie that those who enjoy large robots battling each other but can’t fucking stand Michael Bay movies may enjoy more than the other ones. But since it’s not as uniquely deranged, while not achieving true blockbuster greatness, its value to the Earthling cause is debatable.


*However, on Action For Everyone Vyce Victus made a very good point that resolving the sick brother subplot by (SPOILER) having the government promise him state of the art healthcare is some bullshit that ironically was already dispelled in Bay’s AMBULANCE (where veterans feel they have to rob a bank to pay for healthcare). Most of us will be more focused on the potential future goofiness that the scene is meant to set up, and I also want to note that Noah’s previous military service didn’t get him this treatment, it was only after he saved the world. But I think it’s a criticism worth thinking about.


It occurs to me that I’ve been seeing and writing about each of these movies since 2007, starting with a very harsh review on The Ain’t It Cool News that made many people angry at the time. I’ve never rewatched any of the Bay-directed Transformables, so I have no idea how much I do or do not stand by any of my old opinions. I do know there are things I wrote in these reviews that I find embarrassing now. But if you read them you can see not only the series evolving but me growing up, chilling out, and probly being closer to the “what did you expect? Shakespeare?” doofuses I was so mad at in the first review. Oh well.

prologue: Vern’s Peace Initiative (reviewing BAD BOYS 2 and THE TRANSFORMERS: THE MOVIE) (August 13, 2006)

Vern vs. TRANSFORMERS – One shall stand and one shall fall… (Ain’t It Cool News, July 3, 2007)

(note: my Michael Bay loving friend referred to in the review is Matt Lynch of The Suspense Is Killing Us fame/Letterboxd infamy)




(To me AGE OF EXTINCTION marked a major shift in the competence, politics and especially action clarity of the series, though I still had plenty of mean things to say about it)


(In my memory THE LAST KNIGHT was crazier and more enjoyable than I was saying in this review. But at least I wasn’t mad anymore.)


(The one I sincerely like.)

Oh jesus. Skimming through these reviews is making me realize that some day I’m gonna want to rewatch the series and see how they play in retrospect. But not today.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, June 14th, 2023 at 4:58 pm and is filed under Reviews, Action, Science Fiction and Space Shit. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

14 Responses to “Transformers: Rise of the Beasts”

  1. For what it’s worth, I passed your old Bay reviews on to a coworker of mine (who is a fan of the Bay movies; at least, the ’07 original) and he loved them. Was absolutely dying laughing. So you were on to something with those, and you should be proud of them.

    As to Rise of the Beasts: it’s not the best Transformers movie (that’s still Bumblebee) but I think it might be my favorite. It just so perfectly targets all of my fixations and odd fetishes: talking animals (check), mysterious ancient writings (check), lots of on-screen transformations (check), Michelle Yeoh (mega check), a hungry ancient God with no regard for the human race (check), and main characters looking for redemption (again, check). The whole thing just worked for me, and I liked that it was sincere about the whole crazy enterprise. I always felt like Bay had nothing but contempt for his own movies while he was making them, and it’s nice to see one where even the corniest moments are treated with total sincerity.

    Till all are one.

  2. Your first 2 TRANSFORMERS reviews remain Hall of Fame internet film criticism and no one can move me on that. Maybe any embarrassment comes from a post-REVENGE OF THE FALLEN entry, I admittedly did not read those as I had no intention of ever watching those films and didn’t see the point.

  3. I liked this. For once all those complaints about how previous movies wallowed in way too much “human shit” instead of Machines going Smashy-Smashy seemed to have landed, and after a scary 30 minutes that seemed like I’d need to give a shit about some ex-soldier with a sick brother and some nerd museum intern, the movie thankfully sidelines them for the metallic behemoths to strut their stuff.

    Loved the action, the effects work is top notch and with Peter Cullen, Ron Perlman and Peter Dinklage all on board, that’s enough macho baritones to have you sprout chest hair just listening to them make portentous pronouncements and potent put-downs.

    I agree that for the Bay excesses you thankfully miss (the relentless racial caricatures and the shouty, overwrought performances) you also miss the man’s operatic staging and visual flair for gargantuan set pieces. I maintain that the Battle of Chicago in DARK OF THE MOON remains one of the most complex and awe-inspiring displays of mayhem ever put on screen. But Caple does a decent job at with a slightly scaled down approach. And Pete Davidson is actually….good here?

  4. Honestly, the lack of Bay-esque insanity was what made me enjoy BUMBLEBEE already less. Sure, the series already lost me with the grim sadism of part 4 and the “How can a movie with so much spectacle be so boring?” of part 5, but BUMBLEBEE was so competently average, I even forgot that it starred Hailee Steinfeld. So I guess this one might not really up to my speed either.

  5. Tom – Thanks. I’m slightly embarrassed of how gung ho I was in those reviews, but what I was referring to was some parts where in trying to criticize the sexism of the movies I insultingly described the actresses as looking artificial. I know people have written way worse but I don’t like to think of myself as someone who ever stooped to that.

  6. I had no clue that Caple directed this one. As someone from Cleveland, I appreciated the modest charms of The Land, and I thought that Creed II was a tad underrated. It takes a ludicrous entry in the Rocky series, grounds it, gives it heart, and even lets the audience sympathize with the former villain. But a lot of people unfairly compare it to the first, which is obviously the better film. But I’d be happy if Caple continued as a journeyman director and lending his talents to different franchises or whatever it takes to make a living making motion pictures these days.

  7. It’s a shame though how common it is now for directors to be established by one small movie and then mainly be stuck in franchises forever. It used to be you worked your way up, then got the franchise, then used that to do bigger personal projects, but that’s rarely how it works anymore. I hope Caple gets to use some of his own stories, or do some small movies, unless that’s not what he’s into.

  8. We do seem to be in a weird place where even the one for them, one for me model seems to be broken. Once your film underperforms, then you don’t even get to make your cheap passion projects anymore. And forget about just making cheap indie films as a long-term career goal. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of anyone who has sustained a career making indie films that didn’t get their start in the 90s. (I’m sure they’re out there, but they don’t have the same name-brand cache as Kelly Recheirdt, Tarantino, Wes Anderson, or Jim Jarmusch).

    There are still great movies being made on all levels, so I don’t want to complain too much, but there’s no doubt the economics of filmmaking are broken.

  9. Sometimes I wonder if this current generation of directors even WANTS to do anything other than franchises. In a way it feels like indie filmmaking went the way of Hip Hop. It started out with artists having something to say (or at least knowing how to give us a fun time) and then they just got into it for the business, to establish themself as a brand and make as much money as possible.

  10. There’s a “famous” early days of the internet comment from some guy on a Transformers newsgroup or something complaining about how “lame” BEAST WARS is and saying Optimus is a “cool trukk not a stupid munky”, which has lead to the expression “Trukk not Munky” being used to ridicule what are regarded as facile dismissals of meritorious work.

    I don’t know who that guy was but he certainly wasn’t me, because my guardian Quintesson or whatever really didn’t want me to get into BEAST WARS back in the day, because in the UK it aired on the then new Channel 5 which in most of the country at the time looked like it was being transmitted through a cheese grater in a snow storm. I was really intrigued by it and thought it looked incredible from promo material, I even bought the CD-Rom game but that too didn’t work out because it kept crashing. When I finally was able to watch it, it was too late because it had aged into just about the ugliest thing i’d ever seen. It’s not just the primitive technology either, because REBOOT and even the Money For Nothing video (both from the same team) are not anywhere near as ugly, nor is the first CG Animated Series INSEKTORS, which actually still looks quite nice, I think it’s some kind of unholy combination of the limited tech, art design and concept. Put it this way, it’s more RUGRATS: SEARCH FOR REPTAR than SUPER MARIO 64. I know “my people” (ie millennial cartoon nerds) say it’s good because of stuff like character development and arcs (yawn!) but I’m pretty sure those things are present in shows that aren’t a terrible eyesore.

    So what I’m saying is… Ich Bein Truk Not Munky!!!

    Not that that’s going to stop me from watching RISE OF THE BEASTS at some point. I’m of the opinion that the Bay films improved as they went along through to AGE OF EXTINCTION, and even THE LAST KNIGHT was better than the first two. I agree with KayKay that the Chicago Battle in DARK OF THE MOON is the high point of the series (and for me Bay’s career), but AGE OF EXTINCTION also has some pretty good action, plus a better lead and a plot that is actually the kind of nonsense I want from this franchise. I liked BUMBLEBEE but was kind of hoping this would be the best of both worlds. Doesn’t sound like it’s quite made it but we’ll see.

  11. If you pointed a gun at my head and said I had to watch one of these movies, I would first question why I’m being met with such hostility but then I would tell you to put on “Revenge of the Fallen” because all of these movies (except “Bumblebee” which is semi-decent) are trash so give me the trashiest one. That movie is terrible in insane, not normal ways and it’s kind of fascinating to me.

  12. Chuck, I think that is a very valid argument.

  13. I like your logic, Chuck. That way you’d presumably be subjecting your tormenter to Recenge of the Fallen too!

  14. Say what you will about Michael Bay, but he made his movies feel like events. There’s huge spectacle, big-name actors, giant explosions going off, cities being destroyed. I thought Bumblebee worked doing a smaller story, but this is trying to do Bayhem and it just feels chintzy in comparison. The plot still doesn’t make any sense/is cliched (oh, they’re going to open a portal? Oh wow!), the humans are still annoying except now the girl isn’t hot and the boy is Iron Man, the robots get even less screentime than before, and the climax is a bunch of anonymous CGI henchmen swarming a featureless CGI landscape (both are gray). Call me crazy, but I like MCUformers even less than Bayformers. Bay going insane is just innately more human than a focus group trying to figure out how to get the most retweets for their corporate slop (“Should we mention Brooklyn a lot? Brooklyn is testing very well with urban audiences. Let’s have them talk about Brooklyn some more!”)

    The big cameo in the stinger is a business card. A business card!

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