The seventh live-action Transformers film highlights a franchise of diminishing returns

Transformers: Rise Of The Beasts

Source: Paramount Pictures

‘Transformers: Rise Of The Beasts’

Dir: Steven Caple Jr. US. 2023. 127mins

Hoping to revive the slumping franchise, Transformers: Rise Of The Beasts fails to be a sufficiently different animal to previous instalments. Creed II director Steven Caple Jr. brings a little playfulness and emotion to the series but, unfortunately, the clattering action and self-important tone remains. Anthony Ramos gives what is perhaps the best performance in the Transformers saga, as an ordinary military veteran tasked with saving the world, but that is damning with faint praise considering how Beasts maintains these films’ commitment to overinvesting in their dull CGI characters at the expense of the onscreen humans. 

While the special effects are more seamless than in earlier films, these interstellar figures still lack soul

This Paramount release arrives in UK and US theatres on June 9, following on the heels of 2017’s Transformers: The Last Knight ($605 million worldwide) and the 2018 spinoff Bumblebee ($468 million). It’s been about a decade since this franchise commanded billion-dollar grosses, and this is the first proper Transformers film not to be helmed by Michael Bay (who remains as a producer). So there is no guarantee that Beasts will drastically reverse the property’s commercial fortunes — even though the studio clearly has sequels in mind.

Set in New York in 1994, more than 10 years before the events of Bay’s first Transformers, Beasts introduces us to Noah (Ramos), who is fresh out of the military and desperate to find a job to support his mother and ill younger brother. Against his better judgement, he agrees to team up with a criminal friend to steal a car – only to realise that it is actually an Autobot, Mirage (voiced by Pete Davidson), who is working with Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen) in search of the Transwarp Key, which can help them return to their home far across the galaxy. But a group of evil Terrorcons, led by the ruthless Scourge (Peter Dinklage), want the Key for themselves so that they can summon their master, the giant planet-eating Unicron (Colman Domingo), to feast on Earth. 

For longtime fans, this latest chapter features familiar faces Optimus Prime and Bumblebee, but many of the supporting players, both machine and human, are new — as are the villains. (There’s even a period-specific joke at the expense of a former franchise star who, back in the early 1990s, was just a rapper.) Caple initially imbues the proceedings with a hip, appealing vibe, thanks in large part to Ramos’ funny, sympathetic Noah who, like previous human characters, cannot believe he has found himself in a world of vehicles that transform into hulking robots. But the award-winning Hamilton actor exudes such self-effacing charm that the tired set-up feels somewhat fresh.

He is joined by Dominique Fishback, who plays Elena, a brainy museum intern fascinated by archaeology and ancient artefacts. She stumbles upon the Transwarp Key, bringing the Autobots, Terrorcons and Noah into her orbit. Like Ramos, Fishback is so charismatic and grounded that, in its opening reels, Beasts promises to be a modestly-scaled antidote to Bay’s increasingly impersonal spectacles, drawing comparisons to Travis Knight’s similarly lighthearted and touching Bumblebee.

Soon, though, the Transformers take over the story and, as has too often been the case in this franchise (including Bumblebee, this is the seventh live-action film in the series), Beasts gets bogged down in the Autobots’ lumbering heroics. As per norm, one Autobot serves as strained comic relief — Davidson’s smart-aleck Mirage — while Optimus Prime delivers another collection of pompous proclamations and semi-inspiring speeches. (Remarkably, Cullen has been voicing the character for nearly 40 years, starting with the American animated kids’ series.) This sequel also unveils another new group of Transformers, called the Maximals, who are robot animals sworn to protect planets from Unicron. But while the special effects are more seamless than in earlier films, allowing the Transformers to be more expressive, these interstellar figures still lack soul. Consequently, the life-or-death stakes always feel artificial, the predictable suspense around whether certain Autobots will sacrifice themselves for the greater good falling flat. 

As the focus turns to the robots, Ramos and Fishback get pushed to the margins. Ramos acquits himself better simply because Noah has more of an arc — this lone wolf will learn the importance of working with a team — which lends the actor’s performance some emotional underpinning. But where the screenplay (credited to five writers) starts out trying to give the human characters depth, Beasts quickly devolves into yet another histrionic battle between good and evil.

Also disappointingly, Caple moves the action to Peru in the second half, which deprives the film of its fun evoking of early-’90s New York, especially in its sharp use of East Coast rap classics of the period. In terms of set pieces, Beasts peaks early with a buzzy car chase across the city but, inevitably, we are inundated with endless scenes of robots socking other robots. It’s all far too mechanical.  

Production companies: Tom DeSanto/Don Murphy Productions, di Bonaventura Pictures, Bay Films

Worldwide distribution: Paramount Pictures

Producers: Lorenzo di Bonaventura, Don Murphy, Tom DeSanto, Michael Bay, Mark Vahradian, Duncan Henderson 

Screenplay: Joby Harold, Darnell Metayer, Josh Peters, Erich Hoeber, Jon Hoeber, from a story by Joby Harold

Cinematography: Enrique Chediak

Production design: Sean Haworth

Editing: Joel Negron, William Goldenberg

Music: Jongnic Bontemps

Main cast: Anthony Ramos, Dominique Fishback, Luna Lauren Velez