Let’s face facts. The bar of quality for Transformers movies isn’t very high. Michael Bay’s 2007 original is OK and 2018’s Bumblebee is solid, but in the 11 years between those, films like Revenge of the Fallen, The Last Knight, and the rest are all varying levels of crap. Five years after the last movie, coming back to the world of robots in disguise, the bar is basically “Please don’t suck.” And we’re happy to report that Transformers: Rise of the Beasts does not suck. It’s actually quite entertaining, especially for a Transformers movie.
Optimus Primal and Optimus Prime Chilling in Times Square
Like most Transformers movies, though, it is a tad confusing to describe. For example, the main drive of Rise of the Beasts’ story is a device called the Trans Warp Key, a time and space-traveling gizmo that is under the protection of robot animal transformers called Maximals. The Key is also desired by Unicron, a planet-eating super being who, in the intro, has sent his minions, led by a Terricon transformer called Scourge, after it. An epic battle ensues and the Maximals send the Key off to hide on a planet called Earth.
Centuries later, the year is 1994, setting the events in this film after 1987’s Bumblebee and before 2007’s Transformers. Here we meet Noah Diaz (Anthony Ramos), a Brooklyn-based military veteran who is struggling to provide for his mom and sick younger brother. When all his legitimate job prospects seem to fail, he’s forced to steal a very slick-looking Porsche, which just so happens to be a Transformer. As that’s happening, a museum researcher named Elena Wallace (Dominique Fishback) stumbles upon the Trans Wrap Key and, without realizing it, activates Transformers both good and bad in a race to get the Key. That includes the Porsche Noah becomes trapped in, revealed to be Mirage, voiced by Pete Davidson.
Ramos and Fishback exploring. And what’s that on his hand?Image: Paramount
One of the best things Rise of the Beasts has going for it is the way the human characters feel fairly well-integrated into the story. We spend time with them without the giant robots to give us a sense of their hopes, dreams, and humanity before they’re sucked up into the grand adventure, and that throughline gives the whole film a crucial beating heart. Noah’s relationship with his brother in particular (played by Dean Scott Vazquez) is a cornerstone of the movie and is weaved into Noah’s interactions with Mirage, Elena, and even Optimus Prime, when he comes out of hiding to help protect the Key from Unicron and Scourge.
Prime is also a very strong component of Rise of the Beasts. He’s still very much the leader we know and love from the Transformers movies, shows, and more, but he’s actually given an arc this time around. Because he was in hiding, because he was so recently forced to leave his home (as seen in Bumblebee), this is a Prime that doesn’t care about Earth and humans. He only cares about his people. And that gives the character places to go that the other Transformers films have never been able to, or cared to, explore.
If you like Arcee from the 1986 film, Rise of the Beasts has some surprises for you.Image: Paramount
Where Transformers: Rise of the Beasts falters a bit is in making that story feel wholly cohesive. The second act, which takes place in Peru, feels pointless and repetitive, dialing down the excitement and pacing that’s earned in the first half. After introducing several new characters and going on what ends up being an almost pointless quest, you can almost feel the film beginning to teeter. Thankfully, just as things have gotten stale, the third act kicks in, and it’s an absolute blast, featuring at least two big surprise cheer moments that make you forget about the unease that came before.
What’s also interesting about Rise of the Beasts is that its 1994 setting proves both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, director Steven Caple Jr. drowns the film with iconic 1990s hip hop: Notorious B.I.G., L.L. Cool J, Nas, you name it and it’s probably in here. That, along with the costumes, technology, and dialogue, give the movie a nostalgic, retro-cool feel that comes across in almost every scene.
However, being beholden to the canon of all the other movies holds things back. In terms of Autobots, we get favorites like Optimus Prime and Bumblebee, but everyone else has to be new, and only a few of them really get anything of note to do. One character who does is Mirage, for example, and he’s funny and heartfelt but he’s so over-the-top Pete Davidson, it can border on excessive. Then there are the Maximals, who expand the story’s timeline in a few interesting ways, but the fact they are beasts and have been on Earth for so long is more or less an afterthought. It doesn’t really matter at all that they are Maximals. It’s just a new group to mine characters from that haven’t been used in the films yet so it all fits.
For the villains, there are no Decepticons this time around, just Terricons, and the significance of that is never quite clear. Sure, they’re formidable, but how or why are they different? Even with the ultimate baddie being the legendary Transformers character Unicron, you never get to see him in full body, nor feel the full scope of his grand, evil plan. Overall, you can’t help but think all of this feels a little restrained when compared to the previous Transformers films (besides Bumblebee, which was even smaller). Like it’s purposefully holding things back every so slightly because it’s trapped in this odd, in-between time.
You honestly don’t get much more Unicron than this. Image: Paramount
Then again, maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe by dialing things back just a few degrees, the audience can concentrate more on the characters and their relationships. Because, in the end, that’s what you leave Rise of the Beasts with. Excitement and pride about what the characters are able to achieve together, where they end up, and what comes next. Because— this is important too—the movie ends on a very, very, very exciting note. One that elevates a movie that was already pretty good, and gives it one extra boost as you exit the theater.
If you’re a fan of Transformers, you are going to like Rise of the Beasts. It’s got everything that makes these movies worth watching and more. If you don’t like Transformers, there are certainly weaknesses to focus on, but the film’s earnestness and passion for its characters attempts to rise above that. Along with a lot of super fun action, of course, which is always good. Either way, it’s just nice to have another Transformers movie that fans can point at and say “Look, it’s possible to do something of merit with these characters,” because Rise of the Beasts is definitely that.
Transformers: Rise of the Beasts opens June 9.
Want more io9 news? Check out when to expect the latest Marvel, Star Wars, and Star Trek releases, what’s next for the DC Universe on film and TV, and everything you need to know about the future of Doctor Who.