Michael Bay’s high-octane, spatially illegible “Transformers” series is back for more fun-filled confusion.
It’s been exactly ten years since Michael Bay kicked off the “Transformers” franchise. In that time the action-packed director has turned seemingly innocuous childhood nostalgia into a worldwide phenomenon. Armed with nothing more than a curt television run and a collection of Hasbro toys, Bay was able to kindle that small esoteric fire into a blazing pop culture inferno. With 3.7 billion dollars in the bank and a bevy of sequels, spin-offs and tie-ins set to be released in the future, the “Transformers” series has become synonymous with summer blockbusters and will continue to be so.
It’s quite a feat and one that will surely propel Bay further into the annals of cinematic hyperbole. While films like “Bad Boys,” “The Rock” and “Armageddon” may have ushered in Bay’s distinctive directorial style, it is the “Transformers” series that truly showcases his steroid-induced cinematic frenzy. But it appears that Bay has finally had enough, coming to the realization that perhaps five movies is a bit too much. From Samsung press conference meltdowns to having to defend Nazi iconography in the newest film, Bay has had his fair share of troublesome moments while working on the franchise. But beyond that, the series has been critically waning with each passing film. Sure, it may have had a few Oscar nominations along the way, but they were all related to the special effects field, which is quite frankly one of the only reasons anyone even buys tickets to Bay’s movies.
But one already knows that going into the his latest flick, “Transformers: The Last Knight.” In a plot similar to this summer’s “The Fate of the Furious,” our mainstay protagonist Optimus Prime has turned into a baddie, hunting the very people he swore to protect (but don’t worry, it’s not for long). Much like Vin Diesel’s character in “Furious,” Prime is corrupted by a destructive lady (why do these female antagonists always don cornrows?) to do her bidding. Before long Prime, along with every other Transformer, is searching for an ancient relic that dates to the days of King Arthur, one that could restore Cybertron while also destroying Earth.
It’s a doozy of a plot, one that certainly is not easy to follow and at times resembles something along the lines of “National Treasure”–“Look! the ship’s current location is conveniently located in the seam of some old dusty scroll! Of course!” It’s pedantic, absurd and laugh-out-loud outrageous at times but that’s to be expected. After all, this is a Michael Bay movie. There is no hope for high art here, no expectation of long shots or yearning for profound moments of dialogue. We are here for one thing and one thing only: illogical fun. There’s a reason that film scholar Lorrie Palmer says that Bay and his contemporaries like Jerry Bruckheimer and Tony Scott have a “bombastic aesthetic” that “decenters spatial legibility.” It’s to make for a visceral experience in which one need not care for what is happening or why it is happening. All one has to care about is the visual spectacle that is being provided.
Critics and fans who equate “Transformers: The Last Knight” to kitsch do not realize that Bay did not set out to make a thought-provoking film. He clearly already did that with “Pain and Gain” (*snicker*). But in all seriousness, while “Transformers: The Last Knight” does have a myriad of issues that range from narrative incoherence to one-dimensional characterizations, it is still an an entertaining popcorn flick. Unfortunately, Michael Bay’s adoration for slow-motion sequences and jump cuts makes for an unintelligible experience. It’s as if Bay saw Godard’s jump cut and decided to take out even more frames, creating an effect that seldom sutures anything coherently together.
Nonetheless, one can find a few nodes of hope here and there. For one, it was pleasantly surprising to see the self-reflexive moments in which Bay realizes the inane plot he is conjuring. There is a sense of self-consciousness to the film that is often soothing after having sat through a slew of mind-numbingly disjointed sub-narratives that are thrown in at a drop of a hat. Whether it is playing with the audience’s expectations of Bay-centric epic music (through the use of diegetic versus nondiegetic music) or having Bumblebee throw out one-liners from famous films, “Transformers: The Last Knight” can at times be postmodern. Sadly, the film forgets this inkling of creativity and returns to its outrageously asinine somberness and visualized confusion.
Which again, is to be expected. But maybe that expectation for audiences to roll their eyes so much that it hurts has grown thin. After all, this film signals the end of the Michael Bay “Transformers” rollercoaster ride. It’s a bittersweet moment. On the one hand, fans who have grown to love Bay’s penchant for gratuitous explosions, fast-cuts and over-the-top stylizations will be sad to see the director go. But on the other, there is a sense of relief as perhaps the series will now have the potential to breathe new life thanks to Travis Knight (“Kubo and the Two Strings”) taking over the director’s chair in the first spin-off based on Bumblebee, a popular character in the franchise. Only time will tell if the “Transformers” will have a renaissance moment. In any case, it appears that there will be “Transformers” galore for years to come.
“Transformers: The Last Knight” hits theaters everywhere June 21.