The Transformers film series is something akin to my own personal cinematic kryptonite. I saw T1 in the cinema and hated it, watched T2 in a friend’s house and hated it, and made it maybe halfway through a solo viewing of T3 before I stopped because I absolutely HATED it. Even the promise of Robo-Dinosaurs going head to head with Marky Mark (he of The Funky Bunch fame) couldn’t draw me to watch the fourth entry in the series.
And so it was with trepidation that I agreed to watch half an hour of preview footage of the upcoming fifth chapter of the Transformers story, entitled ‘The Last Knight’. I made my way in slowly, resigned to my hopefully brief misery, shuffling past the posters of Optimus Prime wielding a sword against a three headed mecha hydra.
Optimus Prime. Wielding a sword. A three headed mecha hydra.
That sounds kind of badass? Almost like some kind of Robo Skyrim? I could get on board with that.
Another cautionary glance shows that the Transformer designs appear to have been cleaned up ever so slightly. A personal pet peeve of mine was the over complex, cold, jumbled-looking designs of the previous films, and while that description isn’t any less fitting, there appeared to be a small improvement, and frankly, I’ll take anything.
On our way into the screen, we’re given a free t-shirt, a poster, and a small toy transformer. Not one of the major ones, mind, there was no Starscream or Bumblebee toys to be seen here. In fact, I can’t quite remember the name of the one I chose and it’s here in the room with me. Bull-something. I dunno.
But hey, free things are good. If nothing else, I’m a step closer to giving this preview a fair shot.
I chose my seat front and centre, and after a brief wait, we’re shown an intro by Michael Bay. Now, I don’t like Michael Bay’s films. The Rock was good, and I wouldn’t turn off either Bad Boy flicks if they happened to be on, but for the most part they’re pretty bad in my opinion.
That said, as Bay gives us some background on The Last Knight, I’m kind of compelled. He has passion for his work, he has an admittedly keen eye for action visuals, and while I don’t personally like his style, he undoubtedly does have one, which is more than can be said for some blockbuster directors.
When he tells us that T5 is the first film to be shot entirely in IMAX 3D, I’m somewhat impressed. Sadly, he then tells us that the preview won’t be in 3D as its not quite ready, and the some of the effects in the film are placeholder. Bummer. Oh well. Next, he tells us this is his last Transformers film (heard that before) and that his writing team have come up with fourteen further ideas for the franchise, news which sends shivers running down my spine in spite of my attempts to keep an open mind.
We then segue into… another intro from Bay, shot on a camera phone this time. I don’t think anything new was said but it was brief, and in short order we finally get eyes on some footage.
Straight away, we’re dropped into the midst of a Middle Age battlefield. With horses and archers and flaming catapults. The whole Game of Thrones shebang, and not a shape shifting lorry in sight.
Meanwhile, a row of knights take everything in and complain to King Arthur about the absence of one Merlin. Which makes them the Knights of the Round Table which wasn’t what I expected, but it’s an interesting idea. The minimal dialogue is stilted and cheesy, and while that sounds like criticism, it’s actually a step up from offensively awful. We then get a shot of Merlin taking a huge slug of some unnamed alcohol, which is funny I guess.
After some quick cuts of similar footage and a glimpse of the hydra-bot, and Optimus floating in space for some reason, we move forwards in time to the familiar present day setting, where four young boys are wandering about a destroyed stadium, referred to as a Transformer Graveyard. The nerdy kid of the group tries to convince the others they shouldn’t be there, but he’s talked down by the rest.
Bad move, as they’re attacked by walker-style sentry machines.
Luckily, they stumble across Izabella, a fifteen year old girl fighting against the Decepticons, who killed her parents, and literally the only truly likeable character on screen at any point. It was here that things really fell apart for me, and it became harder and harder for me to keep an open mind.
Together, they run away from the sentries and are saved by Canopy, her guardian Autobot, who dies literally seconds later. This wouldn’t be a big deal except, while this happens, Whalberg’s character (Cade?) shows up, saves everybody, and forces Izabella leave Canopy behind.
It’s played out as a hugely emotional scene, the problem with that being that we have literally just met him. In addition, as this happens the four boys get into Cade’s truck and try to get away. The truck won’t start, but luckily the Hispanic kid says he’ll just hotwire it, because its not a Transformers film without some vague racism.
They escape to Cade’s scrap yard, or at least, Cade and Izabella do, because the young boys are never seen again. Maybe they did escape in the hotwired car… At the scrap yard, we meet Cade’s assistant, an anxious and slightly hysterical pushover who complains about ‘leaving the hood for this’. I don’t know what Cade’s character was like in T4, but the way he treats his assistant makes him look like a complete jerk.
There’s a few conversations, plus a robot T-Rex acting like a puppy, before they’re attacked and have to escape some drones. From here they flit about from location to location incoherently, meeting new and returning characters here and there. I genuinely don’t know who’s good and bad here. One bot is a cross between C3PO and Ultron, and in one scene he appears to attack Cade, but in the next he’s cracking bad jokes and playing a church organ.
The attempts at comedy range from unfunny to cringeworthy. Anthony Hopkins appears as a rambling old man, the last of a noble ancient order, who also casually refers to things as ‘dude’ and ‘bitchin’. The new love interest, Vivian, gets remarks like stripper dress thrown at her. An Autobot called Hot Rod talks in a stereotypical French accent for no apparent reason (“Je m’apelle Het Red”).
Cuts begin to happen quicker, showing flashes of key moments probably intended to get the audience hyped up but instead spoiling anything interesting, like The Knights of the Round Table backed by Autobot Knights, the first kiss between Marky Mark and Vivian, and what appears to be a fight between Bumblebee and Optimus.
Now, everything should be taken with a grain of salt. This is early footage taken out of context, and so coherency isn’t the main goal, and nobody is going to a Michael Bay film for fine art. In addition, the opening battle was very interesting, and from what I saw Isabela Moner (who played… Izabella. Very creative) put in a strong performance, and there was a shot of Autobots fighting Nazis which is an incredible premise. More importantly, the majority of the crowd appeared to be enjoying the footage, so it’s possible I wasn’t giving it a fair shot.
That said, in my opinion, most of the preview footage was a distillation of everything wrong with Bay’s work. Dialogue hit new lows for the franchise, which is saying something. The comedy was absolutely abysmal, although the teens with the hyena laughs to my right didn’t think so.
With the exception of Izabella, who kind of disappears after a point, characters are flat at best and awful at worst. Canopy had a great design, only to be unceremoniously killed off in short order. Cade is completely unlikeable, and I found myself hoping he died at some point to move more focus onto Izabella and Vivian, but I suppose that was to much to wish for in a preview.
More troubling was aspects, such as the four kids who exist only to be stereotypes, like the example given above, as well as a brief scene where the African American kid says they don’t need to worry about any transformers and then mimes firing a gun (full disclosure, I missed any context because the two teenagers beside me were laughing hysterically). Izabella isn’t safe from it either, as Cade refers to her as ‘little J Lo’ at one point.
Similarly problematic was the uncomfortable shot where Izabella, leading the four boys, runs towards camera in a low cut top, which made for awkward viewing considering the actress is fifteen. It may be an anomaly, but it still feels very disingenuous, and even a little creepy, to base some of the marketing around the tagline ‘Fight Like A Girl’ if she’s just going to be treated as an underage Megan Fox.
After the preview, we were invited to check our seats and any empty seats for tickets to the first IMAX screening of Transformers 5 in June. I checked my seat and found nothing, but frankly, I don’t think I’d have used them. It had the chance to Transform the franchise from a mess into something salvageable, but after a certain amount of early promise, The Last Knight drifted backwards, falling into the same traps and making the same mistakes as every other film in the franchise, failing to live up to the scraps of potential.
Maybe the preview didn’t do it justice, but honestly, I don’t think it even deserves the benefit of the doubt.