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Transformers: Rise of the Beasts ★★★



Director: Steven Caple Jr.

Cast: Anthony Ramos, Dominique Fishback, Ron Pearlman, Michelle Yeoh, Pete Davidson

Released: 8th June 2023

“‘Til all are one”, no more: the mainline Transformers series, previously the lovechild of Michael Bay’s hyperkinetic photography and Lorenzo di Bonaventura’s franchise-making efforts, now has new blood at the helm. What once was an archetype of transgressively vulgar excess and bombastic spectacle has finally been consumed by the Hollywood blockbuster machine, for better or worse. Of course, the result is as mixed as its origins: trapped between its chaotic past and the grey post-MCU visual palette, the latest effort in this tumultuous franchise is the prime example of safe blockbuster filmmaking that prioritizes “fans” over innovation.

To some extent, this take on the Rise of the Beasts arc feels like a retread of Bay’s original take on the Hasbro toy line: swap Shia Labeouf’s dorky teenager for a struggling ex-military NY native (Anthony Ramos, looking like he stepped straight from the set of In the Heights), sprinkle a few 90s audiovisual cues to set the scene, and add Pete Davidson’s wisecracking Mirage as this film’s bridge between the alien Autobots and perpetually confused humans. Surprisingly, the funky setup in the first half works wonders alongside the steadily ensuing globe-trotting havoc, reminding that not all CGI-heavy blockbusters require constant callbacks to get the audience engaged with its narrative.

In an effort to distinguish itself from Bay’s meticulous chaos, Steven Caple Jr. chose a muted look to the film: washed-out hues go hand-in-hand with the G1 design first introduced in the excellent Bumblebee (2018), although one could also attribute that factor to the influence of Endgame-like visuals that plague the tentpoles of today. It feels at once both carefully manufactured and confused, aiming to please the fans of Bayhem and the hardcore Hasbro loyalists who’ve always wished for a “canon-appropriate” rendition of their favourite characters. By attempting to sit on both chairs at once, Rise of the Beasts ends up feeling like yet another studio-mandated affair, even if Caple Jr.’s dedication to shooting on location is an admirable decision for the age of faux-backdrops à la “the Volume”.

Rise of the Beasts is at its best when Caple Jr. prioritizes uncontrolled pandemonium over the contradictory attempts at spatial continuity, letting his imagination run wild with increasingly anarchic set pieces. The finale, while clearly influenced by the Russo Brothers’ school of filmmaking, is an example of a director who tries to utilize the wide array of characters at hand to deliver a bombastic culmination to a long-running conflict. It doesn’t work as well as Michael Bay’s sun-kissed formal ingenuity seen in the final battle of The Last Knight, but within the boundaries of oil-splashing silliness, Caple Jr.’s film manages to stay true to its LL Cool J-blasting aspirations.

The mainline Transformers films have always strived to deliver an adrenaline shot to the system, something even the most desensitized viewer would have a reaction to – be it pure hatred or ecstatic cheering. With Rise of the Beasts, the series has finally reached the point where its ambitions lie in modest, inoffensive crowd-pleasing: between the overt reverence for G1 toy models and discordant connections to other Hasbro franchises, there’s a strong sense of corporate oversight coming in the way of creativity and formal experimentation. It’s a fun time at the movies, albeit one that’s practically indistinguishable from the film playing next door.

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