It’s noteworthy that while Michael Bay’s Transformers series has never been well received critically, it has continuously made an exorbitant amount of money at the box-office in both domestic and international markets. They’re loud, dumb and increasingly overblown with little regard for the intricacies of continuity or even the original source material. For a series based on such an overtly commercial property, they have in some way endured through renditions despite the nihilistic outlook and disinterest of Bay as a filmmaker and thus far soul author of these cinematic adaptations, with absolutely no intent on slowing down after the creation of the now corporately mandated writers room that has been assembled for the series’ foreseeable future.
So it must come as something of a shock or mild surprise to discover that Transformers: The Last Knight – supposedly Bay’s final instalment in the director’s chair – is quite possibly the best of these since the first film nearly a decade ago. The reasons for this marginal change in quality come down to a newfound sense of confidence on the part of the writers and filmmaker, leaving this feeling like the most self-assured and comfortably placed film in the canon to date.
Canon being the operative word here when regarding the actual narrative of The Last Knight, which spends a vast majority of its runtime almost entirely focused on expositional dialogues and flashbacks to previously unseen and unmentioned periods of ancient human history in which the Transformer species has been a near constant and godlike presence hidden in plain sight. The ramifications and reasoning behind most of these revelations are some of the most mind-blowingly silly, insanely rigorous pieces of alternate history hogwash ever written in a major blockbuster.
Be it through a massive sense of absurdist irony, the film might as well be an outright comedy in terms of its utterly bonkers and increasingly ludicrous plot points and narrative detours. This is without even mentioning some of dialogue exchanges, between humans and Transformers, which feel like no shits were given at any point during the writing process beyond laying down the lore and making sure the film sticks to its (unexpectedly) coherent structure of events.
But the ‘no shits’ lord and king at the heart of the film is Sir Anthony Hopkins, who plays a historian dedicated to an age old secret society called the ‘Witwiccans’ (seriously) formed from the remnants of the Knights of the Round Table (who in this universe actually existed), and is unquestionable the most enjoyable presence in the entire movie. To see a veteran like Hopkins chewing the set dressing and reading through the screenplays drivel through snarling spittle and unhealthy gravitas is so damn entertaining it has to be seen to be believed.
Despite these ‘so bad its good’ qualities though, this really does feel assertive in its identity regarding spectacle and the intent of Bay as a visionary auteur – and Bay has never held such strong sway over a blockbuster until now. Although its story still largely exists for the purpose of producing sequences for the second unit teams, it feels like Bay is experimenting with the medium at this point through the use of digital cameras and some of ILM’s most impressive work on display. Though his use of continuously changing lenses and aspect ratios between shots and frames in single scenes feels like an aggressive bombardment of inconsistency.
This is a film that is nothing but climax at every single moment regardless of context, and only gets bigger and more visually spectacular as it goes on. Although it takes a while to get there through the film’s sadly less arresting first act, it does allow us introductions to our new characters even if the editing between these occasionally arbitrary figures is way too busy to start with. The new include Isabela Moner’s streetwise mechanic tomboy is a mixed bag of typically leery treatment at times, but is played well enough by the newcomer. Wahlberg is still as super sincere as he was in the last one but he still fits the role of the lead well, as does a turn from Laura Haddock as an Oxford Professor who bares less of the brunt of Bay’s wary tendencies with female women despite looking at all times like a glamour model in dress up.
But this is a series motivated by selling tickets to its technical exhibition, and while the cutting of the action scenes are still messy it’s more condensed than before, culminating in an admittedly impressive finale set piece display in which entire planets collide as seen from the god’s eye of Bay’s lingering IMAX frames, and planes and bodies fly through the air like a garish ballet of destruction.
This is not a great film, in many ways its garbage, but it’s the kind of garbage that has taken years to distil down to a level where it works. What was bad before (the drama, conflict and tendencies for characterisation) is still bad here but less so, and the attempted focus on storytelling here actually allows it to flow in a way the series has lacked since the comparatively centred original. Bay has left this series on the loudest, largest note he could manage, and this could be looked back on as the end of an era for Hollywood blockbusters helmed with such fragrant authorship.