‘Transformers: Rise of the Beasts’ Review: Here Come the Grease Monkeys

Things start out fun with this prequel, but frantic plot mechanics might steer your interest into a ditch.

By Amy Nicholson

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No franchise asks more — and less — from its audience than “Transformers.” The spectacle-first, logic-second series has given us six films to adjust to Optimus Prime, a semi-truck who whip-whop-whoomps into a humanoid with windshield wipers that tickle his nipples. “Transformers: Rise of the Beasts,” a goofy seventh installment that rattles along well enough until the wheels fall off, ballyhoos an evolution: a biomechanical gorilla who calls himself Optimus Primal. Optimus Primate would have been too sensible. And before you ask, the movie offers no explanation why a bionic biped would bother shape-shifting into another bionic biped. Silly mammal — that’s not the point.

In fairness, these metaphysical questions were explored in the futuristic and bizarrely engaging ’90s cartoon “Beast Wars: Transformers” and its spinoff “Beast Machines: Transformers,” which felt like sipping on a spiked juice box in an ashram. When that Optimus Primal was asked if he was robot or animal, he mystically intoned, “Both … and neither. The key is finding the balance within yourself. Only then can you truly say, ‘I am transformed.’”

But also in fairness, those shows and this movie share zero DNA. “I don’t get ‘Beast Wars,’” Lorenzo di Bonaventura, one of this film’s producers, once said. Instead, he and the director Steven Caple Jr. have rewound the clock to 1994 for yet another demolition derby. Once the nostalgic touchstones have been inlaid — one-strap overalls, O.J. Simpson and a killer classic hip-hop soundtrack — Optimuses Prime and Primal (voiced by Peter Cullen and Ron Perlman) team up to combat a planet-gobbler (Colman Domingo) and his minion, Scourge (Peter Dinklage), whose thorax throbs angrily like someone installed a cigarette lighter on his lungs.

Along for the ride are two Homo sapiens from Brooklyn: Dominique Fishback as Elena, a museum intern, and Anthony Ramos as Noah, an electronics whiz. The charismatic actors struggle, through no fault of their own, to share scenes with sentient fenders. It doesn’t help that neither character’s behavior quite passes the Turing test. Elena’s job duties range from authenticating rare da Vincis to having her boss’s clothes pressed; Noah burns scrambled eggs while soldering a cable box. Of the dozen-plus additional creatures crammed onscreen, the only others who register are a motor-mouthed Porsche named Mirage (Pete Davidson), an armored falcon (Michelle Yeoh), and an eroticized motorcycle (Liza Koshy) introduced rump-first in a nod to the director of the first five films, Michael Bay, who sure loved to linger on a lady’s chassis.

Things start out fun, with some clever inversions. Noah steals Mirage and is horrified to realize that the car has, in turn, stolen him. The humans do a little shape-shifting themselves, through costumes and stolen IDs. And Noah is comically pained each time he has to explain that he’s working with alien automobiles to prevent Armageddon. Then the frantic go-here, get-the-gizmo story mechanics steer our interest into a ditch.

The plot is a bust. Five credited screenwriters and not one compelling stake. How pointless is it to threaten main characters — let alone Earth — in a prequel? Worse, at the climax, gray machines slug it out on gray terrain under a gray sky. It’s as visually pulse-pounding as thumbtacks on a driveway, and an invitation to close one’s eyes and concentrate on the A.S.M.R. pleasure of shuddering steel. When that gets old, at least there’s solace in the premise, however slapdash its execution. The very existence of a technorganic ape is evidence that computer-generated blockbusters know they still need a beating heart.

Transformers: Rise of the Beasts
Rated PG-13 for language and the sci-fi violence of robots ripping out each other’s spines. Running time: 1 hour 57 minutes. In theaters.

Transformers: Rise of the Beasts

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