directed by Michael Bay
screenplay by Art Marcum, Matt Holloway, Ken Nolan
story by Akiva Goldsman, Art Marcum, Matt Holloway, Ken Nolan
acted by Mark Wahlberg, Laura Haddock, Anthony Hopkins, Josh Duhamel, Jerrod Carmichael, Isabela Moner, Santiago Cabrera, John Turturro, Stanley Tucci; Transformer characters voiced by Peter Cullen, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi
presented by Paramount Pictures in association with Hasbro
rated PG-13 for violence and intense sequences of sci-fi action, language, and some innuendo
running time: 149 minutes
by Bill Stamets
Pop culture cosmology lifts Arthurian myth to embroider backstory in “Transformers: The Last Knight.” The fifth film of a toy-based franchise directed by Michael Bay lobs summer action spectacle. The CGI chaos is as meticulously crafted as ever. Bay can stupefy almost sublimely. Enabled by six editors, this hands-on showman evokes a three-eyed Shiva, the Hindu god known as a `transformer’ depicted with up to ten arms.
Since the 2007 debut of “Transformers” I have ogled Bay’s cinema-of-attractions set pieces. Futurist-Vorticist detailing of metallic behemoths– transforming in a matter of seconds into cars, trucks, motorcycles, helicopters, jets, submarines, boomboxes, laptops, flatscreen televisions, campus hotties, dinosaurs and fire-breathing dragons– startles the eye.
Eardrums endure collateral damage. So do Chicago, Shanghai and other unlucky terrestrial locales where factions of “intelligent mechanical beings” from the civil war-ravaged planet Cybertron continue their eons-old “blood feud.” A 2007 tagline apprised us: “Their war. Our world.”
Autobots “fought for freedom” and Decepticons “dreamt of tyranny,” narrated Optimus Prime (voiced by Peter Cullen) in the third film. He– all of his kind are gendered as male– is the key recurring Autobot (Autonomous Robotic Organism). In 2017 he will face a crisis of self-knowing by encountering his creator.
Hasbro Industries imported Transformer toys from Japan in 1984, four months after Tonka Corp. began distributing a similar GoBots toyline. (Hasbro Industries, renamed Hasbro, Inc., bought Tonka in 1991.) Hasbro restyled its G.I. Joe male action figure as “G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero,” a counter-terrorist taking on the international evildoers of Cobra Command in 1982. A script is in the works to combine G.I. Joe and the Transformers onscreen.
The ad campaign from ten years ago hyped: “[director/ executive producer] Michael Bay (Armageddon) and [executive producer] Steven Spielberg (War of the Worlds) change the history of motion pictures with their stunning and revolutionary visualization!”
Bay’s battles and chases are inventive, but what comes in between is not. Seven writers fill the 149 minutes of “Transformers: The Last Knight” with intrepid outliers unearthing an outlandish truth underlying a debunked myth, and save Earth from annihilation by aliens. Mostly set in contemporary England– Stonehenge and 10 Downing Street are among shooting locations– Bay’s latest conjures up a premodern pact and prophecy.
As in “Prometheus” and “The X-Files” evidence emerges of primordial alien arrivals. We might be latecomers to Earth. The very end of the fifth film hints the sixth will elaborate. This one may be the last Transformers for Bay, who says he is handing over directing duty to others. Three months ago he told MTV News that 14 more Transformers films are outlined.
“Transformers: The Last Knight” opens amidst the CGI ruins of Soldier Field in Chicago. A dying Autobot knight– who came from the planet Cybertron at least 1600 years ago– hands a Cybertronian-etched talisman to a Texas inventor running a Badlands junkyard to hide illegal aliens from the private paramilitary Transformers Reaction Force. Sector Seven– “a special access division of the Government, convened in secret under President Hoover”– no longer monitors terrestrial Transformers.
As the title’s “Last Knight” Mark Wahlberg reprises his role as Cade Yeager from the fourth film, “Transformers: Age of Extinction.” Except now this Texan on the run is like a station manager on an underground railroad for his Autobot buddies. The abolitionist reference is hardly farfetched. Look for a photograph of Harriet Tubman later on. The first three films featured Shia LaBeouf playing the lead befriender of the Autobots. We followed his character Sam Witwicky graduate from high school, go to college and get his first job. U.S. President Barack Obama awarded him a medal for his heroism.
Yeager, a widower with a daughter in college, is paired in the 2017 iteration with Vivian Wembley (Laura Haddock), an Oxford University professor of English history. We first meet her playing polo. A teammate taunts her for being “single.” In her next scene she instructs Puffy and other kids on a London museum tour that all those Arthur, Lancelot, Merlin and Percival legends are “horse shit.” Imagine her shock upon discovering she shares DNA with one of them.
“You don’t need to save the world. You need a frigging’ girlfriend,” advises Yeager’s daughter in a phone call cut short to foil U.S. government intel gatherers.
Wembley and Yeager are brought together by Sir Edmund Burton (Anthony Hopkins), “the last of the Order of the Witwiccans.” Burton imparts the inside story of this “secret society” founded “to protect the secret history of Transformers here on Earth.” The 40-generation roster includes Leonardo Da Vinci, William Shakespeare, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Catherine the Great, Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Orville and Wilbur Wright, Albert Einstein, Nikola Tesla, Stephen Hawking and even Sam Witwicky.
“Your father was a member,” Burton informs Wembley. She learns Merlin was real. We saw him ourselves back in the opening scene: “England– The Dark Ages.” Merlin (Stanley Tucci) is drunk and late for a battle where Arthur (Liam Garrigan) and his army are “outnumbered, a hundred to one.” Merlin begs for military magic from Transformers hiding in a local cavern. They deploy a three-headed dragon to win the day. Debunker of legends of fire-breathers, Wembley always thought Arthur’s catapults hurled fireballs at Saxon invaders. Paramount Pictures lobs CGI fireballs through the opening credits at the audience.
Merlin also gets a secret super powerful staff from the Transformers. Only he or an heir can wield it. In the right hands it will save the world someday. “You, Miss Vivian, are Merlin’s last descendant here on Earth and as such you are our last hope,” states Burton. And right there, on the very last page of volume 40 of the dusty tome charting Merlin’s family tree, there’s an irrefutable 8×10 photo of Vivian Wembley. Only her grasp can activate the long-lost staff. She and the Yank are now yoked as Earth’s co-saviors.
Transformers screen characters– human and alien– are never scripted as lovingly as the special effects and soundtrack are composed. Screwball dialogue between Yeager and Wembley is on the schoolyard level. She orders: “You American man, shut it.” In a later scene he comes back with: “You, English lady, shut it.” They spar over mishearing “chaste” as “chased.” Wince when you hear Sir Anthony Hopkins use “dude” and “dickhead.” His human-sized robo-butler Cogman (voiced by Jim Carter) cracks, “No shit, Sherlock.”
It’s as if the writers excuse their lapses by inserting an early scene of four Chicago boys trespassing on an Alien Contamination Zone in search of robot souvenirs. “We’re kids,” their leader tips his cohorts. “We can get away with anything.”
Careless writing leads to different characters referring to the same planet as both “Unitron” and “Unicron.” In Bay’s world the words “race” and “species” are interchangeable: all of humanity is one “race” and one “species,” and all the Transformers represent a single “race” and “species.” It’s a binary cosmos. “Two species at war. One flesh, one metal,” narrates Burton.
In the previous film, Yeager dubbed his daughter’s Irish boyfriend “Lucky Charms” and mocked his “Leprechaun” accent. “You’d get your ass kicked in Ireland for saying that,” advised Shane (Jack Reynor). Yeager gets another pushback in “Transformers: The Last Knight” when a Native-American policeman (Gil Birmingham) complains that Yeager calling him “chief” is “vaguely racist.”
Lines emanating from the “vocal processors” of Transformers cater to a demographic that once played with Hasbro toys, read Transformers comics, watched Transformers cartoons and played Transformers video games. And may continue to so entertain themselves. Autobots and Decepticons sound like macho bikers and military irregulars. With all their quicksilver transformability, you’d think the screenwriters would tap into the politics of identity and diversity that animate so many superhero narratives (e.g., “The X-Men”). Instead these English-speakers default to adolescent trash talk.
The first Autobot to manifest on Bay’s big screen is Bumblebee. Hiding-in-plain-sight is the modus operandi of Transformers in Earth’s technoscape. This particular alien morphs into a yellow and black 1977 Camaro that turns up on a used car lot. The proprietor has no idea how it got there but sells it to Sam Witwicky in the first Transformers film.
No voice actor is credited for Bumblebee in the first four films because this CGI character is mute, due to prior damage in combat. All his dialogue is sampled from rock songs and movie lines. Ironically, his pop cultural tastes in sampling lend him a more distinctive personality than his voiced peers. At the end of the fifth film, he has two different “voice processors” installed. Bay’s longtime sound designer and supervising sound editor Erik Aadahl voices Bumblebee’s handful of lines here. This Autobot headlines a prequel/ spinoff film scheduled for next June.
Script slips can puzzle. Every “Transformers” film seems to include Americans discovering an old Transformer in an out-of-the-way place like the Arctic Circle. That entity was “reverse-engineered,” starting in 1935. Among the “modern age” tech yielded: “cars.” Rather imprecise on the timeline of internal combustion motor vehicles. Henry Ford debuted his Model T in 1908.
Meaningless precision occurs in the 2014 film. Aliens turned Earth, partly or totally, into Transformium “65 million” years ago. And that is “B.C.” to be clear. Aliens also visited in “17,000 B.C.” Optimus Prime divulges, indefinitely: “They have been here forever.” That voiceover is used as a tagline too.
Dialogue and taglines repurpose Hasbro hype. “More than meets the eye!” reads a 1984 ad touting a Hasbro toy that transforms between a Decepticon and a Walther P-38 gun. “Ages 5 & Up.” Optimus Prime uses the same expression in “Transformers” to refer to the optics of humans and Transformers alike. It reappears in a 2017 article in The American Journal of Economics and Sociology that “interrogates” the first two Transformers films. “[T]here is much more to these commodities than meets the eye: they are also U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) promotions in disguise,” argues an Ontario assistant professor of communications.
Marketing prose at times is off the mark: “`The Last Knight’ shatters the core myths of the Transformers franchise.” No such thing to see here. Nothing is demystified or deconstructed. This film conforms to what came before and continues the tale. Even though the three writers credited for this screenplay and story have not worked on earlier Transformers films.
The filmmakers indulge in one witty bit of reflexivity. Music builds as Burton intones weighty lines of ancient lore about King Arthur’s 12 knights and their 12 alien Guardian Knight allies. Just as we hear an overwrought crescendo, we spot Cogman playing an organ in the background. “You ruined the moment again,” hollers Burton, the 12th Earl of Folgan. “I was trying to make the moment more epic,” pleads his aide-de-camp. “Legend tells that one last knight would someday be chosen and the struggle to save the world would begin,” continues Burton, who always gets Yeager’s surname wrong. “It would appear, Mr. Cade, that that last knight is you.” Cue a swelling offscreen chorus. Burton orders Cogman: “Stop it!”
When his 2014 Transformers film came out Bay told a Mother Jones writer: “Yes, I am a political person, and I have my views about America… I don’t feel the need to go out and tell people what to believe politically.” Last year The New Yorker ran a satire headlined “Donald Trump Chooses Michael Bay as Running Mate.”
Two taglines for “Transformers” (2007) launched the franchise premise: “Their war. Our world.” and “Most have come to destroy us. Some have come to protect us.”
At first an interplanetary bystander, the U.S. turns into an ally of the Autobots, but then tries to exile these conflict refugees. In later episodes, American CEOs and NSA types will make covert deals with Decepticons.
A topical hook threading the five films is the Department of Homeland Security. Transformers are classified “alien terrorists” in the fourth. Non-alien terrorists are absent. There’s a fleeting reference to 9/11 in the second. When Decepticons strike, a television newscaster reported the country is at “Condition Delta, which is the highest level we’ve been at since 9/11.”
Decepticons in the first film targeted U.S. military computers at Special Operations Command Central in the Qatar desert. Bay’s second film made up the Classified Alien-Autobot Cooperation Act and Non-Biological Extraterrestrial Species Treaty. U.K.’s unnamed prime minister (Mark Dexter) is on the phone asking about the unnamed “U.S. president” and “Putin” in the 2017 film. Bay skips the traditional scene from other alien attack films: a montage of world capitals in a united front for self-defense.
Transformers films universalize the issue of homeland security. Civil war ruined Cybertron. That puts Earth in peril. Autobots seek asylum here. Decepticons in pursuit always seek some Cybertonian power source and an ultimate weapon to wipe out Autobots. And they seek dominion over Earth as a resource to rebuild Cybertron. In Bay’s universe, no one’s home is secure.
“Earth, the only place in the universe whose people let me call it home,” Optimus Prime shares with Yeager in “Transformers: The Last Knight.” Yet, as Burton notes: “Transformers are declared illegal on Earth.” This film introduces homeless 14-year-old Izabella (Isabela Moner), orphaned by a Decepticon missile strike during the Battle of Chicago. Hiding amidst the rubble, she stands by stigmatized, stereotyped Autobots: “Someone’s got to take care of them. They’re scared, they’re lost. No place, no home, no family. Do you know how that feels?” This nurturing militant is a social justice warrior for illegal aliens. Yeager and his comrade Autobots let her tag along.
“All they want is a home and you know that,” Yeager argues with Lt. Colonel William Lennox (Josh Duhamel). “You push them and they push right back.”
Lennox counters: “Whose side are you on? They’re all bad.” Transformer-phobe and rogue C.I.A. official (Kelsey Grammer) in the previous film insisted: “There are no good aliens or bad aliens, Yeager. It’s just us and them!”
Lennox fought alongside Yeager, Optimus Prime, Bumblebee and other Autobots against Decepticons in the first three films, where he was ranked Captain, Major and Colonel, respectively. Chief Master Sergeant Epps (Tyrese Gibson), fighting the good fight in those same films, noted: “We’ve shed blood, sweat, and metal together.” “Transformers are declared illegal on Earth,” narrates Burton.
Now Lennox fears more and more diasporic aliens finding their way to Earth. Little does he know the film will end with an alien narrator transmitting a homing beacon into space: “I am Optimus Prime. Calling all Autobots. It’s time to come home.” He means Earth, not Cybertron. In the closing lines of the first film Optimus Prime termed Earth “a new world to call home.”
“Friends?,” Lennox reacts. “This is an invasion. One day we wake up. They’re in charge.” In the second film he informed his commandos: “This makes six enemy contacts in eight months.” And Optimus Prime briefed General Morshower (Glenn Morshower): “Our alliance has countermanded six Decepticon incursions this year, each on a different continent.” In the third Transformers film, Optimus Prime related how Autobots also served their hosts as off-the-books United Nations Peacekeepers: “So now we assist our allies in solving human conflict, to prevent mankind from doing harm to itself.”
Self-harm was afoot in Chicago. Decepticons conspired with treasonous fixers ensconced in Trump Tower. Their objective? Acquire “a slave labor force” of “six billion” humans to “rebuild Cybertron.” Sentinel Prime (voiced by Leonard Nimoy) decreed: “Now, it is time for the slaves of Earth to recognize their masters. Seal off the city.” The ruins of the ensuing Battle of Chicago, where 1300 died, are where Izabella and Yeager will meet in the 2017 film. (By hashtagging #MidasTouch, Donald Trump claimed some credit for the 2011 “summer blockbuster” in his August 13, 2012 tweet.)
“To punish and enslave” is the sneering motto adopted by a Decepticon disguised as a police car in 2007 and 2017. In 2014 Optimus Prime rallied Dinobots, variant Transformers predating the auto age who assume the guise of mechano-dinosaurs: “We must join forces, or else we’ll all be their slaves.”
Bay’s writers insert no dialogue about historical, terrestrial slavery. However, a relevant aphorism that recurs as a line of dialogue, a motto and a tagline does coincide with a 1942 quote in Vogue magazine about Japan enslaving China.
“Without sacrifice there can be no victory!” is the battle cry of medieval English warriors repelling Saxon invaders in “Transformers: The Last Knight.” Paramount Pictures recruits that line in its publicity. Burton lectures Wembley and Yeager: “It has been said throughout the ages that there can be no victory, without sacrifice.” For his 11th-grade history class, Sam gave a “family genealogy report” in “Transformers.” His great-great grandfather Captain Archibald Witwicky (William Morgan Sheppard), glimpsed via flashback, urged his band of Arctic explorers: “No sacrifice, no victory!” That’s the family motto.
“No Sacrifice … No Victory” is also the headline of Agnes Smedley’s dispatch in the April 15, 1942 issue of Vogue. Embedded with the New Fourth Chinese Army at a hospital near the front, Smedley quotes an elderly Chinese woman resisting the Japanese invaders: “Without sacrifice, there is no victory. We do not want to be slaves of the devils.”
Freedom is under threat across the galaxy. “Freedom is the right of all sentient beings,” declared Optimus Prime in 2007. A 2011 tagline warned: “Earth’s last stand. The fight for our freedom begins.” Bay leverages such anodyne one-liners only for mounting awesome maneuvers, never for an aside on human or alien rights. We have yet to see a Dialecticon or Kantbot on the roster of autonomous robotic organisms.
Other philosophical filler is for pondering origins. “Transformers: The Last Knight” continues a theme introduced in “Transformers: Age of Extinction.” Optimus Prime promised: “Autobots, we’re going to prove who we are and why we’re here!” His last lines were: “There are mysteries to the universe we were never meant to solve. But who we are and why we are here, are not among them.” To get answers, he zooms across the galaxy to wrecked Cybertron and meets the Creator known as Quintessa (Gemma Chan), “the Prime of Life.” Gendered female, Quintessa generates Transformers and can re-engineer them. She weaponizes his will for her designs on Earth.
Quintessa qualifies as an Intelligent Designer. Creationists may cry heresy. Bay is unclear about what form of life Transformers are. “They have evolved” since the first film, forewarned a tagline for the second. Darwinists will notice there’s nothing like natural selection going on. Characters variously refer to Transformers’ “genome,” “chromosomes” (which are somehow “infect[ious]”) and “hatchlings.” When a depowered Transformer is rebooted he is said to be “reincarnated” or “resurrect[ed].”
Transformers each have a “power source” in the center of their chests (or mediastinum, the term medical students had to memorize in Anatomy 101). It glows faint blue, as do all alien energies in Earth cinema. Unspelled on screen, this sounds like Allspark. “It contains our life force and our memories,” says Optimus Prime. “Yeah, we call it a soul,” replies Yeager. Sam got hold of a shard. Besides transmitting Cybertonian symbols into his head, it enabled him to read “a 903-page astronomy book in 32.6 seconds” and manically write arcane formulas on the blackboard in his Astronomy 101 classroom.
Christianity and other faiths are out of the picture. Transformers make little theological impact on Americans. “Excuse me, are you the Tooth Fairy?,” inquires a little girl the night one of the 30-foot-tall aliens cuts through her suburban yard. “You gotta wonder: if God made us in His image, who made him?,” asks Epps, in the only line of its kind in all five films.
“We were gods once, all of us!,” vents Sentinel Prime, former mentor of Optimus Prime back on Cybertron. This turncoat first entered the storyline in 2011’s “Transformers: Dark of the Moon.” During the civil war, he fled their planet with space bridge pillars, but crashed on our moon. In 1961 the U.S. and U.S.S.R. discovered his spacecraft. The government secretly moved the depowered Prime that was on board to Earth. Secret research ensued. Just as it did in 1935 when a different Transformer was secretly moved from an Arctic Circle crash site to a secret research facility.
If Transformers were all gods on their planet, who were the lesser inhabitants, the believers bowing to them? Now there is only one and she sounds like a lower-case “g” deity who de-deified Transformers. Quintessa rebukes Optimus Prime: “You dare to strike your god?”
God-grade power takes the form of super-high-tech that drives every Transformers plot. Decepticons are the ultimate power-seekers, both physical and political. Autobots typically thwart their quests. Allspark, the Cube, Energon, Seeds and Transformium are at stake. Each film adds a plot element from long, long, long ago that tells us how these powerful resources made their way from Cyberton to Earth. Plots lengthen Transformers film running times– ranging from 143 to 165 minutes– with intervening hunts to find clues to locate keys to unlock alien powers. Among these items: eyeglasses etched with a map, a children’s book holding a secret, and something called a Matrix of Leadership.
Bay is more interested in alien weaponry than religious ramifications of one-time gods appearing here. He especially likes their planet-annihilating and sun-consuming gizmos. Transformers deploy really cool killer toys. An ill-conceived, if non-lethal, one that Hasbro launched in 1966 was “The Hypo-Squirt,” an oversized plastic squirt gun modeled on a hypodermic needle: “It’s Fun!! Shoots Over 20 Feet Accurately.”
Bay is invested in so-called practical effects– wherein real stuff really blows up– versus the digital virtual ones. His enthusiasm for filmmaking tricks echoes a line Orson Welles, an amateur magician and showman of stage and radio, supposedly said after touring the RKO Radio Pictures lot: “This is the biggest electric train set a boy ever had!” Roger Ebert is among many who recycled that irresistible quote. Biographers usually write “reportedly said” and cite no source. “When a New York friend asked him about it [RKO] Welles pointed to the wilderness of cameras, lights, sound apparatus and other engines of the talkies. `It’s the greatest railroad train a boy ever had,’” claimed the Saturday Evening Post in 1940, without identifying the second-hand source. John Logan’s 1997 draft of the screenplay for the Welles’ biopic “RKO 281” has Welles (Liev Schreiber) playing to a newsreel camera: “I’ll tell you what, this is the best electric train set a boy ever had!”
The scientific superiority of Cybertron inspires about a minute of demystifying dialogue in “Transformers: The Last Knight.” “Magic does exist,” relates Burton. “It was found long ago. Inside a crashed alien ship.” That was back in the year 484 A.D. when Merlin obtained a weapon made by 12 Transformers transforming into that singular Saxon-smiting dragon. To hide the key to Sun Harvester technology in the second film, six principled Primes from Cybertron sacrificed themselves to create a secret crypt inside an Egyptian pyramid. All to thwart an evil seventh Prime
“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” says Yeager. Impressed, Wembley promptly name-drops Arthur C. Clarke as the source. Thus initiating a chance of romance. Natalie Portman’s character, an astrophysicist, used the same quote in Kenneth Branagh’s 2011 film “Thor” when she refers to the Einstein-Rosen bridge. The title god (Chris Hemsworth), son of Odin (Anthony Hopkins), informs her: “Your ancestors called it magic. And you call it science. Well, I come from a place where they’re one and the same.”
“Personally I’m going to rely on physics and mathematics to save the planet, not mysticism, fairies and some hobgoblin,” declares the hard science guy played by Tony Hale in Bay’s new film. Wembley wielding Merlin’s staff to foil the evil Creator on her Earth-bound exoplanet is unthinkable to this Jet Propulsion Laboratory engineer.
A “bidding war” for “alien technology” broke out between India, Israel, Japan and Russia in the fourth film. Engineers and entrepreneurs were busy dismembering aliens. One of whom, named Brains (Reno Wilson), resisted: “This is illegal experimentation… This is worse than waterboarding!” Yeager angled for a competitive edge: “If I could apply that technology to my inventions we’d never have to worry about money again.” A Chicago CEO (Stanley Tucci) crowed: “We will own the robotics industry.” Optimus Prime countered: “We are not your technology!”
Wembley tells kids at the museum: “A desperate last stand between civilization and barbarism. Two worlds colliding. Only one survives.” Burton later repeats her past words to underscore the Earth versus Cybertron showdown. Now the Creator and her Decepticons clash with Earth and its Autobot allies. That dualism evokes Samuel Huntington’s 1993 essay “The Clash of Civilizations?” On July 6, 2017 in Warsaw’s Krasiński Square U.S. President Donald Trump framed a dire scenario for all of Europe. “The fundamental question of our time is whether the West has the will to survive… Do we have the desire and the courage to preserve our civilization in the face of those who would subvert and destroy it?… [O]ur civilization will triumph… So, together, let us all fight like the Poles– for family, for freedom, for country, and for God.”
Bay mobilizes similar sentiments on the grand scale of a galactic smackdown. Transformers films entertain with escapist spectacle that resolves nothing. Thinking of a different genre in a different time of war, Agnes Smedley regretted Hollywood distracted her home front readers from grasping the struggles of Chinese women: “American women, going to movies, finding the solution of life’s bitter problems in the mirage of a Hollywood kiss and embrace.”
©2017 Bill Stamets