With each iteration, the Michael Bay verse of Transformers films bled more into the extensive visual spectacle that aired the side of CGI style over substance. With 2018’s Bumblebee, there was an attempt to reign some of that in and lessen the number of heroes and villains to focus on a human-to-alien story akin to E.T. – which proved like a breath of fresh air. Transformers: Rise of the Beasts combines the notable themes from both worlds – director Steven Caple Jr. brings exciting explosions and firefights with a story somewhat grounded in a central belief. What can aliens who disguise themselves as car and humankind can agree on? Well, if there’s a vast, world-devouring god named Unicron (voiced by Colman Domingo), that’s the best place to start.
Rise of the Beasts is set in a specific period, like the 80s-styled Bumblebee – this time, focused on 1994 Brooklyn. We meet Noah Diaz (Anthony Ramos), who used to be an electronics expert in the military, but had a falling out and is struggling to find a job to help his family. His little brother Kris (Dean Scott Vazquez) struggles with sickle cell anemia. Despite this, he keeps upbeat and has a tight relationship with his older brother. Out of inspiration to make cash for treatments, Noah looks to his neighborhood friend and “zen master” Reek (Tobe Nwigwe) to steal an expensive Porsche.
However, Noah had no way of knowing this is indeed a Transformer named Mirage (voiced by Pete Davidson), and what was thought to be a quick heist turns into a world-saving mission. What links this all together? Well, Elena (Dominique Fishback) is an intelligent artifact researcher at a museum who looks closely at a bird sculpture with a peculiar logo on the back. When she investigates it further, Elena discovers the Transwarp Key – a tool the Autobots could use to return home to Cybertron (or for the enemy Terricons to use to help Unicron).
And away we go. To their credit, both Ramos and Fishback bring enjoyability to their roles – Ramos as the big brother trying to overcome obstacles for his family and Fishback being the scientific brains of the whole operation. Davidson’s Mirage does invoke some laughs in his relationship with Noah – this film’s pseudo-Bumblebee. The visual styles of Rise of the Beasts look well done – especially when you look at the detail of the Transformers in certain scenes. Where the film falters is the story and stakes that it tries to implement.
When you have a story with characters of this power and magnitude, you don’t want the humans to get lost in the shuffle – a device Bumblebee successfully illustrates. Once you get to the second act, much of Noah and Elena’s tempo turns into an espionage side quest while the heroes try to distract the villains. Much is built around what happens with the key and what the two figureheads, Noah and Optimus Prime (voiced by Peter Cullen), want to do with it. There’s an implication that each side cannot trust one other – something that would work if we didn’t see the opposite happen in a film within this timeline.
The Terrocons, led by Scourge (voiced by Peter Dinklage), is a formidable group infused with dark magic that knocks the Autobots on their heels. In return, Optimus and co have to ally with the Maximals – an animal-alien species headed by Optimus Primal (voiced by Ron Perlman) and Airazor (voiced by Michelle Yeoh). Not only are they present to provide some needed fighting muscle, but they also provide the moral bridge to show the two parties can work together. Again, this would be more effective if we had not seen many films of this happening already. No matter how powerful the Teorrocons may be, there is always a feeling they will have their comeuppance somehow. Rise of the Beasts has its instances of hero crisis, and subsequent pep talks found in many action films of this magnitude.
We’ve spent a lot of time having Transformers as a part of a film franchise, and this film tries to deliver most of the things that gained billions of dollars at the box office. There are the one-liners, the rock-em-sock-em robot flights, and classic Transformers lore. Caple Jr. has an affinity for this material in the way he strives to invoke somewhat of a grounded story in the grandiose playground. With that, it feels Rise of the Beasts is unsure whether to go for its past or elect for another future it sees for itself.