As a franchise trying to chart a new path, Transformers has fittingly been doing a bit of reinventing lately. It sounds like a fever dream to describe it now, but there was once a time when these movies ended with Peter Cullen's iconic Optimus Prime giving a monologue set to Linkin Park while Shia LaBeouf and Megan Fox would make out nearby on top of Bumblebee in car form. That was the now infamous closing to Michael Bay's 2007 Transformers which, while notable for its integration of practical effects with its CGI creations, was undercut by everything else that came in between the action. Still, it spawned four sequels whose diminishing returns when it came to thrills were exacerbated by its characters. After all, it's hard to care about any of what is going on when the films saddle you with humans you'd rather avoid.
Then, in 2018, the series was given new life with Bumblebee. Set in the 1980s, it brought in the new character of Charlie, played by a pitch-perfect Hailee Steinfeld, and became infinitely more fun by largely freeing itself from the franchise's past baggage.
Though not quite as refreshing as that prior entry, Transformers: Rise of the Beasts continues down this path with charming new characters — at least when it comes to the humans — and manages to frequently settle into a fun groove. While more than a little familiar in terms of its premise, with yet another powerful item serving as the driving force of the story, this is a forgivable means to an end as it successfully taps into something sweet yet silly.
Our new lead character this time is Noah Diaz, played by Anthony Ramos of In the Heights, who is having a hard time getting his feet underneath him in 1994 Brooklyn. A talented electronics expert, he is trying to find a job to support his family as his younger brother Kris (Dean Scott Vazquez) needs medical treatment they can't afford. Out of desperation, Noah gets roped into stealing a Porsche to get some money, only to discover it is actually a transforming Autobot in disguise. Following a brief yet inventive enough car chase, he learns that there are robot beings hiding in secret on our planet. The one he attempted to steal is Mirage, voiced by Pete Davidson essentially playing himself (once again), who convinces Prime (Cullen) they need Noah to get the aforementioned item back. This turns out to be something discovered by Elena Wallace, played by Dominique Fishback of the recent series Swarm, who is knowledgeable in her field yet is undervalued by her boss at the museum where she works. These characters must team up to find the item before nefarious forces do. They won't be alone as they make new allies along the way as they head to Peru.
The particulars of this plot are rather pedestrian, making its lack of spark the film's greatest detriment. We've seen all this before not just in past Transformers films, but basically any action blockbuster ever. What makes it work here is that it doesn't get too bogged down in this malaise, instead remaining light on its feet while letting the more multifaceted characters largely drive the story rather than the other way around. Though it teeters on the edge of repetition, some key sequences and a game cast hold it all together.
In particular, the first car chase that has some enjoyable gags as Noah finds himself trapped in a vehicle hurting through traffic and a more unabashedly goofy sequence involving a leap from a plane at the movie's close. Things can be a bit tiresome when it becomes a giant CGI smash fest in a numbingly drab and gray setting. However, the small parts within this greater whole ensure there are bursts of life to be found.
It isn't a great movie by any means, but it is a good Transformers movie. This may sound like damning with faint praise, but it is truly the best way to encapsulate the experience. It is serviceable at worst and exciting at best, clearing space for characters to ground the chaos that is playing out around them. Ramos and Fishback give the film a beating heart to make you care about what would otherwise be empty apocalyptic stakes. Even an eye-rolling tease in the final scene can't fully sour the goodwill the film had going for it, though its sacrifice to the banal hunger for more IP-driven franchises comes perilously close. ♦TRANSFORMERS: RISE OF THE BEASTS