Let’s be honest, we all wrote off the Transformers franchise long ago. As soon as they stopped the entire Age of Extinction movie to try and justify why it was okay for one character to date a minor, I instantly noped out. I didn’t even bother with The Last Knight, and it seems I was right not to. But then something funny happened. Bumblebee hit theaters, and ended up being a really charming movie.
And just when I thought this franchise was out of tricks, it pulled off it’s greatest one yet; making me care about it again. But surely it had to be lighting in a bottle right? As it turns out, not so. Because, while not as good as Bumblebee, believe it or not, Transformers: Rise of the Beasts is actually good fun, and possibly the next best film in the franchise!
Now look, I know that may not be saying much. A franchise that brought us turds like Revenge of the Fallen and The Last Knight doesn’t have a high bar to clear. But it turns out the problem was (surprise, surprise) lack of a decent filmmaker. And while Paramount owes Michael Bay a great deal for turning out huge hits and renewing interest in a toy line that was mostly dormant in the ’90s — and while his action shots are incredibly difficult to accomplish and he absolutely deserves credit for pulling those off — at the end of the day, his proclivity to prioritize subpar ideas in favor of good story and characters was the exact reason the franchise tanked after a while.
It wasn’t until Kubo and the Two Strings helmer Travis Knight and Creed II director Steven J. Caple took over that we finally have movies worthy of the fandom it’s trying to cater to. And it starts with characters. Because much like Knight’s Bumblebee, Caple’s Rise of the Beasts actually knows how to make the human characters matter.
The story takes place seven years after Bumblebee, in 1994. In Brooklyn, human Noah Diaz, an ex-military electronics expert, is helping his family (his mother, played by Luna Lauren Velez in her second appearance this summer, and his sickle-cell afflicted brother Kris) struggle to make ends meat. Rejected from interviews and job opportunities because of his military history (but also let’s be honest, because he’s a POC), Noah has to resort to taking a criminal job stealing a car for money to help with his brother’s medical payments. Little did he know the car he stole was the Autobot Mirage (Pete Davidson). The night Noah meets Mirage is the same night a Transwarp Key is discovered across town by a museum assistant named Elena (Dominique Fishback) — an artifact with the ability to send the Autobots back to Cybertron. So Optimus Prime assembles the stranded Autobots on Earth, including Mirage, to get the key back. Unfortunately, the discovery of the key also means the arrival of the Terrorcons, foot-soldiers of the planet-eating mega god Unicron, as he also wants to retrieve the key so he can travel to any reality and devour all planets across time and space. Outmatched against the Terrorcons and unable to claim the key, the Autobots have to team up with the Maximals, sworn enemies of the Terrorcons, to take them down and protect the Transwarp Key and all of time and space.
Yeah, I know. There’s nothing original at all in any of the sentences above. And this movie does suffer from a lot of derivative clichés: world-ending MacGuffin, sky beams, global races against time. But this is a Transformers story after all. It willingly leans into the Saturday Morning Cartoon feel of it, but provides you with all the entertainment of a colorful, sugar-coated cereal and the toy surprise to go with it. And there’s just enough character development here to not make it stupid, and it actually does lean heavily into legitimate Transformers-level action.
The action scenes here are actually surprisingly really well done. When you think about the Bay movies, you literally couldn’t distinguish one Autobot or Decepticon from another. But Caple takes the time to add energy and flair to the designs and appearances of each character, plus enough personality to make them not feel blandly all the same, that the bots actually finally do stand out this time. I’d be hard pressed to find anyone who remembers any of the Autobots from previous films that aren’t named “Bumblebee” or “Optimus Prime.” But this movie gives us both of those signature characters, plus Mirage, Arcee, Optimus Primal, Airazor, Cheetor, Rhinox, Wheeljack, and Stratosphere. And it really gives the Maximals a chance to shine, while also giving us standout moments for Prime and Bumblebee.
The latter of which arguably gets much less screentime in this film than his own standalone film, obviously. But he definitely gets some of the coolest standout action scenes in the film. It’s hard not to love the most lovable Autobot. But I have to say, this movie may have the best live action Optimus Prime scenes of the entire franchise. The film gives Prime so many cool fights against Terrorcon leader, Scourge (Peter Dinklage). And when the swords come out, and Prime goes swinging, it’s like the cartoon come to life! Peter Cullen’s legendary voice booms brilliantly, but more than anything, the movie gives Prime a strong character arc that allows the Autobot captain the chance to truly grow as a leader, courtesy of lessons he observes and learns from Primal.
The Maximals, by the way, are very well used in this movie. This isn’t a lousy Age of Extinction gimmick where Dinobots show up randomly and unearned at the end, never to be seen again. Though the movie takes a bit to get to them, the Maximals serve a definitive purpose as the force that the Autobots need to face the Terrorcons. The movie also gives them the opportunity to find redemption and peace following the destruction of their planet. Michelle Yeoh is wonderful as Airazor, and Ron Perlman is absolutely regal as Optimus Primal. But these characters allow the Autobots to grow, and help their characters evolve and become stronger once they’re introduced. It’s a smart way of providing fan favorite characters, but also using them wisely, so that they’re important to the story.
However, the heart of the movie is actually the fresh relationship between Mirage and Noah. Davidson’s Mirage is actually a lot more endearing than it has any right to be. And it’s because he’s legitimately charming, possessing a naïve, good-hearted goofball nature about him, which sets him apart from the rest of the self-serious Autobots (except Bumblebee). It’s almost similar to the role Michelangelo plays in the Ninja Turtles, without ever feeling forced or corny. And that’s a pretty big accomplishment for Davidson. But one that wouldn’t work if Noah’s character also didn’t.
That said, Ramos is stellar in the role. He’s a great leading man for this franchise — charismatic, charming, with an underdog quality that makes you want to root for him. Noah’s cause is understandable, but Ramos sells it with his earnest and often funny hero performance. It’s a different sort of relationship from the Charlie/Bumblebee friendship of the previous movie, but it works as a dynamic bromance duo!
Additionally, Fishback’s Elena is also a strong character. She’s not as well fleshed out as Noah. But she’s also another POC being put down by her boss, despite being more competent and engaged in her work as a museum intern. She’s never left New York, and lives through the historical artifacts she curates. But she finally gets a taste of adventure and plays a big role in saving everyone. Fishback’s arc is a fun one, and she’s a terrific actress. She could have used a lot more screentime, but you buy into her innocence but also her toughness. This franchise has had a complicated history with reducing its female leads to eye candy for most of the films. It wasn’t until we met Hailee Steinfeld’s Charlie that there was a female lead in the films worth caring about. And thankfully Elena is right there underneath Charlie as a well written female character who serves a stronger purpose than just standing there as a potential damsel in distress.
Overall between Ramos and Fishback’s work as Noah and Elena, as well as the really poignant real-world problems these characters face throughout the course of the movie, the characters in this franchise have honestly never felt more human. And that’s a good thing. It helps that the filmmaker is also POC and knows what the challenges of real life are for characters who look like Noah and Elena. And to add this to the film very subtly (something these movies aren’t known for) is proof that we could use more filmmakers of color in the industry to tell stories about real human challenges they’ve seen or faced.
Dinklage is quite menacing as Scourge, as is what we’re teased with for Unicron, courtesy of Colman Domingo’s voice. But apart from those two, I’ll admit the movie has a severe villain problem. The Autobots and Maximals were well done, but the Terrorcons kind of stink. Not a single one of them really stands out much, and they do turn into a bit of a faceless army for the Maximals and Autobots to dispatch. That being said, this is one of those movies where the skybeam and the faceless army shockingly don’t do anything to diminish the fun of the movie. And that’s because the movie lets us care about the heroes doing cool stuff, and it delivers on that.
On a technical level, I was really impressed by the CG in this one. It managed to run circles around movies that cost about the same, like The Flash or Quantumania. The Maximals looked great! And so did the Autobots, and the set pieces towards the final act. Nothing looked overtly offensive to the eye, and that was pretty cool. The soundtrack is also decent, with Caple choosing needle drops at really good moments, which helps capture the ’90s setting perfectly. We get some of the best hip hop hits of the time, and it contributes to the really lovely, nostalgic fun of the film.
Without spoiling anything as well, I’ll say this: the movie ends with a huge gamechanger that got everyone I saw it with out of their seats with excitement. Trust me! You’ll want to see this one!
Overall, Transformers: Rise of the Beasts follows in the footsteps of the excellent Bumblebee by showing us there’s still a lot of spark left in the Transformers franchise. It’s not perfect, but this is a fun movie with great characters and a game changing finale that levels up the franchise in a whole new way! Pete Davidson is great as Mirage. And in the tradition of Hailee Steinfeld’s Charlie, Anthony Ramos shines as Noah Diaz, who is a lot more interesting than any human characters in this franchise have any business being. This chapter may also feature some of the best Transformers fights in the franchise with Caple ably showing his skills as a fan and a director with well shot sequences of pop color energy, making great use of both the Autobots and the Maximals. With these terrifically fun moments, plus a human story that actually is interesting and compelling, Transformers: Rise of the Beasts proves to be the second best installment in the franchise, and proof that we need more POCs behind big budget blockbusters!
Overall Score (on an entertainment level): B
Overall Score (on a representation level): A –