When it comes to “Transformers: Rise of the Beasts,” the latest installment in the Hasbro franchise of shape-shifting robots-cum-vehicles known as Autobots and Decepticons, it’s perhaps wise to share a bit of good news first. If you’ve ever been intrigued about this agile collection of cling-clang-kabooming cars and trucks, but have been too intimated by all the homework involved—there are, after all, six former “Transformers” movies and a whole lot of other iterations out there— fear not.
To enjoy some of the simple pleasures of this new chapter by the capable “Creed II” director Steven Caple Jr., you actually don’t have to painstakingly study up on any of the previous films, much less the first five over-bloated movies by Michael Bay (a producer on this one). In that, “Rise of the Beasts” thankfully and proudly stands on its own two mechanical feet.
But you will still need to block out some of the occasional loud noise that we’ve come to expect from “Transformers”—thankfully, not nearly as headache-inducing as anything Bay did in the franchise—and fine, perhaps know a little bit about 2018’s prequel “Bumblebee,” vivaciously directed by Laika’s ingenious Travis Knight. This isn’t necessarily because the adorable blue-eyed character Bumblebee—sometimes in the form of a Chevrolet Camaro—is a player in this movie, but to remind yourself that when these big and brassy toy-filled ventures, mostly aimed at young boys, are driven by creative minds with a lean vision instead of a mode of “autobloat,” they can be fun, even deep. What a novel concept…
With a script penned by a crowded group of writers that intermittently shows its too-many-cooks seams, Caple Jr.’s “Rise of the Beasts” continues this trend of “a good time at the movies,” through a sci-fi blockbuster that doesn’t forget to give the audiences everyday human characters they can root for, establishing their traits and hardships economically before dialing up the action. In that regard, if the ’80s-set “Bumblebee” promoted a Spielbergian awe, determination and reminiscence in the franchise, the ’90s-set “Rise of the Beasts” rekindles something akin to Sam Raimi’s first two “Spider-man” films, similarly remembering that at the heart of many an emotionally worthwhile mainstream flick, regardless of its scope or hefty VFX budget, are underdogs who defy their impossible circumstances.
Amid plenty of shameless and amusing ’90s nostalgia that name-checks everything from rapper Marky Mark to “You can’t handle the truth!” (some Transformers, it appears, are regular drive-in movie theater patrons), we swiftly get introduced to two such underdogs. One of them is former U.S. Army private Noah Diaz (the great and ever-energetic Anthony Ramos of “In The Heights”), a Brooklynite of many financial and logistical troubles, barely making ends meet by fixing stereo equipment.
Living with his sacrificing mom and young brother who has a type of blood disease that capitalistic US healthcare is too heartless to care for, Noah makes his way from one dead-end job to the next, until he finds himself carjacking to rake in some quick cash. Guess what car he tries to steal on his first unlawful job? That’s right, it’s the cheeky Autobot Mirage (voiced by Pete Davidson).
We also meet the incandescent Dominique Fishback’s Elena, a low-ranking archeological researcher at an Ellis Island museum, who seems to be better at her job than any art museum curator in existence, including her own extremely white boss who often takes credit for Elena’s knowledge and work. Discovering an ancient but secretive symbol on one of her museum’s latest acquisitions, and deciding to dig into its mysteries on the down-low, Elena unwittingly awakens a time-portal key that signals at and summons all the Transformers who have been stuck on earth since, at least, the events of “Bumblebee,” giving them a chance to go back to their own universe.
It’s refreshing to see the crafty muscles of directorial foresight at work throughout these early scenes. Indeed, it feels invigorating to see Caple Jr. nimbly use parallel editing to navigate the realities of both Noah and Elena respectively, until they inevitably unite and become globe-trotting partners—or rather, saviors-of-the-universe-in crime—journeying all the way to Peru to protect Planet Earth from its demise.
And let’s not forget the utterly terrific car chase scene that Caple Jr. orchestrates in the second act, taking some cues to craft a James Cameron-esque “Terminator” vibe. Despite its chunkiness in its later segments, the script matches the director’s sophistication in these early moments, with plenty to say about the era’s racism, sexism and financial injustice that burdens the everyday people of urban constructs who make the metropolises run.
Not approaching the sophistication of the film’s former acts are the later moments of “Rise of the Beasts,” that push us deeper into the worlds of evil Terrorcons (who are a group of Decepticons, but you don’t necessarily have to know this) and surviving Autobot allies Maximals, a group of robotic beasts simulating apes, rhinos and so on who will be familiar to the fans of the “Beast Wars” series. But under Caple Jr.’s baton and voice performances from the likes of Peter Dinklage, Michelle Yeoh and Ron Perlman, they still prove to be engaging enough to entertain and immerse, with vibrating sparks that vaguely bring to mind action classics like “Indiana Jones” and “Jurassic Park.” (It’s perhaps no surprise Steven Spielberg in an executive producer of “Rise of the Beasts.”)
Still, it’s a true bummer to get an earsplitting and congested end to “Rise of the Beasts,” an installment that on the whole resists such bad habits of these types of franchises and boasts a splendid hip-hop soundtrack that will make every Air Jordan-wearing ’90s kid tick. But it’s impossible not to see the finesse throughout the film’s loud congestions, either.
Where Bay’s movies where incoherent messes that necessitated heaps of migraine meds, Caple Jr. actually manages to pull off something articulate and rousing with “Rise of the Beasts,” thanks in large part to the ever-relatable presences of Fishback and Ramos, and a parting note that’s just witty enough in its suggestion of a bigger universe. You won’t leave this back-to-basics “Transformers” feeling exhausted, rather entertained, even inexplicably restarted, like your battery’s just been given a jump.