When you saw only one set of footprints, it was then that the Transformers carried you
On human accomplishment, rewriting the history books, disingenuous empowerment, and Michael Bay's big questions
Transformers: The Last Knight Paramount Pictures
Director: Michael Bay
Screenplay: Art Marcum, Matt Holloway and Ken Nolan, based on the toys created by Hasbro
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Laura Haddock, Anthony Hopkins, Isabela Moner, Jerrod Carmichael, Josh Duhamel, John Turturro, Tony Hale, Jim Carter, Omar Sy and Peter Cullen
Rated PG-13 / 2 hours, 29 minutes / 1.90:1, 2:1, 2:35:1
June 21, 2017
(out of four)
In Michael Bay we have a filmmaker willing to ask the big questions. He is, above all, the thinking man's director. Questions like: What are the age of consent laws in Texas? What if boys ... were bad? What if small thing became ... big thing? What if robots had testicles? What if oil drilling, but in space? What if boys were bad ... again?
What if Mark Wahlberg was a secret knight?
What if sexy but also ... glasses?
What if medieval magic was actually robots?
What if Stonehenge, but robots?
What if the Civil War, but robots?
What if the Underground Railroad, but robots?
What if Tesla coil, but robots?
What if e=mc2, but robots?
What if World War II, but robots?
What if Crossing the Delaware, but robots?
And let's not forget, he also once asked, in a thoroughly unresolved discrepancy of internal logic: What if sexy, but also robot? Which is a question that, frankly, has been duly addressed by a century of sci-fi movies. Asked and answered, Mr. Bay. Asked and answered.
His latest opus, Transformers: The Last Knight, posits all these bold questions and more, retroactively implanting the Transformers into major events throughout human history, and alongside its great achievers. (See? Humans, they're not so great. They had magic alien robots fight all their battles for them.) It's the ultimate retcon, not entirely unlike the wall of secret vampires from Jim Jarmusch's Only Lovers Left Alive. Everything we thought we knew about history left out that one crucial detail: It was the Transformers what did it. Bay addresses neither the "why" nor the "wtf" of his revisionism, but simply states - through Anthony Hopkins' breezily hilarious long-form exposition dump - that these robots had a hand in every major human accomplishment of the last 1500 years or so. (Which I can only assume means the Transformers secretly produced every Tom Waits album, ghostwrote Catch-22, sculpted Claudia Cardinale out of clay, and invented the self-checkout aisle.) (In fact ... maybe self-checkout aisles are Transformers? Oh man, this thing has layers.)
But in opening this theoretical can of worms, our most prized philosopher-poet of robot cinema (or, Le cinéma sur les robots) has left his own premise all too vulnerable. First, assuming this is official Bay canon, why didn't any Transformers show up in Pearl Harbor? After all, The Last Knight clearly establishes their role in defeating the Axis powers. Are we meant only to see them subtextually in that 2001 epic? Are we meant to assume that it was a Transformer who killed Josh Hartnett so that Ben Affleck could bang Kate Beckinsale?
But more importantly, if the Transformers have been our secret guardian angels this whole time, they haven't exactly been doing a good job of it. I'm reminded of that line about God from Woody Allen's Love and Death: "You know, if it turns out that there is a God ... I think that the worst you can say about him is that basically he's an underachiever." Same goes for you, Transformers. I mean, we as a civilization have been in agreement - for decades now - about the one thing you have to do if you invent a time machine. And, what, the Transformers back in the '30s or early '40s couldn't do the world a solid and take Hitler out? There weren't any Mercedes Transformers hanging around Berlin back then that could have slipped in and gotten the job done? If these things are in the habit of interfering in world affairs, that one was kind of a biggie. Thanks for nothing, Optimus Prime.
For reasons completely unrelated to their underachievement, the Transformers have been banned from polite society when the events of The Last Knight begin. More trouble than they're worth, as the current political line of thinking goes. Hard to argue with them, really. It's not like the world's governments are aware of the Autobots' transformative role in their own history books. Knowledge of such details is reserved only for a select few. With Earth under attack yet again - this time from the malevolent powers that be on Cybertron, the Transformers' annihilated home planet - it's time for the Earl of Folgan, Sir Edmund Burton (Hopkins), to turn over the secret history he guards so faithfully to a few would-be heroes worthy of it. The first is our returning champion Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg), now living that fugitive life in a middle-of-nowhere junkyard that doubles as a secret Transformer sanctuary. The other is Vivian Wembley (Laura Haddock), a rich genius history professor and scholar who, turns out, happens to be the last living descendant of Merlin (Stanley Tucci) himself. (No wonder her obnoxious relatives keep bothering her about finding a nice man to settle down with.)
Considering the film's writers seem to have at least skimmed through all kinds of great and complicated stories from world history, you'd think they may have been inspired to come up with something rich and grandiose to frame against their historical backdrop. Instead, I truthfully can't recall it in much detail. I know there's an ancient, weaponized staff - a staff once held by Merlin - that's important for some reason. I know that Cade has been bestowed with an ancient medallion that proves his knightly worthiness. I know that Optimus Prime has been reprogrammed as an enemy of humanity - renamed "Nemesis Prime" - in his planet's renewed quest to destroy Earth.
And most conspicuously of all, I know Mark Wahlberg now has a plucky new sidekick in 13-year-old Izabella (Isabela Moner), an orphaned scavenger from Chicago who gets wrapped up in the latest intergalactic human/robot war that begins to unfold. It's hilarious because it's presented as a triumphant, inspirational, girl-power storyline - Izabella is basically Fearless Girl, if the Charging Bull were a Decepticon - as if we're just supposed to forget this is a movie by Michael Bay. In his world of tough blue-collar dudes who perpetually save the world because hey, they just know how to get things done - a world in which scientists and smarty-pants nerds are always the butt of the joke except when they're sexy smarty-pants nerds or scientists in glasses and/or a ponytail - it's nice, on paper, to see him making room for another type of hero altogether. Then again, given the source, it can't help but come across as disingenuous. She is the exact opposite of the entire worldview Bay has been putting on screen for the last two-plus decades. Nice try, Mike.
I must say, Hopkins appears to be having the most laid-back fun he's had in a role in several years; as our guide through the film's mythology, he is a witty, irreverent delight. It feels like he's on vacation - and with a couple of drinks in him, to boot. He even gets the benefit of being part of one of The Last Knight's only successful gags - a meta joke about the use (and overuse) of dramatic music within scenes and moments. If only Bay showed such cheeky self-awareness more often. Instead, it's more business as usual for the director, who once again claims this is his last outing in the franchise, an assertion he made after both the third and fourth entries. That this installment has (theoretically, at least) opened the floodgates on "Transformers throughout history" narratives is a troublesome thought. I mean, The Last Knight has already removed credit for victories in the Revolutionary, Civil, First and Second World Wars, not to mention abolition, modern physics, the New Deal, and Macbeth. I'm not sure which is the bigger question: Why didn't Bay's Transformers do more for us? or What achievements will Bay's Transformers take from us next?