The franchise that single-handedly imbued the word “Hasbro” with a sense of looming dread is back on the map, and Michael Bay’s latest assault on viewers’ attention spans is perhaps the most frivolous and empty work of his career. Transformers: The Last Knight certainly represents a step back from Bay’s recent films, which displayed bursts of visual ambition and, at times, refreshing self-awareness. Even the prior Transformers movies evinced more imagination, if for no other reason that Bay’s first work in 3D found him toning down his scattershot editing to avoid sending concession snacks hurling into trash cans. Improvements in 3D projection have lessened the inherently nauseating effect of his trademark aesthetic, but as science fiction teaches us so often, our technological advances shall doom us all, and The Last Knight finds Bay comfortably back in the realm of total incomprehensibility.
Bay’s careening sense of movement extends, as ever, to the plot, which continues the franchise’s inexplicable dive into historical revisionism by imagining the Transformers during the time of Arthurian legend. In an excruciating opening passage, Arthur (Liam Garrigan) wins a pitched battle with the help of Merlin (Stanley Tucci), a shambolic, drunken fraud who somehow not only discovered a crashed alien ship but won the confidence of its Transformer crew, and the lore only expands from there. Later in the film, we discover that the Autobot Bumblebee (voiced by Erik Aadahl), seen first landing on Earth in the original film, actually lived here for much longer and even fought in World War II, a plotline that results in a hilarious scene in which Winston Churchill’s palatial home is used as Nazi headquarters in a metatextually wild extension of Bay’s glib perversion of history.
If the thought of a Transformers film updating an A.P. European history lesson sounds torturous, that’s nothing compared to the convoluted narrative arcs that bog down in slapdash characterizations. The MacGuffin here is a staff—given to Merlin by one of the early Autobots—that can drain Earth’s life force and restore Cybertron. The impossibly named Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg) is again caught in the middle of the Transformers drama, bestowed with a robotic talisman that marks him as a defender of the staff. And aiding him throughout are Izabella (Isabela Moner), a scrappy young orphan who acts and talks like a mechanic, and Viviane (Laura Haddock), a multiple-doctorate Oxford professor and polo champion who’s Merlin’s last descendant.
Throughout, Wahlberg reliably (and lazily) delivers the screenplay’s heaps of exposition with an exaggerated “can you believe this?” intonation. The only actor, though, who gets away clean from this mess is Anthony Hopkins, who cranks the eccentricity meter past the breaking point as the masonic nobleman Edmund Burton. All but holding up his paycheck to the camera with relish, the actor consumes more scenery than the planet-killing behemoth that tears gashes into the Earth during The Last Knight’s climax, delivering gobs of ludicrous backstory with endearing flippancy.
As overwhelming as the humans’ clashing intersections are in the film, they don’t hold a candle to the robots, who engage in endless firefights and car chases that see both the good and bad bots united in their disregard for collateral damage. There are more loving close-ups on any one Transformer’s intricately animated moving parts than there are spatially coherent cuts between two shots, and most of the action scenes swiftly break down into cascading showers of fire and sparks. One showdown between robot and human forces in a derelict ghost town begins promisingly enough, as the Autobots and Yeager spring an ambush and thus have to carefully lay out a plan of attack, but soon the sequence devolves into visual incoherence, with drones bursting through stained-glass church windows and a random Decepticon getting its head sliced off as soon as it appears on screen.
The locations may shift throughout the film, but the sensory overload of Bay’s hyperkinetic cinema is such that it eradicates any actual sense of place. Gone, too, is the stabilizing political subtext, however inane, that at least provided some kind of through line for the series during the Obama years. Where the earlier films presented Autobots contending with the glass-chinned liberal bureaucracy that hindered their freedom, The Last Knight splits its social focus amid disparate fears of globalism, anarchy, and even sleeper agents in the form of Optimus Prime (voiced by Peter Cullen). The prevailing attitude is an overwhelming sense of fright, which fits the times well but also feeds back into Bay’s frantic movement and slipshod grasp of anything concrete.
Somehow, Bay squares all of this with his usual nationalistic imagery, at once terrified of America and compelled to worship it. In the franchise’s more lucid moments, that mixture of reverence and fear defined the approach to the Transformers themselves, new gods who deigned to involve humans in their internecine wars but casually abused the planet as a sparring ground. Now, however, they seem almost quotidian, just one more hassle in a messed-up world that’s suffered the cataclysmic weight of a decade’s worth of Bay’s callous indifference to the heroism he superficially valorizes.