Where is Shia? Why is Stanley Tucci playing Merlin? Is that a robot butler voiced by Mr. Carson from “Downton Abbey”?
These are just some of the questions that come to mind while watching “Transformers: The Last Knight,” the fifth entry in Michael Bay’s billion-dollar franchise based on a line of toys, and the first one I’ve seen. These thoughts occur to me half-formed, which is fitting since that’s also how the plot seems to have been dreamed up by the film’s three credited screenwriters.
Beginning in the very specific time and place “England — the Dark Ages,” the film seems eager to capitalize on the current medieval trend most recently exploited to great success by the King Arthur movie that nobody saw. What’s past is prologue, and so the mystical staff wielded by Merlin (played, for whatever reason, as a philandering drunk) must be of vital importance to the transformers of today.
Optimus Prime is then seen floating in space, covered in frost and apparently making his way to his home planet; as it’s my understanding that he’s the ultimate good guy, this doesn’t bode well for humanity — whatever existential threat is being thrust upon it in this installment is surely the most serious yet. Back on Earth, we quickly learn that some transformers exist solely to reinforce stereotypes: Behold a Cuban bot who dribbles a soccer ball while exclaiming, “Hola, amigo! Vamos!” (Come to think of it, wasn’t there one named Jazz way back when?)
Sometimes what appear to be inanimate objects are in fact friendly robots with unique personalities. Neat! But then one of them dies. Sad! I realize during these first several minutes that many other good-guy transformers have surely perished in the first four movies, most of which are somehow even longer than this one (148 minutes!). This information is highly distressing. I consider going to Wikipedia after the movie ends to find out their names and learn of their special robot powers, but never do. Do decepticons dream of electric sheep?
Credit: Paramount Pictures/Bay F
Then I decide that, if I ever find myself living among transformers, I too will do as Mark Wahlberg does and take it upon myself to defend them against governmental oppression. There comes a time when you must choose a side, and if “X-Men” has taught us anything it’s that the outcasts with unique abilities are to be trusted over shadowy organizations with names like TRF.
Also: Has anyone ever pointed out that Steve Buscemi, John Goodman and John Turturro are all in this franchise? Is this the “Big Lebowski” reunion we’ve all longed for? Buscemi voices a transformer named Daytrader, whose status as a merchant suggests an entire robot economy that feels woefully unexplored amid all the slo-mo and explosions. Do transformer battles send Bitcoin prices up? Are there other mundane, non-combat roles for autobots in this world?
However silly they may be, the transformers themselves are infinitely more interesting than their human counterparts. This comes as something of a surprise, as the idea of cars that morph into fighting robots always seemed silly, even as a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle–obsessed kid. But one of them is a dragon and a few others are dinosaurs, none of which makes any immediate sense but all of which is cool enough in a lizard-brain sort of way that I don’t dare question it. The alternative — attempting to apply logic to any of this — would no doubt be a far worse fate.
But then something happens: The first act ends and “The Last Knight” goes on for another two hours. It seems remarkable that a franchise ostensibly geared toward children and teenagers can be so interminable and incomprehensible; rarely have I experienced such a Principal Skinner–esque “Am I out of touch?” moment while attending the movies. My attention drifts so far from Megatron and Anthony Hopkins and the lack of Shia LaBeouf that at times it feels like I’ve entered an altered state.
It’s as though I’m Gandalf falling through the abyss after his fight with the Balrog, becoming eons older in the blink of an eye as it finally occurs to me on a deep, visceral level that Mark Wahlberg is playing a character named Cade Yeager. I’m not the same person when “The Last Knight” ends that I was when it began, and my transformation doesn’t seem to have been for the better.