“Transformers: The Last Knight” opens in medieval times with a drunken Merlin (Stanley Tucci) and closes with a futuristic man-versus-aliens showdown set in Stonehenge. In between those ludicrous scenarios, director Michael Bay’s fifth entry in the most overproduced movie franchise of the 21st century stuffs in a new love interest for Mark Wahlberg, a deep space journey to a robotic villainess intent on destroying mankind, and a robotic British butler with martial arts skills operating at the whims of Anthony Hopkins. It’s an unabashed freewheeling mess of CGI explosions, fast-talking strategies and shiny metal monstrosities clashing in epic battles. And it’s actually kind of fun, in an infuriating sort of way, to watch the most ridiculous Hollywood movie of the year do its thing.
Here’s the thing about the “Transformers” movies. Bay managed to drag a nostalgia-laden franchise best known for the toys it inspired into the 21st century in part by not taking the premise too seriously. That changed after the success of the first live action installment 10 years ago; “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” and “Transformers: Dark of the Moon” turned the playfulness of the earlier entries into a gleaming mass of commercial showmanship; each runs well over two and a half hours, and “The Last Knight” is no exception.
But the craziest thing about the movie is that it practically dares audiences to grow anxious while watching its restless, bloated contents, and keeps tossing out shiny nuggets of entertainment to cloak from the overwhelming ridiculousness in spectacle. The closest thing in American movies to an epic, Bollywood-style genre mashup, “The Last Knight” continues the trend of the series in borrowing liberally from every filmic tradition possible in the quest to crush all competition and leave viewers with the sense that they don’t need to see anything else, ever. That underlying implication is made all the more infuriating because Bay excels at the aesthetic of distraction, with the masculine intensity of a jock and the soothing words of a hypnotist: Sit back, relax, and enjoy the stupid ride. What, you don’t like fun movies?
Bay’s craftsmanship is impeccable, but per usual, the real stars of the show remain the wizards at Industrial Light & Magic responsible for the range of special effects. The degree of visual information crammed into every frame never ceases to amaze, particularly when enjoyed on an IMAX screen capable of conveying the full scale. It helps that the ongoing story has gotten to the point where Transformers have blossomed around the globe, providing an excuse to unleash so many dazzling images the brain can’t possibly process them all at once.
At the end of the third movie, Transformers leader Optimus Prime left Earth for a mysterious journey back to his home planet, leaving Earth at odds with the remaining Transformers inhabitants as they hid from the law while defending the planet from an onslaught of Decepticons. In other words, we’ve gone beyond the “Age of Extinction” singled out in the 2014 movie and headed into post-apocalyptic territory: Since defending Transformers has been outlawed, rascally inventor Cade Yeager (Wahlberg) hides out in a junkyard with the usual motley gang of tower-sized defenders, including the ever-endearing Bumblebee (still eager to find a new voice box).
Bay’s mastered the art of showcasing these beings and their colorful personalities so well that he could easily craft a digitally-enhanced comedy about passive-aggressive Transformers with roommate problems and call it a day. But bigger things are at stake! Or, at least, more plot is necessary to drive the ongoing perception that this giant mass of moving images deserves your 20 bucks.
Summarizing a Transformers movie is a good way to fall prey to its traps, but here goes: At some point while running from the law, Cade is kidnapped by the mysterious Sir Edmund Burton (Anthony Hopkins, doing a kooky riff on his “Westworld” character), who maintains a group of aging robots stretching back millennia and belongs to a secret society of humans who have protected the secret of the Transformers’ existence. (These include Da Vinci, Shakespeare and Harriet Tubman, all of whom might have provided more ambitious fodder for a framing device than Tucci’s Merlin, but hey, there’s plenty of time for more sequels.)
In any case, Cade saved a medieval Transformer space traveler who gifted the human with a protective amulet dating back to Merlin’s days, so now the inventor’s a genuine superhero. He’s paired with spicy British academic Vivian Wembley (Laura Haddock), a Merlin descendant whose knowledge of the lore informs her understanding of Wahlberg’s qualifications to save Merlin’s magical wand from an incoming alien invasion. Bay’s flimsy capacity for directing substantial women roles gets especially dicey here, with a cardboard cutout version of a brainy academic who ultimately melts into Wahlberg’s arms. Make no mistake: These movies are the most sensationalistic illustrations of the male gaze in history.
They’re also terribly reductive. When Cade and Vivian aren’t scrambling, “Indiana Jones”-style, to comprehend an Arthurian legend, a neurotic scientist played by “Veep” funnyman Tony Hale urges the government to do something about the invaders from space. As if this watered-down “Independence Day” scenario weren’t enough, the movie keeps veering off in jagged directions. At one point, we meet a range of Decepticon villains released from jail to take down the Transformers, a robotic Suicide Squad with names like Nitro Zeus and Dread bot who vanish almost as quickly as they’re introduced.
But, you know, who cares? It’s a “Transformers” movie! More coherent than “Age of Extinction,” the third act of which took place in Beijing for no other apparent reason than to outsource the production to China, “The Last Night” lands a lot of good laughs with its cartoonish robots and equally over-the-top chemistry between its two leads. Hopkins’ character is even helped along by a senile robot named Cogman, an unapologetic C-3PO ripoff whose very existence proves that Bay thinks nothing is sacred in his plundering of cinematic traditions. In these transparent times, when the ills of capitalism are no longer hidden under the guise of moral superiority, the sheer absurd cash grab of “The Last Knight” feels like more than just a commercial coup. It’s the zeitgeist. Just go with it.
Or don’t. In 2007, audiences keen on “Transformers” counterprogramming went to see “The Hurt Locker.” This time, “Transformers: The Last Knight” opens the same weekend as “The Big Sick,” a smart and intimate romcom that transforms those formulaic traditions into a more personal story about the travails of an interracial couple. As summer crowdpleasers go, it’s a lot more credible than “The Last Knight” — and the contrast between the two movies couldn’t be more extreme. One carries the implication that the modern world is a complex place in which the process of discovering new people and ideas leads to bountiful rewards. The other rejects all that and implores you to settle for a flashier version of the same old thing.
“Transformers: The Last Knight” opens nationwide on June 20, 2017.