Robots In Disguise (As Animals)

‘Transformers: Rise of the Beasts’

If you thought that cars and planes are the only disguises donned by Transformers, you were wrong. Transformers: Rise of the Beasts skids into theaters with an infrastructure-crushing reminder that the universe is more than oil slicks. Rise of the Beasts features the big screen debut of a cheetah-robot hybrid named Cheetor (Tongayi Chirisi), a western lowland gorilla that goes by Apelinq (David Sobolov), and Rhinox (Sobolov again), who is unfortunately not a robot that turns into a ginormous, Gogol-esque nose. I’ll leave you to guess its “disguise.”

These fine ani-bots are the Maximals, a diaspora who escaped their jungle planet right before the evil robot god Unicron (Colman Domingo) gobbled it with his massive, fiery cloaca. The Maximals were lucky enough to escape via a galaxy-connecting light bridge dongle called the Transwarp Key. Pity for us that they escaped to hide out on Earth. The Maximals seem like a good hang, but Unicron is going to come looking for that key and more planets to eat, like Earth or maybe even Uranus.

Directed by: Stephen Caple, Jr.
Written by: Joby Harold, Darnell Metayer, Josh Peters, Erich Hoeber, Jon Hoeber
Starring: Anthony Ramos, Dominique Fishback, Pete Davidson, Peter Cullen, Peter Dinklage, Ron Perlman, and Michelle Yeoh
Running time: 127 min

That dongle jump takes us to 1994 Brooklyn, where we meet struggling ex-Army soldier Noah Diaz (Anthony Ramos). Noah’s broke as a joke and can’t help his family pay for his brother’s sickle cell anemia treatments. On Ellis Island, Elena Wallace (Dominique Fishback) is busy watching her boss take credit for her work as an artifacts researcher when a mysterious relic shows up that looks exactly like the Maltese Falcon with a smidge of alien graffiti. To make ends meet, Noah tries to steal a car that turns out to be sassy Autobot Mirage (Pete Davidson). Meanwhile, Elena takes research on the falcon into her own hands and ends up uncovering the Transwarp Key. That’s a pretty classy piece of McGuffin inception that tethers our two main hoo-mans to the Autobots and Maximals in their intergalactic war against Unicron’s Terrorcon enforcers. Cue a bunch of robots fighting in the streets over a key with plucky people finally getting to show their worth.

Last weekend, I tried to catch up on the live action Transformers franchise. At that point, I’d only seen the first movie. My ambition to watch all four sequels and one prequel (Bumblebee) only lasted the two and half thudding hours of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. That Michael Bay joint featured incredibly racist caricature Autobots, punishingly unfunny jokes, a fondness for internet conspiracy theorists, a not-too-specific hatred of Obama-era policies, and a really hard to identify tone that made me literally scream at the TV, “Who is this for?!” It made over a billion dollars.

Fortunately, Bay departed the series as director after introducing the Dinobots and something about Merlin – yes, that one – in The Last Knight. That was also the second in the series to feature Mark Wahlberg as a Texan. Bay’s departure brings us to a more well-received prequel era. 2018’s ‘80s-set Bumblebee was well-received, even though its titular Autobot regurgitates recorded dialogue and song lyrics instead of talking, like a metallic version of the worst guy at your office. The newer movies allow their directors to plunge back into the original toy, cartoon, and comic franchise to pay service to the original mythos of the series. They also get to create a new tone for the franchise. Instead of Bay’s camera literally ogling Megan Fox, we get Hailee Steinfeld finding her strength with Bumblebee. Bay’s seizure-inducing flash cuts give way to Stephen Caple Jr’s (Creed II) fun, comprehensible New York car chase-slash-meet cute for Mirage and Noah Diaz.

I never wondered who RotB was for. It’s for kids, and fans of Transformers. Caple knows his audience, as he did when he took on Creed II, a movie that was basically Rocky IV, Part II. Caple used what was good about Rocky IV, like boxing and big Russian bad guys, and excised the stuff that didn’t translate to today’s audience, like rampant jingoism and old men possibly having sex with robot housemaids. With RotB, he the Beast Wars-era Transformers storyline to the franchise and Spider-verses the human side of the story.

It’s not really my kind of movie but it also wouldn’t have been when I was in elementary school. Goldfinger was my favorite movie in fifth grade and my go-to “play” with my Star Wars figures was alphabetizing them. Transformers have never been for me but this movies feels more like what I know of pre-Bay Transformers. The jokes are cheesy but fun. There’s at least one buddy robot and Davidson is perfect as Mirage. Robots smash things real good in appealing locations like Peru and NYC. And everyone talks about learning lessons that even kids already know: be loyal, don’t give up, and don’t eat planets with your butthole. It also has a great early-’90s hip hop soundtrack, and I’m for any movie that wants to turn kids on to Wu-Tang and Digable Planets. For all that it does right and corrects about Bay’s movies, the narrative is still thin and the story doesn’t feel much more fleshed out than one in most video games or a Fast and Furious movie. It’s no Spider-verse, but it still delivers the one thing that one of my friends expects from Transformers movies: robots beat each other up.


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Jonpaul Henry Guinn

Jonpaul Henry Guinn is a freelance writer, Jeopardy also-ran, pub quiz host, and U.S. army veteran. He lives in Austin, Texas, where he oversees staffing and training for Geeks Who Drink.

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