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Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Transformers: The Last Knight Breakdown

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I am incredibly fascinated with the Transformers films.  I need to be clear here because a lot of people tend to mistake “fascinated” with “fond of,” which I am most certainly not.  The first Transformers movie was a long, dull slog through mediocrity followed up by the abysmal second film that actually rubbed its balls in audiences faces and then a return to abject mediocrity for the conclusion of the original trilogy. 

However, I actually didn’t mind Age of Extinction, it was no great shakes, but it was better than what had come before and at best I considered it entertaining, which certainly put it ahead of a lot of its contemporaries in 2014.  Now we’ve got TF5 AKA The Last Knight.  Can this fifth installment finally provide the Transformers film fans have been clamoring for is it, at long last, time to admit that’s never going to happen?

Let me start this by saying I’ve never been a fan of Transformers in any facet.  It’s not that I disliked the property, I’ve just never been able to find an entry point into the franchise, so if you’re looking for fan-fueled vitriol over this movie breaking series canon or adding greater human influence you’re not going to get it. 

What’s more, I actually liked the fourth Transformers movie.  I mean certainly, it was a big, dumb, loud, over-plotted and thematically confused film but there was enough there to have fun with.  While none of the Transformers films have been faithful to the material, this one at least managed to avoid the naked misanthropy, off-putting nihilism, bad comedy, curious soullessness, disdain for the material, and occasional racism that peppered the original trilogy. 

Aside from ditching the bad stuff of old, Age of Extinction also felt like a significant evolution of the franchise, adopting a soft reboot mentality to gain a foothold in the Chinese box office and revamp the series to be more relevant to the state of blockbusters in the 2010s.  Now, based on this trailer, The Last Knight looks to be following a similar approach, and I think it looks pretty decent.

The big thing I like about the switch in approach with this new Transformers trilogy is the way it emphasizes the lore of the robots over human conspiracy stuff.  It also looks like this film has excised the business with Mark Wahlberg’s daughter from the last movie, which means we’ve completely dropped any hint of the “romance” plots that defined the entire original trilogy. 

No, the emphasis here seems a lot more on the origin of the Transformers storyline that was set-up with Lockdown in the last movie.  This means delving into Earth’s past, specifically the time of King Arthur and World War 2, while also diving into the Transformers’ lore to come up with a giant, planet-devouring menace to enslave Optimus Prime and make him the villain for our story. 

I’m honestly pretty intrigued by this premise.  Having the central hero of the franchise go evil for an installment is actually pretty unique, even if it does highlight how much Optimus was never the actual protagonist of these films.  What’s more, I do like the lore stuff, especially that shot of what looks like a dragon Transformer tooling around the time of Camelot. 

What really peaks my interest is that the team behind these movies is actually trying to answer some very fundamental questions about their universe and set-up rather than just assuming no one will care.  That’s pretty much more effort than we’ve ever had in a Transformers film before and I’m inclined to appreciate while fully admitting it’s only really there to try and modernize the franchise. 

While I’m not well versed enough in the franchise to speculate what McGuffin has been drawing the Transformers to Earth these many years, I do note that a lot of people have speculated the big, world-devouring planet is probably Unicron.  

Unicron is basically the Transformers equivalent of Galactus- a giant space being from the dawn of creation that has heralds and eats planets.  Unicron is also tied to the Transformers’ origins in some iterations so it would make sense for it to show up given the emphasis on the Makers we had in the last film. 

Now, unlike Galactus Unicron actually has two forms, and one of them is a giant planet that eats smaller planets so having him start as a techno-horde here is a lot more acceptable than dust cloud Galactus from Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer.  However, Unicron also does tend to favor a humanoid form which I do hope makes it into the film if only to give Bumblebee, Optimus, and Wahlberg something to throw down with in the third act.  

There’s also the possibility the big transforming planet from this trailer isn’t actually Unicron but Cybertron, the Transformers’ home planet.  That’s unlikely, but given the cavalier attitude, the creators of the Transformers franchise have taken with the material so far I’m not ruling anything out. 

More than anything else this trailer feels manicured.  I don’t just say that because this is a slick and glossy Hollywood CGI blockbuster, though that helps, more that the entire point of this movie feels like a unified effort to make Transformers fit into the current blockbusters mold.  We tend to forget this now in all the wrath and ire, but a big part of the success of the first Transformers was due to timing and particular circumstances. 

Back in 2007 all the big franchise of the 2000s like The Matrix, Lord of the Rings, X-Men, Spider-Man, the Star Wars prequels had finished up, and the defining franchises of the 2010s like Dark Knight, Hunger Games, the Marvel films, Star Trek, and Fast & Furious were still a year off (Fast & Furious didn’t return to solvency till the fourth movie.)

Aside from having no competition back in 2007, Transformers was also a novelty act at the time, as a movie where you were allowed to root for the army guys.  That’s another thing we forget now, but for about 5 years there Hollywood flat out refused to give us any big, heroic military type movies, instead of viewing our current conflict with introspection and criticism, especially after 2005. 

As a result, Transformers devoting a fifth of its run time to how radical the military is was filling a void in people’s hearts.  However, nowadays we fill that void with stuff like American Sniper, and we suddenly have a ton more franchise stomping around to take Transformers money, which is why Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy beat Age of Extinction at the box office 2 years ago. 

In the wake of that, the producers of Transformers are falling into step with the same thinking as Universal and Fox, trying to tease out their central franchise into this broad, sprawling mythos with tons of lore and universe building that was never there before.  It’s the same reason the X-Men movies went from a handful of sporadic one-offs to a point where they don’t even have a release date for the next film but devoted a huge chunk of Apocalypse to shouting “it’s gonna be Dark Phoenix next!” at the audience. 

I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing, to be clear, it’s just where we are now.  In Transformers case, it seems to have forced the producers to actually put effort into their finished product and treat their audience with slightly more respect than they’ve shown before and that’s definitely a step in the right direction.  What’s more, even if the lore isn’t faithful it at least seems pretty interesting- I like all the historical sci-fi stuff with King Arthur and World War 2 and the design of Unicron is very impressive, to say the least.  

I don’t think they’re going to reel any new fans in with this stunt, certainly, and I doubt their whole “Optimus is evil!” gambit has only really reciprocated disinterest but at the very least the kids brought to this flick to get them to be quiet for 2 hours will get a richer experience than Revenge of the Fallen. 

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