It’s rare to watch a blockbuster that fills you with apathy. It’s rarer still to watch one preceded by the ominous warning, ‘A Michael Bay Film’. Bay, the director best known for perfecting – to employ the word ‘perfect’ loosely – the cut-happy, explosion-heavy style now known as ‘Bayhem’, does not boast a strong track record with critics, but his films fill every flash-frame with movement and colour, daring the audience to look away. ‘The Last Knight’, Bay’s fifth (and supposedly last) film in the ‘Transformers’ franchise, is so wildly shot and awfully written that it somehow comes full circle back into the realm of boredom. I’m not much of cinema napper – I know that some people can happily drift off in front of a movie, but I hadn’t done so myself since enduring an experimental Iranian film in early 2016. Much to my surprise, despite the cacophonic sound design and glut of explosions onscreen, I found myself drifting off several times in the climax of the second act. The wonders of cinema will truly never cease to amaze.
The plot of ‘The Last Knight’ is inconsequential, but I’ll attempt to convey its basic beats. Bay cribs the opening scene straight from ‘Gladiator’ (the one starring catapults in a snowy forest) but sets it in King Arthur’s England, where Arthur and his knights of the round table are facing off an invasion from a horde of vaguely Germanic warriors. A thoroughly sozzled Merlin (Stanley Tucci, tackling a new role after appearing in ‘Transformers: Age of Extinction’) rides to the rescue, accompanied by a massive, three-headed dragon formed by twelve ancient aliens. Merlin controls the alien using a powerful staff, which is thereafter lost to history.
Jumping to the present, we find the world reeling after the events of ‘Age of Extinction’. As transformers continue to tumble at random from the sky, a global military force called TRF is put together to destroy them. Optimus Prime, the leader of the Autobots, was last seen floating through space in search of his makers. Megatron, the leader of the evil Decepticons, is also missing. Failed inventor, international fugitive and friend of the Autobots Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg, hamming it up desperately to steal back some attention from the titular robots) is laying low in a junkyard in South Dakota with his new assistant Jimmy (Jerrod Carmichael). Things chug into action when Cade is summoned to England by exposition-spouting machine Sir Edmund Burton (Anthony Hopkins shouldering a strange, off-putting role), a member of the order of Witwiccans (presumably a reference to Shia LaBeouf’s protagonist of the first three films, Sam Witwicky), who protect and keep the real history of the Transformers on Earth dating back to Merlin. Burton warns him that Cybertron is headed for Earth, helmed by the sorceress Quintessa (Gemma Chan), who intends to rebuild Cybertron by sucking all power from our planet.
Elsewhere in Anglia, gorgeous but perennially single Oxford English professor Viviane Wembly (Laura Haddock, stitched up with a thankless role) is enjoying a game of polo (nothing says posh quite like a spot of mid-afternoon polo). She’s cynical about myths and the like, but when she’s kidnapped by one of Burton’s Transformers and told that she’s the sole survivor of Merlin’s bloodline, Viviane must reconsider her stance on the legends of old. As Merlin’s heir, Viviane is the only person who can use Merlin’s staff to halt Quintessa’s plan.
A handful of other distractions constantly boil around this core story: Yeager rescues and forms a fatherly bond with Izabella (Isabela Moner, fine), a scrappy orphan living and befriending hunted Autobots in the ruins of Chicago (destroyed during the climactic battle of ‘Dark of the Moon’); franchise stalwart Seymour Simmons (John Turturro) dials in from Cuba to chat to Burton a few times; Megatron is somehow reborn and given a go at forming his own ‘Suicide Squad’ of Decepticons by the TRF to help them locate a powerful weapon; a physicist (Tony Hale) tries to physics the Earth out of harm’s way rather than rely on Burton’s magic; Cade and Viviane execute a submarine heist. It’s utterly bizarre, but not in a fun way. It gets exhausting when every act just seems to reset the narrative, leaping from one insane point to the next. I remember being shocked by the length of my review of ‘Age of Extinction’, but it came down to my futile but extensive attempts to convey the story. I fear the same is happening here, but when the three credited screenwriters (with a fourth credited for the story) have tried to pack so much into the two-and-a-half-hour runtime, it was never going to be a short review.
When it comes to the action, the basket in which Bay has clearly placed all his eggs, the notorious director doesn’t so much orchestrate a set piece as just set it off, cutting at random between wherever he’s set up his coverage. There’s no trace of cinematographer Jonathan Sela in the action, who last shot the glorious extended ‘gun fu’ sequences of ‘John Wick’. Even Viviane’s brief introduction on the polo field exhibits this problem; discounting the ‘money shots’ where a stunt occurs right in front of a camera, the editing seems to cut erratically between the three or four cameras arranged in and around the game without regard for continuity or developing an understanding of the space’s geography. Bay is admittedly one of the few directors that still uses practical explosions and wire work on set, but you can’t appreciate these moments in the way that they’re smashed together. Furthermore, some of the ideas behind the set pieces are fine; the epic finale, in which several choppers are dropped from a ship to glide onto an airborne Cybertronian island where Bay proceeds to mount his take on a WWII beach invasion, has plenty of potential. However, their presentation is such that it’s hard to watch them, let alone enjoy them. Adding to the confusion are the aspect ratios, which change randomly between about eight different options between shots. When I somehow dozed off at the end of the second act, it wasn’t because every frame was boring – it was because their combined effect was overwhelmingly numbing.
It doesn’t end there – between the awfully on-the-nose product placement and cheesy dialogue, there’s not much to recommend in ‘The Last Knight’. It’s a review-proof franchise (the last two films have earned over a billion dollars worldwide apiece), but one wishes that they’d put a little more effort into the quality of the films before unleashing them on audiences.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Review by the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting