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Transformers: Rise of the Beasts is the start of something big, but it’s a terrible Beast Wars movie

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Very similar to 2018’s Bumblebee, director Steven Caple Jr.’s Transformers: Rise of the Beasts plays like a clever course correction in the context of the rest of Paramount’s films. It’s one meant to bring in both a young, new generation of fans and aging millennials with fond memories of cartoons from the ’80s and ’90s. Rise of the Beasts finds quite a bit of time to pay tribute to older, classic pieces of Transformers storytelling from places like the original Transformers animated movie from 1986. But when it comes to maximizing — which is to say capitalizing on and making interesting use of — the Beast Wars mythos Paramount implied would be a large part of its story, Rise of the Beast falls short, which is disappointing but not exactly a surprise.

Though Rise of the Beasts pulls together characters from both the far-flung past and the distant future, it’s primarily set in 1994 and tells — shockingly — the story of how an unsuspecting human ends up becoming one of the most important participants in a longstanding Cybertronian war. As a young army veteran, all Noah Diaz (Anthony Ramos) really wants is to find a job to be able to support his little brother Kris (Dean Scott Vazquez) and their mom Breanna (Luna Lauren Velez). With steady work being hard to come by, though, it makes more sense for Noah to get into boosting cars with his buddy Reek (Tobe Nwigwe) than to sit around waiting for recruiter calls that simply aren’t coming in.

It being the ’90s, an old-fashioned slim jim is all Noah needs to get into most cars, like the silver and blue Porsche 964 Carrera RS 3.8 he plans to drive off with the evening of his very first robbery. Right as he’s finally able to work up the nerve to get into the car, however, Noah’s shocked and horrified when the vehicle powers up on its own and starts driving off in response to a radio message calling for the Autobots to roll out.

It should be said that, as predictable and somewhat clunky as Rise of the Beasts is, the movie isn’t without its charms, like the clever and flashy ways that it uses its first chase sequence to introduce you to Mirage (Pete Davidson), the Autobot who takes Noah’s attempt to steal him in stride and as a sign that they should probably be friends. Instead of just telling Noah flat-out that he’s an alien who merely looks like a car, Mirage uses the chase sequence to give his human companion an idea of where his code name comes from, and many of the chase’s smaller details, like the mirage-like clones of Noah the Autobot creates, work to illustrate his lighthearted sense of humor.

It’s quite clear from the jump that Noah and Mirage are going to be Rise of the Beasts’ emotional core. But rather than using its time judiciously to make sure that its human / alien robot friendship dynamic has enough juice to sustain this story, Rise of the Beasts splits its focus between Noah and the Autobots and Elena Wallace (Dominique Fishback), an archaeologist and researcher of mysterious objects of indeterminate origin. 

It’s actually Elena’s late-night tinkering with a strange, birdlike statue that actually sets the bulk of Rise of the Beasts’ story into motion. But unlike Noah, who always feels like he’s being moved from one scene carefully crafted to build up his heroic framing, Elena constantly seems like something of an afterthought who ends up being saddled with spiels of exposition for dialogue. Fishback is doing her best with what little Rise of the Beasts’ script gives her, but Ramos is able to shine as both a comedic and somewhat dramatic presence opposite Mirage, who mostly just feels like Davidson — dick jokes and all — in Autobot form.

Even though it’s a nod to Beast Wars, Rise of the Beasts’ central MacGuffin is every bit as memorable as those in previous Transformers movies, which is to say “not very much.” But it serves the purpose of bringing all of this story’s new players into focus very quickly, which helps keep Rise of the Beasts from ever feeling like it has major pacing issues.

One significant problem the movie does have, unfortunately, is the way it starts to feel overfull and like it doesn’t know how to manage all of its characters once Mirage and Noah have linked up with Optimus and the other Autobots and once the movie’s villains all begin to mobilize.

Similar to his cartoon counterpart, Rise of the Beasts’ Unicron (Colman Domingo) is a Galactus-like, planet-devouring being of such massive proportions he needs emissaries to help him find suitable sources of food. Unicron’s presence is one of the stronger links Rise of the Beasts has to Paramounts older Transformers movies by way of 2017’s Transformers: The Last Knight, where the character was teased out. But rather than following up on threads from that film, here the character exists more as a looming presence in the dark distance who pushes Terrorcons Scourge (Peter Dinklage), Nightbird (Michaela Jaé Rodriguez), and Battletrap (David Sobolov) to do his bidding.

When it was first announced that Paramount was finally going to introduce elements of its Beast Wars series to the live-action Transformers franchise, one of the more interesting questions looming over the movie was how it was going to go about approaching characters like Optimus Primal (Ron Perlman), Airrazor (Michelle Yeoh), and Cheetor (Tongayi Chirisa). Despite being directly connected, the original Transformers and Beasts Wars cartoons were so chronologically and logistically separated that it seemed unlikely that Rise of the Beasts would go the direct adaptation route. But the movie’s title did imply that the Maximals would play a rather significant role in Rise of the Beasts’ plot, which is what makes the way they kind of just… show up and don’t do all that much another spot of disappointment.

To be quite clear, all of the Maximals look fantastic — like horrifically cool mechanical beasts whose fine features have an uncanny way of making them feel like organic creatures. And the movie does gesture toward their complicated, messy lore that made Beast Wars so fun to obsess over. But ultimately, the Maximals really only end up serving to pad out the Autobots’ ranks as Rise of the Beasts brings the somewhat benevolent humanoid robots and the explicitly nefarious robots together for a fight over the fate of multiple worlds.

Like many a Transformers movie before it, Rise of the Beasts puts an inordinate amount of focus on its human protagonist, who often feels like he’s pulling focus (to be fair, charmingly so) in a movie that really should just be about robot-on-robot violence. Rise of the Beasts does try to differentiate Noah from other Transformers human heroes like Sam Witwicky by giving him a legitimate means of following the Autobots into battle. But the way that the film props Noah up has the unintended side effect of highlighting how Rise of the Beasts doesn’t give Elena all that much to do in its final acts and how the film as a whole has a tendency of sidelining its female characters in a way that really jumps out as being unnecessary.

To some extent, it feels like some of Rise of the Beasts’ uneven characterizations can be chalked up to there just being so many moving parts in play, but that’s a problem of the movie’s own making and something that might have been wholly avoidable. Especially in its final acts, Rise of the Beasts really starts to feel like the kind of Transformers movie that first kicked the live-action franchise off: it’s big, explosive, and very nice to look at for a few minutes before it all starts to blend together. Whether or not that’s intentional on Paramount’s part isn’t quite clear, but what does seem more certain is how the studio sees Rise of the Beasts as the beginning of its next big movie franchise play.

That’s an odd thing to say about the seventh installment in an ongoing franchise, especially one that doesn’t exactly take advantage of its own prime opportunity to really start steering the ship in a new direction. But for anyone who’s just trying to see some robots turn into some cars and / or animals, Transformers: Rise of the Beasts will get the job done.

Transformers: Rise of the Beasts also stars Liza Koshy, Cristo Fernández, and John DiMaggio. The movie hits theaters on June 9th.

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