Wednesday, June 14, 2023

The Transformers franchise hasn't learned the lessons from Bumblebee

Rise of the Beasts has interesting layers of subtext, but doesn't use or develop them in an interesting way

Dear Hasbro, next time you make a movie that cheers for the United States, try not to send the message that one needs to heroically save from annihilation every planet in the universe before one can get basic health care coverage. Not a good look.

After the much needed, much welcome course correction seen in 2018's spinoff/prequel Bumblebee, it's clear that Hasbro didn't learn the lesson from the experience, to wit: keep the film as far from Michael Bay's hands as possible. Compared to Bumblebee, the production of prequel/sequel/crossover Transformers: Rise of the Beasts had substantially more creative input from Bay, and it shows: once again, the big robots look so devoid of color that the eye strains to tell apart who's punching whom; once again, the U.S. military is uncritically celebrated; once again, the jokes go for the crassest common denominator; once again, the story fails to be about something. Bay's artistic vision is things go boom, and we should never have let him train our brains to expect only that. Bumblebee had the good sense to use the military as a minor antagonist; this entry backtracks so hard that it makes the protagonist a former soldier whose only contribution to the heroes' victory is his army training.

Rise of the Beasts noticeably struggles to become more than things go boom. The thematic content of the Autobots' eternal quest for survival acquires a different meaning when the movie is handed to a Black director who gives most of the prominent roles to Black actors and Black voice actors. And the first bit of information one needs to keep in mind to properly analyze this movie is how Black audiences have historically responded to the Transformers franchise. In case you didn't know, Optimus Prime (along with many other nonhuman characters in pop culture) is perceived as Black. The ethnicity of his voice actor is not the point; it's, as far as I've been able to understand it, more of a vibe. The character's values and personality and relationships with other characters are felt by Black audiences as having the specific contour of how Black people experience the world. With this reading of nonhuman characters, Black viewers have found a way to resist their invisibilization by recognizing themselves in works of art not explicitly made with them in mind.

This context gives added meaning to key scenes in the plot of Rise of the Beasts. The cathartic moment of realization at the end of the second act has Optimus Prime admitting that his zeal in defending his people clashed with the human protagonist's similar mission, and they should have forged a bond of solidarity instead of seeing their struggles as mutually exclusive. Now, it's one thing to hear a robot speak of his duty to defend his people and the need for solidarity; it's another thing to hear a Black character say it. Instead of the military commander of previous entries, here Prime is recast as a caretaker of refugees. In the Transformers mythos, the Autobots are usually a persecuted class, happy to mind their own business until the Predacons show up to conquer everything. The movie mirrors their situation in the human characters, who are established in early scenes as targets of racial discrimination. Those scenes aren't exactly subtle or insightful in their portrayal of 1990s racial relations, but they serve their purpose.

However, there are other moments where the script seems to lash out at its own message. In blatant reference to criticism of previous Transformers movies, a robot character is given a Spanish accent and a whole portion of dialogue is spent commenting on that fact. One can almost feel Michael Bay snatching the camera to aim it at his face and scream at the viewers, "No, what I did with Skids and Mudflap is totally not racist. Look, I'm doing it again, and the characters say it's all right." The symbolic weight of the movie's choice of final battlefield is also wasted: the brief remark that an Indigenous temple was supplanted by a Spanish temple could have been used as a stepping point for larger questions of conquest, resilience, and coexistence. Instead, our all-American heroes, fresh from leaving their lives marked by exclusion and inequality, casually intrude into the sovereign airspace of a Third World country to wreck its archaeological sites in the name of helping refugees return to their home, because what's thematic consistency?

Rise of the Beasts falls apart because its plotlines pull in opposite directions. The introduction of the Maximals as exemplifying a more harmonious relationship with humanity seems to point toward a deeper exploration of the theme of coexistence, but the film only pays quick lip service to that idea before the mandatory digital bloodbath begins. For all that the Maximals were positioned as the selling point of the story, they don't rise above plot device status. Although Optimus Primal is as thoughtful and kind as in the Beast Wars cartoon and its underappreciated sequel Beast Machines, the rest of his team is just decoration. Cheetor and Rhinox barely speak any lines, and we never get to know them as characters. More damningly, the Maximals only have about a minute of blurry screen time in their transformed bodies, which is supposed to be the whole point of making a movie about shapechanging robots.

You've seen this plot before. In order to summon the all-devouring Dormammu Unicron to our world, evil murderer Enchantress Scourge prepares a ritual with the pieces of the Mother Boxes Transwarp Key. To stop him, the Elves and Dwarves Autobots and Maximals must set aside their differences and work together, building up to a confusing maelstrom of computer models punching waves of disposable minions. After the end (because this movie has three endings), some enigmatic character comes out of nowhere to set up the Dark Universe Hasbro Cinematic Universe, because everything these days has to connect to other milkable IP. It's an insult to the audience, a punishment to the eyes, and a waste of everyone's time.

Nerd Coefficient: 4/10.

POSTED BY: Arturo Serrano, multiclass Trekkie/Whovian/Moonie/Miraculer, accumulating experience points for still more obsessions.