Transformers: The Last Knight (2017)

Transformers: The Last Knight first published by Sight & Sound, August 2017

Review: “This is what the end looks like.”

This line comes in the opening sequence of Transformers: The Last Knight, as men in armour fight a ferocious battle in a field in England, sometime during the Dark Ages. As King Arthur’s small band is overwhelmed by enemy forces, a drunken Merlin (Stanley Tucci) rides in with an alien staff and a fire-breathing dragon formed of fallen Transformer Knights.

As bonkers openings go, this is typical for the Hasbro toy-based franchise. After all, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009) featured a prologue set in 17,000BC, while Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014) began in the Cretaceous period. Now director Michael Bay is merely proving that Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is not the only big-budget daftfest of 2017. Arthur lives to fight another day, so that ‘the end’ here is in fact merely a turning point in the history of Human-Transformer relations – which will become relevant in the rest of the film’s more contemporary ‘Bayhem’. The Last Knight, however, is the end – not of the franchise itself, whose continuity, reforged in a mid-credits coda, is already planned in further sequels and spin-offs – but rather, according to Bay himself, of the director’s involvement in the franchise. If this really is Bay’s last Transformers film, he clearly plans to finish as he started, with a confusing, apocalyptic battle involving Earthlings and alien ‘robots in disguise’ in a climax that loudly echoes not just this film’s opening sequence, but also Bay’s four previous instalments.

The Last Knight is also an end of sorts to cinema. A brash, often incoherent and relentlessly dull postmodern hodge-podge of images and ideas pilfered from other epics (from Arthurian legend to Star Wars) and of even more nonsensical connect-the-dots plotting (the synopsis appended here is necessarily provisional), the film regularly blows stuff up in an explosion (or seven) of overwhelming effects, while dumbing down the exposition at every turn – even, at one point, having a scientist describe the end of the world via a popcorn analogy seemingly ready made to be noisily swallowed by the film’s ideal audience. There are three maguffins – a Talisman, a Staff and a Book – the last of which is there purely to let John Turturro literally phone in his performance as recurring character Seymour Simmons. The only real novelty is a contingent of English stereotypes, from preserver of secret histories Sir Edmund Burton (Anthony Hopkins) to his sociopathic, expressly C3PO-like robot butler Cogman (Jim Carter), and Oxford Arthurian scholar Vivian Wembly (Laura Haddock).

If the film is concerned with destruction on a global, nay interplanetary scale, it nonetheless resorts constantly to a puerile mode of ‘grounded’ humour that always feels tonally misjudged, and is seldom actually funny. The result is an exhausting distillation of everything that can possibly go wrong with a blockbuster – and will no doubt make a mint. Still, once you have seen what the end looks like, you will only wish it had come sooner.

Synopsis: England, the Dark Ages. Merlin persuades crash-landed Transformer Knights to gift him their Staff to help King Arthur win a battle. 1600 years later, Optimus Prime, on an interplanetary quest for his maker, is captured and tortured by Quintessa, and co-opted to help find the missing Staff and absorb Earth into the ruined Transformer planet Cybertron. On a scavenging mission in Chicago, Cade Yeager picks up 14-year-old orphan Izabel and her tiny, damaged Autobot Sqweeks – and an alien Talisman. With various military factions and Megatron’s crew of Decepticons all trying to get the Talisman, Cade is extracted by robot butler Cogman to the castle of Sir Edmund Burton, last member of the secret Witwiccan Order, who informs Cade that the Talisman marks him as the Last Knight, and tells the similarly extracted Oxford Arthurian expert Vivian Wembly that only she, as the last in Merlin’s bloodline, can wield the lost Staff. Following clues left by Vivian’s late father, she and Cade find the Staff in a sunken alien craft. The brainwashed Optimus steals the Staff, but reverts to his old self when he hears the voice of his best friend Bumblebee. Megatron takes the staff to Quintessa on Cybertron (now over Stonehenge). Cade, Vivian and Izabel are flown up to Cybertron where, amid an epic battle, and with unexpected help from Sqweeks, Vivian retrieves the Staff and saves the world. Quintessa remains on Earth in human guise.

© Anton Bitel