For a while, Transformers: Rise of the Beasts looked like it might be another Bumblebee--a Transformers movie that lacks any of the pizzazz of the Michael Bay flicks but which actually tells a decent story about characters you actually care about. For the first 45 minutes to an hour, we get the most compelling and relatable version yet of the story about a regular person accidentally becoming friends with an alien robot who was secretly a car. But then the plot really kicks in, and suddenly we're watching a Michael Bay Transformers movie--but without Bay's skill as an action filmmaker.
When Michael Bay was directing Transformers movies, they weren't exactly pinnacles of storytelling. In fact, they had awful stories that never even made sense together--each new movie would open with some reveal that made every previous movie make even less sense than they already did. But they were also Michael Bay movies, which means that (aside from Revenge of the Fallen) they had tons of extremely dope action and generally looked sick as hell even during the non-action parts.
Rise of the Beasts, from Creed II director Steven Caple Jr, doesn't look terrible or anything like that. It just looks like a generic big-budget, CGI-heavy affair. There's no flair, no signature to it. And so it's a major problem that the story is bad, because the filmmaking doesn't elevate the experience to make up for that.
But there was a kernel of something interesting here, and it started with Anthony Ramos and his character, Noah Diaz. Unlike the previous live-action Transformers protagonist humans, Noah lives in a crappy apartment and has a life that most of us will find pretty familiar--he's broke, he's stressed, and his little brother needs medical treatments for his sickle-cell anemia that they cannot afford. And this movie is set in 1994, so the situation is probably even worse than it would be today, depending on where you live.
But when we see Noah take his brother to the hospital, he's refused treatment because they're way behind on those medical bills--and so Noah and his pal Reek (Tobe Nwigwe) try to solve this problem by stealing a very, very nice car. But there was one big issue: As you might expect, the car Noah steals is a Transformer named Mirage.
Mirage, voiced by Pete Davidson, is one more subversion of the live-action Transformers formula, which to this point held Bumblebee as the main friend of the human protagonist while also almost never letting him speak in his own voice. Mirage is on the opposite end of the spectrum: He refuses to ever shut up.
It's a great bit, both Ramos and Davidson are hilarious, and the movie actually breathes during this part--for this chunk of the film, up until Noah first encounters the villain Scourge, it feels like a legitimately good movie. But we don't have long to enjoy it before the plot becomes overloaded with new Transformers who need a bunch of exposition to explain why they're even here. This time around, we don't have any Decepticon baddies, but we do get two new factions that each require their own separate lore explanations.
Scourge (Peter Dinklage), the chief lieutenant of the world eater Unicron, is after a MacGuffin called the transwarp key that happens to be on Earth (weird how that keeps happening), and those beasts from the title, the Maximals, are protecting it. Even with all the exposition, they never really establish why the Maximals brought the transwarp key to Earth and then never moved. It's just what Transformers do, apparently.
At the same time, we also have another lead character, Elena (Dominique Fishback), who's important to the plot because she's an archaeologist who has all the relevant historical knowledge. But Elena doesn't meet any of the other significant characters until we're halfway through, and the movie doesn't really know what to do with her beyond her basic function of pointing everybody toward the plot. For large parts of the film, Elena is just kind of there.
The big story problem here is the same one it's always had: Beyond selling tickets, these movies are also trying to sell you toys. In the minds of at least some of the powers-that-be at Hasbro and Paramount, the quality of the storytelling probably isn't relevant. Transformers: Rise of the Beasts has five credited screenwriters, and it certainly feels like the story is being pulled in at least that many different directions.
By the end of it, the Maximals end up as guests in their own movie. They aren't even present in the first half of the film aside from the prologue, so the big conflict of the movie ends up feeling more like Optimus Prime vs. Scourge, with the ape Optimus Primal and his animal gang primarily being a badass gang of helpers like the Dinobots were in Age of Extinction.
Transformers: Rise of the Beasts isn't a terrible movie, but there's very little about it that's particularly good, either. After a promising opening act, it turns into just another generic CGI action-fest that left me numb. But if you're going to center your big franchise on a pair of up-and-coming performers, you really could do so much worse than Anthony Ramos and Dominique Fishback.