Transformers: The Last Knight
Directed by Michael Bay
“Transformers: The Last Knight” is an awful movie – but, unlike its predecessors, it’s now a glorious kind of awful that transforms (yes, I went there) into an eye candy orgy, especially in 3D on a very large screen (the press screening was at the Esquire IMAX).
Which causes me to make a comparison I never expected to make: Michael Bay vs. Terrence Malick.
Back in 2011, I went into Malick’s “The Tree of Life” with some trepidation because Malick’s previous two films, “The Thin Red Line” (1998) and “The New World” (2005) had been visually wonderful (let’s face it, he never saw a backlit blade of grass or leaf he didn’t love) but with narratives that were heavily bogged down by philosophical musings, or vice versa. Then, amazingly, in “The Tree of Life,” it felt like he had thrown caution, and narrative structure, to the wind and just let loose with meaning of life musings in a manner that suddenly made more sense with, for example, some of the most transcendent depictions of childhood I’ve ever seen on screen.
“Transformers: The Last Knight” reminded me of the experience of watching that film. For years Michael Bay has been a director who’s essentially become a punchline for commentaries on massive, action-packed epics, in which explosions seem to rank higher in consideration than nuanced storytelling. And now he seems to have taken that to what might be its ultimate form, focusing so much on the epic action that he’s thrown almost everything else out.
“Transformers: The Last Knight” doesn’t feel like a single movie. It feels more like a trilogy, edited together by a 13 year old on a sugar high – the kind of kid who’d fall asleep at movies that merely claim to be fast and furious. Out with all the meaningful dialog, to the extent there ever was any, and out with all the scenes that neatly stitch things together. The outcome is three movies worth of robots, robots fighting, robots verbally sparring, robots verbally sparring about fighting, fast cars, robots becoming fast cars, and just sufficient shallow exchanges involving humans in between to avoid seizures.
Oddly, there might be more exposition in the flashbacks than dialog in the present day scenes. But that’s largely because the franchise is delving deep into Earth’s history, with the assertion that Transformers have essentially been here all along. The details are foggy – at one point it seems like 1,500-1,600 years and then it’s suddenly all the way back to a single continent and eons of history rather than centuries. Coincidentally, this is “The Tree of Life” territory, or maybe “Prometheus.”
These are the kinds of details that don’t work – which makes their scarcity more of a blessing than a curse. Sure, you’ll have to watch a scene set in about the 5th Century in the ruin of what’s probably a 12th Century building with at least 11th Century architecture – but it’ll be brief and before you know it, you’ll be back to mechanical dragons and completely redundant secondary characters who seem as unclear about their presence in the story as we are. And for all of their awfulness, scenes that dredge up King Arthur, Merlin, and the knights of Camelot (and their Transformer buddies) actually seem less painful than Guy Ritchie’s recent “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword.”
In short, “Transformers: The Last Knight” is huge, loud, frenetic, disjointed, and generally pretty awful. But it’s also surprisingly fun to watch, unencumbered as it is by narrative coherence or (human) character development. Bay has done for action what Malick did previously for philosophy, serving it up devoid of complication, free of the obstructive interference of cohesive storytelling.
Pass the popcorn.