Roger Ebert Home

Transformers: Rise of the Beasts

It’s still a movie about giant space robots talking trash and smashing into each other, but “Transformers: Rise of the Beasts” is better than most offerings in the franchise.

This latest summertime extravaganza, based on the Hasbro toys, doesn’t reach the heights of the unexpectedly delightful “Bumblebee” from 2018. But it’s far superior to the five cacophonous blockbusters Michael Bay directed between 2007 and 2017. Steven Caple Jr. (“Creed II”) takes over the reins this time, bringing a narrative focus and visual coherence that’s been woefully lacking in the past. You can actually see what’s happening in the gargantuan action sequences, which is always a plus.

Longtime fans will probably revel in the childhood nostalgia of seeing these beloved characters come to life once again. Besides the Autobots—led as always by Optimus Prime and voiced by Peter Cullen with his signature gravitas—“Rise of the Beasts” also features Maximals from the “Transformers: Beast Wars” TV series and various intergalactic villains doing the bidding of the planet-gobbling Unicron (Colman Domingo). They’re all in pursuit of the same ancient, McGuffiny doohickey which is super powerful and can cause massive damage.

But what makes “Rise of the Beasts” palatable for everyone else is the fact that it demonstrates surprising care with the human beings trapped in the midst of this epic battle between good and evil. That’s a rarity in this series, known more for the bland types and groan-inducing banter of the Bay movies. The screenplay, credited to five people, gives the likable Anthony Ramos and Dominique Fishback the opportunity to create characters we might even care about.

And yes, it does sound inherently contradictory to say: “I would like more humanity in my movie about otherworldly beings pretending to be cars and trucks.” But that’s what makes “Rise of the Beasts,” and Travis Knight’s ‘80s-set “Bumblebee” stand out.

This isn’t exactly a sequel to “Bumblebee,” but it does begin soon afterward in 1994 and before the events of the first “Transformers.” So it’s sort of a prequel and sort of a reboot. Whatever it is, it takes place in a grungy, pre-Giuliani New York City where Ramos’ Noah Diaz is a former military electronics expert looking for work to support his family. This includes his adorable younger brother, Kris (Dean Scott Vazquez), who’s suffering from a chronic illness. At the same time, at a museum on Ellis Island, Fishback’s Elena is fighting to prove herself as an artifacts expert who’s knowledgeable beyond her years. These are both young people of color being repeatedly underestimated and marginalized by the predominately white people in charge, which provides more context and social criticism than we usually see in these movies.

They both find themselves flung into the hunt for the all-important Transwarp Key—Noah when he tries to steal a Porsche that turns out to be an Autobot, Elena when she studies a new sculpture that’s come into the lab with mysterious symbols on it. One of the most enjoyable parts of “Rise of the Beasts” is the back-and-forth between Ramos and Pete Davidson as the voice of Mirage, the wisecracking sports car. The role calls for Davidson to showcase his irreverent, playful persona. It’s perfect casting, and it may be his best work ever.

Other heavy hitters among the voice cast include Michelle Yeoh as the majestic Maximal falcon Airazor, Ron Perlman as the roaring gorilla Optimus Primal, and Peter Dinklage as the vicious Scourge, the leader of the Terrorcons who’s Unicron’s right-hand man. The ever-charming Cristo Fernández basically does his sunny Dani Rojas personality from “Ted Lasso” as a 1970s Volkswagen bus named Wheeljack, but it’s still a pleasure. Nineties hip-hop classics from A Tribe Called Quest, Wu-Tang Clan, Diggable Planets, The Notorious B.I.G. and more are a great fit and provide an infectious vibe.

But ultimately, “Rise of the Beasts” does what every Transformers movie has to do: wrap up with a seemingly endless fight sequence in which big, shiny chunks of metal slam noisily into each other. The smaller and more intimate special effects are more impressive than these massive set pieces; Mirage evolves in a multitude of cool ways that look tactile and realistic, for example. But while this climax isn’t as dizzying and interminable as they so often are, it’s still rather dull compared to the action that came before it.

There is also the fundamental problem that there are no real stakes: We know what happens to these characters, and that they’ll not only be OK but also survive for several more movies. And of course, a mid-credits scene suggests that there’s even more to come from this cinematic universe, because there’s always more to come. So you may as well buckle up.

Opens Friday, June 9th.

Christy Lemire

Christy Lemire is a longtime film critic who has written for RogerEbert.com since 2013. Before that, she was the film critic for The Associated Press for nearly 15 years and co-hosted the public television series "Ebert Presents At the Movies" opposite Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, with Roger Ebert serving as managing editor. Read her answers to our Movie Love Questionnaire here.

Now playing

STAX: Soulsville, USA
Wildcat
I Saw the TV Glow
Sasquatch Sunset
Omen

Film Credits

Transformers: Rise of the Beasts movie poster

Transformers: Rise of the Beasts (2023)

Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence, and language.

127 minutes

Cast

Anthony Ramos as Noah Diaz

Dominique Fishback as Elena Wallace

Luna Lauren Velez as Mrs. Diaz

Tobe Nwigwe as Reek

Peter Cullen as Optimus Prime (voice)

Ron Perlman as Optimus Primal (voice)

Peter Dinklage as Scourge (voice)

Michelle Yeoh as Airazor (voice)

Liza Koshy as Arcee (voice)

John DiMaggio as Stratosphere / Transit (voice)

David Sobolov as Rhinox / Battletrap (voice)

Michaela Jaé Rodriguez as Nightbird (voice)

Pete Davidson as Mirage (voice)

Cristo Fernández as Wheeljack (voice)

Tongayi Chirisa as Cheetor (voice)

Colman Domingo as Unicron (voice)

Director

Writer (story)

Writer

Cinematographer

Editor

Composer

Latest blog posts

Comments

comments powered by Disqus