A film so big that resistance is useless
The best, and the weirdest, of the bunch
Dir Michael Bay Starring Mark Wahlberg, Laura Haddock, Anthony Hopkins, Isabela Moner, Josh Duhamel, Stanley Tucci
It’s a shame that Thomas Aquinas, the 13th-century theologian, didn’t live to see Transformers: The Last Knight, if only because he would have found out what actually happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object. For the climax of Michael Bay’s new film – or rather the last 45 minutes of it, because from the first shot of prologue onwards, the whole thing is nothing but climax – the director smashes two planets together, a catastrophe we’re told entails “casualties in the tens of millions” as entire cities are gouged from the Earth’s surface with the nonchalance of a fingernail running across a bar of soap. By definition, this is the largest action set-piece Bay will ever pull off – unless in his next film he just finds two bigger planets, or throws in a moon for good measure. But the sequence, in all its literally earth-shattering preposterousness, is a cinematic experience no other filmmaker could have possibly concocted.
Fighter jets arc from background to foreground in lock-tight formation, shuddering planes of rock plough into each other at neck-craning angles, giant robots slug each other with swords and rockets as one surface tilts crazily into the next. In its commitment to clashing viewpoints and gonzo geometries, the carnage is almost Cubist – and watching in 3D on an Imax screen, my eyes spent half the time stuck out on stalks, like a Tex Avery wolf. Critics aren’t supposed to get excited about Transformers films, because they’re garish, pandering, chaotic, materialistic, hawkish and salacious – as if these are necessarily bad things – and just generally out to tear down the septième art as we know it. Well, sorry: if you’re not staggered by the technique on display here – the stuff that sets Bay’s work miles above the Fast & Furiouses, X-men: Apocalypses and Tom Cruise-chasing Mummies of this world – you’re not paying attention.
Bay’s first live-action Transformers film – a logical next step for the director of The Rock, Armageddon and (shudder) Pearl Harbor, though a coy and timid affair by the new ones’ standards – was released in 2007, and defending these things over the 10 years since has been a lonely and pointless task. They make billions ($3.8billion to be exact, across four films to date) regardless of what critics write about them, which is almost always “ugh” strung out to 800 words, or thereabouts. Try engaging with them sincerely and people think you’ve lost your mind.
In a way that’s fair enough, because the films themselves are like Goretex to sincerity. In this new one – probably the best, and by some way the weirdest, of the bunch – we discover the Transformers took on the Third Reich and fought alongside King Arthur, with Stanley Tucci cameoing as a boozy, John Cleese-inflected Merlin in the Dark Ages-set prologue. Meanwhile in the present, Anthony Hopkins appears as the 12th Earl of Folgan, a noted Transformers buff whose robotic butler Cogman is voiced by Jim Carter, aka Mr Carson from Downton Abbey.
Stand by also for the Bay version of a strong female character, as played by The Inbetweeners Movie’s Laura Haddock: a young Oxford professor who’s described, both accurately and approvingly, as an “overeducated ivory tower princess in a stripper dress”. Oh, and Optimus Prime meets the Transformers God. Mark Wahlberg’s character is still called Cade Yeager.
Hopkins, a newcomer to the franchise, is an instructive case study. It’s not that no director but Bay could have got from the actor the performance he gives here, so much that no other director would have thought to ask for it. Simultaneously hokey and cokey, it’s a manically odd comic turn, whether the Earl is haring around London in a supercar while fending off booty calls from old flames, or threatening a plummy, David Cameron-esque Prime Minister in his Downing Street quarters with “the watch that killed Hitler”. But it also rarely drops below uproarious, and is nicely abetted by Carter’s sidekick, whom another character brands a “C-3PO rip-off ” before we get the chance.
By the time Hopkins descends into the gut of a submarine and starts waxing rhapsodic about “the sour-sweet musk of men at close quarters”, you’re either irrevocably on board, or on board the bus home. But it’s worth bearing in mind that Bay’s brand of aggressive flippancy is a non-negotiable part of the formula: The Last Knight couldn’t take spectacle for its own sake to such blaring extremes with characters that you cared about in the conventional sense.
Do they look hot? Are they funny and/or charming? For Wahlberg and Haddock, the answer is yes, and anything beyond that would just create drag. There’s a moment when the film’s peppy pre-teen heroine Izzy (Isabela Moner) inexplicably appears in the middle of a military sortie: Wahlberg’s character asks her what on earth she’s doing there, and she replies, with commendable honesty, “I don’t know.”
The things that don’t work are the things that never do. The banter between the Autobots is grating in the extreme, and the film’s pick-and-mix attitude to current pop culture is wildly undiscriminating: while the Stranger Things bit is fun enough, there’s absolutely no call to pay homage to Suicide Squad. Bay’s better than that – and at this particular tenor of obliter-tainment, in this particular film, it often feels like he’s better than anyone.
Knight to remember: Laura Haddock’s character squares up to Autobot Hot Rod