Michael Bay’s Transformers series is a paradox. It’s made frankly obscene amounts of money around the world and has single-handedly kept the wider franchise alive and relevant. Yet, as some pointed out upon Transformers: The Last Knight’s recent release, nobody really seems to like these movies, but we keep spending our money on them anyway.
But The Last Knight seems to have bucked that trend entirely. Sure, nobody liked it, but it’s also made the lowest amount of money in the franchise. But why now? Why this movie specifically?
It’s tempting to, as always with this series, lay the blame at Bay’s feet. But Knight isn’t his fault. At least, not entirely.
The film has six editors
And none of them seem to get what they're doing.
More than any other element of filmmaking, editing is what either makes or breaks the finished product. Film is a visual medium, and while the director’s the overall head of the process, editors are who shape what winds up on screen.
Part of the reason Star Wars: A New Hope works so well is because that sucker moves. The film spends no more time on each scene than it needs to for maximally efficient storytelling. There’s a reason Marcia Lucas, Paul Hirsch and Richard Chew won an Oscar for their editing on the film. It’s the secret weapon that made Star Wars … well, Star Wars.
Conversely, try to think of any major battle scene in any of the Transformers films. You can’t, can you? That’s because this franchise suffers from poor editing.
This series-long trend reaches its nadir in Knight’s punishingly long, climactic battle sequence. To defeat the Decepticons and evil space sorceress Quintessa (Gemma Chan), a group of Autobots, U.S. military personnel and our civilian heroes descend on a portion of Cybertron — as it crashes into the Earth above Stonehenge — and are met by a barrage of enemy forces and gunfire.
Giant robots and army dudes battling other giant robots in the sky? And one of them’s a giant robot dragon! That sounds amazing, right? But in practice, it’s an incomprehensible bore of gunfire, explosions and shouting.
The surest reasons for how plodding this is are the film’s six credited editors (an anomaly in and of itself, as most films typically only have one-to-three editors). Between them, this team has some incredible accomplishments. Mark Sanger co-won the Best Editing Oscar in 2013 for his work on Gravity; John Refoua was nominated for the same Oscar in 2010 for Avatar; Roger Barton worked on Titanic and has worked with Bay dating back to Armageddon. But between them, this veritable all-star team just can’t make any of the Bayhem land visually.
There’s a few fun shots here and there — like the Dinobot Grimlock barfing up a police car he was trying to eat, and the three-headed robot dragon Dragonstorm flying around. There are even some genuinely thrilling battle scenes, like the opening sequence set in Arthurian times where Merlin (Stanley Tucci, campin’ it up and loving it) recruits said three-headed robot dragon to fight against the Saxons. But in between are nothing but anvils of exposition and carnage that none of the editors can work around.
Compare this to the previous film, Transformers: Age of Extinction. Take the opening scene showing the mysterious Creators flying down to prehistoric Earth on spaceships and coating the land and the dinosaurs in liquid metal, “Transformium." It consists of mostly single, steady takes where everything is clear and establishes the visual tone for the movie. Despite being the longest film in the franchise, at two hours and 45 minutes, Extinction doesn’t feel as punishingly long as Knight does. In part, that’s because its three editors arrange things to underscore the sense of impending doom the film’s screenplay keeps constantly reinforcing.
Knight’s screenplay is the first from the Tranformers writers’ room
And it’s atrocious.
The Last Knight is the inaugural work of Paramount’s much-touted Transformers writers’ room. Established in 2015 to replace departing writer Ehren Kruger (who wrote or co-wrote the previous three films), the group is overseen by Oscar-winning writer and in-demand producer Akiva Goldsman and includes writers like Zak Penn (Alphas), Steven DeKnight (Spartacus), and writing partners Art Marcum and Matt Holloway (Iron Man). Their purpose is to establish a sprawling, MCU-esque infinite franchise for the robots in disguise.
The Last Knight — written by Marcum, Holloway and Ken Nolan from a story by the three and Goldsman — is the group’s first effort to see the light of day … and its script is awful. Now, granted, strong screenplays have never been too important to Bay films. But with Knight marking the director’s exit from the franchise, screenplays are going to be much more important going forward.
Knight is bogged down by its vast mythology, compounded by the fact that it’s trying to do what IDW’s excellent tie-in comics to the first three films accomplished effortlessly: combine the Ancient-Aliens-but-with-Transformers alternate history laid out in all of these films with enough content future films to spin off of. Thus, we get Sir Edmund Burton (Anthony Hopkins), the last surviving member of the Order of the Witwiccans (give it a second), a secret society dedicated to preserving the hidden history of Transformers on Earth. He reveals that people like Harriet Tubman and William Shakespeare palled around with giant robots and Bumblebee fought in WWII. It’s not as clunky as Batman giving Wonder Woman a press kit flash drive explaining who Flash, Cyborg and Aquaman are — but it’s damn close.
Is that as stupid as John Turturro breathlessly declaring, “I am directly below ... the enemy’s scrotum!” in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen? Or as cringe-inducing as Extinction’s Jack Reynor just whipping out a laminated copy of an obscure Texas law that makes it ok for him to date Nicola Peltz’s underage character? Or as mind-bendingly moronic as Dark of the Moon not ending so much as just ... stopping? No, no it’s not.
But it’s one thing to suddenly declare that your explosion-fest film series has this vast mythology and continuity just waiting to be explored. It’s quite another to straight up ignore the continuity — that is, a screenplay logically and tonally consistent with itself from scene to scene — within your own film.
Again, this isn’t something new to this series; they’ve each had a healthy amount of errors. But it’s particularly galling because Knight is Bay’s curtain call for the franchise, and this film is trying to establish a wider Transformers universe. It’s not just lazy when Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen) gets snapped out of his brainwashed stupor by Bumblebee (Eric Esqueviel) speaking for the first time in millennia when the first film’s end note involved him getting his voice back; it’s actively insulting to the fanbase they’re clearly trying to mollify and stoke.
Putting the incomprehensible mess of 2009’s Revenge of the Fallen aside — the film went into production without a script due to the 2007-2008 writers' strike — the two films with screenplays solely attributed to Kruger have a tonal consistency to them. 2011’s Dark of The Moon, for instance, dealt with the Autobots reeling from the discovery that their American allies were keeping secrets from them, while Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) felt adrift and purposeless after being unable to tell anyone that he saved the world twice. In other words, between Chicago getting destroyed, Megatron being called “a bitch” and John Malkovich trying to goad Bumblebee into fighting him, the movie dealt with palpable disappointment and shattered expectations and trust. Extinction, as mentioned above, was all about running away from what seems like inescapable doom.
In contrast, Knight doesn’t know what its tone is, and consequently, it’s all over the place. Is it a literal worlds-colliding, epic clash of civilizations? Is it a tale of discovering that your destiny is bigger than you could’ve ever imagined? Is it about the horror of what happens when Optimus Prime — one of the most heroic robots in pop culture history — goes bad? The movie doesn’t know, and you can feel the waffling and indifference on screen.
But if all these movies suck, what makes this one so different?
People know a clunker when they see one. That’s why I remember hearing audible groans and laughter in the theater as M. Night Shyamalan’s name came up at the end of the After Earth trailer. And given that reviews for Knight all seemed to have settled on a tone of exasperation and exhaustion, it’s no wonder diehard and casual fans have stayed away, with this posting the lowest box-office opening in franchise history.
It seems the toxic combination of Bay’s incomprehensible action and apathy-bordering-on-disdain for the franchise, as well as the stunningly low amount of screentime for the Cybertronian stars of the franchise, has finally caught up with it.
So if Paramount and its Transformers writers’ room can’t balance things out with the upcoming Bumblebee-focused spinoff and 2019’s Transformers 6, they’ve only got one option — to finally, actually pay attention to what’s made this property work, and to get a director who at least has some small interest in the material. The hiring of Laika founder and Kubo and The Two Strings director Travis Knight for Bumblebee is at least promising. Otherwise, all the Chinese product placement in the world won’t save Transformers.
Tom Speelman is the former manga/anime critic for the Eisner Award-winning Comics Alliance. He’s proofread and edited several books for Seven Seas Entertainment and other clients and can be found on Twitter @tomtificate, where he’s usually yelling about comics.