Who, exactly, is the new Transformers film made for?
The answer might lie in a popular new talking point making its way around Hollywood, employed by whoever is trotted out to justify the latest blockbuster to belly-flop with critics. This week, Alex Kurtzman, director of The Mummy reboot, told press that, "We made a film for audiences and not critics." Dwayne Johnson, defending Baywatch on Twitter, observed, "Fans LOVE the movie. Critics HATE it. What a glaring disconnect." And last summer, Cara Delevingne stood up for Suicide Squad, saying, "It's the fans we made this movie for."
All right. Ignore the fact that critics are fans of movies just as much as anyone else – or even more so, since we chose and lucked out into a career devoted to the medium – and just gently nudge aside the notion that whatever defines a "fan" here is somehow deserving of a product judged inferior by others. Fans rule, critics drool, etc.
So far, director Michael Bay has yet to trot out the "I did it for the fans, man" excuse for his new ode to idiocy, Transformers: The Last Knight. But as the execrable excuse for a motion picture winds its way to wide release this week, it is only a matter of time before Bay, or another party contractually obligated to defend their participation in this experiment in cinematic torture, stands up, clears his or her throat and bravely announces that, "Hey, fans, we made this for you!" Because, well … we hate you.
Yes, hate. That is the first word that comes to mind when thinking about The Last Knight. Possibly "contempt." Or "joke." Maybe "slap in the face," though I realize that is more than one word. How else to explain, though, the motivation behind creating this fifth chapter in Bay's exhausting toy story?
Whatever you think of the previous four Transformers films – I have defended the first, and retain a soft spot for the third – it is impossible to ignore the sheer malice that went into this new production. It is ugly to look at. Its characters are stupid – as in their decisions seem dictated by a level of subhuman intelligence – and grossly conceived. Its story is an exercise in Final Draft-sponsored Mad Libs, a string of impossible-to-decipher narrative beats that only exist to fill the next chunk of maddening screen time and, inevitably, lead to yet another sequel (teased, as is the current fashion, in a post-credits stinger). It is not so much lazy filmmaking as it is a very expensive middle finger to common sense and the basic concept of entertainment.
I worry, though, that in making such hyperbolic declarations, there runs the risk that The Last Knight comes off looking like a so-bad-it's-good exercise in brain-dead summer fun. A simple plea: do not mistake my scorn for a backward endorsement. There is no redemption to be found here, only suffering.
If further evidence is required, here's the plot – or what four screenwriters (including Akiva Goldsman, architect of the dumbed-down modern blockbuster) have cruelly decided constitutes a plot. It's a few years after the events of Transformers: Age of Extinction and Earth's government forces have once again decided that all Transformers are enemies of the planet (this is about the third or fourth time that's happened in the franchise). The heroic Optimus Prime is nowhere to be found, and the villainous Megatron is biding his time until the script requires him to pounce, as always. Mark Wahlberg's ridiculously named Autobot ally Cade Yeager is still around and kicking, though, and it's not long before he stumbles upon one of the film's half-dozen MacGuffins, which further leads him to an alien staff once wielded by Merlin himself (don't ask, I beg of you) and an age-old conspiracy that reeks of narrative nonsense.
Along the way, the toxic screenplay – which doesn't even bother with the basic transitioning of its characters from A to B locations, or lending anyone an ounce of motivation beyond "I like things that go boom" – ensnares everyone from Anthony Hopkins's exposition-spouting British lord to Laura Haddock's Oxford history professor, who mostly seems to be around so Bay can shoot her from such a low angle that she's literally spilling out of her dress. (These shots are so copious and queasy that, were it not for the constant din of explosions, the soundtrack might be dominated by Bay's heavy panting.)
Not one single performer pays much attention to what they're doing, and who can blame them? Infomercials deploy more challenging scripts, and traffic cops offer more nuanced direction. Stanley Tucci, as a stumbling and bumbling Merlin, seems particularly preoccupied, perhaps calculating how many mortage payments his eight minutes of screen time will cover.
Bay has repeatedly said The Last Knight is his Transformers swan song, though it appears he checked out after part three. His formerly unique hyper-aggressive style of filmmaking – blunt but fluid, meat-headed in substance but subversive in style – was once put to such wildly gonzo use in all-time action classics The Rock, Bad Boys II and, yes, the first Transformers. Any trace of that style, any ambition at all, is entirely absent here – as if a movie was directed by a very well-funded ghost.
But make no mistake: Transformers: The Last Knight is not so much a movie as it is a blatant cash grab designed to exploit anyone who still retains some fondness for a once-engaging band of space robots. That is: fans, Hollywood's allegedly most treasured commodity.
Transformers fans – and judging by the $3.7-billion the films have earned thus far, there are a lot of you still out there – this is not for you. This, it is for no one.