King Arthur plus a three-headed robo-dragon, and that's just the prologue!

If you're going to watch just one Transformers movie, it should be the 1986 animated film, a merciless power-pop PG kidtoon that incongruously kills multiple lovable characters and features an Orson Welles-voiced planet-munching ultramonster. If you're going to watch two Transformers movies, though, I vaguely recommend 2017's Transformers: The Last Knight, the fifth and final film in director Michael Bay's Hasbro decade. Bay himself now says he "should have stopped" making Transformers films earlier. Steven Spielberg told him to only make three. Steven Spielberg also directed Ready Player One, so even he can be so very very wrong sometimes. The Last Knight fizzled at the box office, but I admire its chaotic energy. It's my favorite of Bay's pentalogy and not something anyone should regret.

The film opens with King Arthur battling the Saxon hordes. The time is England, the place is the Dark Ages, or something. Merlin (Stanley Tucci) races to a crashed alien ship, where he begs a space robot for help. The magician is drunk. Also, he's not a real magician. Turns out Merlin's magic was Transformers all along. His explanation of the whole Saxon situation is uncomplicated: "Big personalities just sort of clashing and reeeeaaaahhha and bloody!"

Right about now, anyone who has seen another Transformers film — or seen any film, ever— is probably asking: "Dawhat?" King Arthur? Magic? This prologue features two armies, one robo-dragon, and multiple flaming catapults. It seems to be striving awkwardly to extend the franchise's canon back throughout famous moments in human history. I prefer to ignore those cinematic universe flailings and imagine that this was Michael Bay's attempt to out-Gladiator Braveheart in under seven minutes.

The whole battle sequence looks gorgeous, whatever the plot ridiculousness involved. And then Last Knight cuts to deep space, where Optimus Prime is a floating cosmic iceberg. And then it cuts to the ruins of Chicago, where some kids fight military security robots near the ruined L train. Someone blows Bumblebee to pieces, and then the pieces fight back. Did I mention every country hates the Transformers except Cuba? Did I mention the Transformers fight the Nazis in World War II? Did I mention Mark Wahlberg has long hair now? Words fail me. Big personalities. Just sort of clashing. Reeeeaaaahhha.

Mark Wahlberg in 'Transformers: The Last Knight'
| Credit: Paramount Pictures/Bay Films

All Bay's Transformers films are all over the place. Three are offensive. Age of Extinction is unwatchable. Last Knight benefits by shedding the obvious problems: No Beijing appeasement, no explicit minstrelsy. This is a movie where Mark Wahlberg says, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic," and it is a movie where Mark Wahlberg asks an annoying kid, "You wanna get punched in the face, like, really hard?" There is an intense polo match. Anthony Hopkins does not phone in his performance as Sir Edmund Burton, more or less the Dumbledore of Transformers. Jim Carter ultimatizes his Downton Abbey butler to voice a robot attendant named Cogman.

The Last Knight is two and a half hours long, which — wait, wait, come back! No question, like all the live-action Transformers films, there is way too much exposition and mythology. I can understand why some people gravitate more to Bumblebee, the modest throwback spinoff which embeds a few disguised robots in an '80s teen adventure. Bumblebee is the ideal Transformers for people who think half an okay John Hughes movie counts as a whole good John Hughes movie.

I demand no such delusion! When I buy a ticket to a tasteless CGI robot barrage, I expect that barrage to leave me reeling. Last Knight's plot is incoherent. The aspect ratio changes frequently. The middle hour should probably be a middle minute. But the visuals can stun. In the final act, Earth becomes a microwave that turns people into popcorn. At least that's what Tony Hale's scientist says. All I know is that ships fall down, Earth falls up, and everyone's long hair blows every which way. (New Yorker critic Richard Brody pegged this movie as the moment Bay officially became an experimental filmmaker, a compliment which is only 38 percent backhanded.)

When Anthony Hopkins' character dies, his robo-butler offers a sincere battlefield eulogy to his fallen lord: "Of all the earls I have had the pleasure to serve, you were by far the coolest." Couldn't have said it better.


Transformers: The Last Knight
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