It only took over a decade, but the Transformers franchise eventually figured out that maybe movies about giant fighting robots should be fun. (Especially if those giant fighting robots can also turn into cars and trucks and planes.) However, while it might have taken a while (not to mention five increasingly lackluster and solemn Michael Bay entries) to get us to this point, it at least means that the newest Transformers film, Rise of the Beasts, is a genuinely entertaining summer blockbuster, with its high point being Pete Davidson as Mirage.
Highlighting a voice performance as the best quality of a film like Rise of the Beasts could be seen as damning with faint praise, but that’s not the case here. Instead, it’s an appreciation of how much Davidson’s work enhances Beasts as a production, as these films continue to move away from Bay’s super-serious vibe in favor of a new, lighter approach.
Rise of the Beasts is set in 1994 — thus, seven years after Bumblebee, the previous post-Bay Transformers film, though neither film leans particularly hard into its period setting, beyond how it affects the soundtrack (director Steven Caple Jr. does a great job of packing in tracks from Wu-Tang Clan, A Tribe Called Quest, and more). And the film actually begins with an extended prologue introducing the Maximal clan of robot-beast hybrids, who flee their home planet as it’s being destroyed by the villainous Terrorcon Scourge (voiced by Peter Dinklage), an underling of the even more villainous planet-eating entity known as Unicron (voiced by Colman Domingo).
The Maximals take refuge on a little blue marble called Earth; they do such a good job of taking refuge that they don’t show up again for at least another half hour or so. Instead, we get to meet Noah (Anthony Ramos, ticking off the “lead a big-budget action film” item on the checklist for all up-and-coming young actors), whose efforts to find a job that will help take care of his mom (Luna Lauren Vélez) and little brother (Dean Scott Vazquez) are coming up short. So he agrees to help his friend Reek (Tobe Nwigwe) boost a Porsche that’s been hidden away for years… a Porsche that turns out to be the Transformer Mirage.
Mirage is thrilled to no longer be cooped up in a parking garage, and after using his special abilities (like being able to project multiple versions of himself, on top of general Transformers-ing) to get Noah out of a law enforcement-related jam, quickly forms a bond with the baffled human. It’s Mirage who convinces Optimus Prime and the other Transformers that also happen to be hiding out on Earth to let Noah help them track down the Trans-Warp Key, an alien device that just got activated by plucky museum researcher Elena (Dominique Fishback) and could help the Transformers find a way back to their home planet.
Globe-trotting and treasure-hunting ensues, as Noah and Elena agree to help both the Transformers and the now-out-of-hiding Maximals. This is still, of course, the kind of movie where a bad guy will say a line like “Once I have the key, I alone will reign supreme” — it’s a movie about giant robots and giant robot-animal hybrids getting into fights, frankly it’d be a disappointment if there wasn’t at least a little of that. Beasts still manages to keep things light, though, and Davidson’s work is a huge part of that.