Yes, you should see Transformers: The Last Knight, because it’s totally insane and sometimes marvelous.
Had I known that Transformers: The Last Knight would involve such significant characters introduced in Transformers: The Movie, I would have saved the 1986 animated feature for this edition of Movies to Watch. Alas, I recommended it three years ago to view after you see the previous live-action installment, Transformers: Age of Extinction. Hopefully you took my advice then, so you had some background material before seeing the latest.
Not that it’d help you comprehend the plot either way. Plus, there are also episodes of the ’80s animated series that would similarly give you joy to know going in, including the medieval-set “A Decepticon Raider in King Arthur’s Court” from 1985. Since I avoided including other Transformers things, I also avoided including other Michael Bay things, despite how much I was reminded of Armageddon and Pearl Harbor.
Transformers: The Last Knight is a whole lot of movie, sometimes feeling like multiple films mashed together. So choosing this week’s crop of recommendations was difficult to pin down. I probably could have done a list for every unique segment of the epic fifth part of the robot-alien franchise. Especially the Dark Ages prologue, the part with the kids adventuring in post-apocalyptic rubble, the underwater spaceship section, etc.
Here are the eight I decided on:
An Impossible Voyage (1904)
Georges Méliès was the original movie magician, or at least the one we recognize as the pioneer. Like Michael Bay, Méliès performed magic before becoming a filmmaker — for Bay it was just a childhood hobby, though, whereas Méliès was a pro. Both of them have considered cinema as a kind of magic show, and they both were particularly interested in the spectacle of and within movies.
An Impossible Voyage is a sort of follow-up to Méliès’s more famous 1902 film A Trip to the Moon and is similarly based on a work by Jules Verne (“Journey Throught the Impossible”). This one also features a trip to a celestial body depicted with an actor’s face: the sun. To return to Earth, the explorers get into a submarine and plunge back down and into the ocean. Unlike in The Last Knight, theirs does not encounter a sunken spaceship.
Méliès himself stars in the film as the head of the Institute of Incoherent Geography, which sounds like a place Bay might appreciate, given how hard it is to follow the geography of his movies.
If you appreciate Méliès, you should maybe appreciate some of what Bay is doing with The Last Knight. It doesn’t make sense, but it’s full of imagination. For an in-between, go from the Méliès to Terry Gilliam’s underrated The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.
Duck Soup (1933)
What would a Marx Brothers Transformers movie look like?
Nothing like Bay’s series, I’m sure, but that didn’t stop me from thinking about Groucho, Chico, Harpo, Zeppo, and Gummo while watching The Last Knight. I honestly don’t think I’ve seen a movie so anarchic since the Marx boys stopped making theirs. Duck Soup is arguably the best and has the most ludicrous climax of all their releases.
The plot centers on the bankrupt nation of Freedonia, which is newly led by Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho), and a scheme by the nearby Sylvania to take the country over. The other Marxes work for Firefly, with Chico and Harpo being enemy spies. The iconic mirror scene comes from Duck Soup, as does one of my favorite Chico and Harpo bits involving a street vendor who falls victim to their shenanigans.
There is definitely a different sort of chaos and genius on display in Marx Brothers movies compared to Bay’s work. While there are a ton of nutty things going on to the side of the main storyline of The Last Knight, none are also such brilliant gags and sketches as are seen in Duck Soup.
However, had he not been given a voice, the new Headmaster Transformer Cogman would seem to be a robotic homage to Harpo.
Robot Monster (1953)
Bay is not one of the worst filmmakers of all time, but his Transformers movies do tend to border on the incomprehensible.
The Last Knight actually takes the cake there, to an astounding measure. While his spectacle calls to mind Méliès and his madcap tone is reminiscent of the Marx Brothers, his handle on the story material is more akin to an awful B-movie director like Phil Tucker.
Robot Monster, which also was shown in 3D, doesn’t exactly have robots, but there is a monster from space that looks like a gorilla with a space helmet on. His name is Ro-Man, and he’s wiped out almost all of humanity, save for a family who’d taken a serum once that turned out to also immunize them against alien death rays. Or something. There are also giant lizards who inexplicably show up and fight each other. In the end, the whole story was all a dream. Or was it???
The ambiguous ending might have been something had the rest of the movie made any sense at all. Tucker made movies as nonsensical as Bay does now, only he didn’t have the technology or, yes, the tech proficiency the Transformers director benefits from to make up for his weaknesses.
All Tucker has is apparently the latest in bubble-making special effects, as indicated by the opening credit given to a special bubble machine manufacturer.
Dog Star Man (1961-1964)
In his review of The Last Knight for The New Yorker, Richard Brody sort of champions Bay as an experimental filmmaker of pure sensation, referencing Stan Brakhage in comparison.
It’s not the first time the avant-garde cinema legend has come up in criticism of Bay’s work, particularly in response to his Transformers movies. Three years ago, critic David Ehrlich referred to the plotting of Transformers: Dark of the Moon as “Brakhage-like,” and Bruce Reid compared Bay to Brakhage and Bruce Conner way back in 2000.
The point of linkage between Bay and Brakhage is both in their technique (Bay was one of the first to use so much handheld camera work and fast cutting in mainstream blockbusters, staples of Brakhage’s work) and in Bay’s apparent disinterest in continuity or cohesion in his storytelling. Brakhage is one of the foremost non-narrative filmmakers, and Bay’s films lately only have narratives, or premises, as a formality.
In spite of their experimental nature, Brakhage’s films are far more personal than Bay’s (his famous Window Water Baby Moving shows the birth of his first child), and the essential Dog Star Man (like Bay’s Transformers run, made up of five films!) is no exception.
But it also, as the name would suggest, hints at being almost a cosmological sci-fi film. There’s a minimal narrative, but like with The Last Knight, the sensational visuals are what’s important.