So, I think we might have it: the Michael Bay-est movie that Michael Bay has ever made. Which is ironic, because it is tremendously obvious as you're watching Transformers: The Last Knight that Bay didn't want to be involved. That's nothing new, of course; I think that Bay has pledged that every new Transformers film would be the last one he'd ever direct since the first. But this time, you can actually feel it. Even Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, which remains the worst blockbuster I have ever seen, from any era of filmmaking, has the commitment of a director who believes in his terrible, terrible choices. The Last Knight is suffused with an overwhelming, choking feeling of pure boredom, shading into self-loathing - if not for himself, then certainly for the movies he finds himself in the position of shepherding into the world.

So how, then, do I dare claim it to the very quintessence of Bay? Because the director's aesthetic, as I have encountered it over these many years, is all about momentary flashes: this one frame, this one explosion, this one hot girl's ass in tight jean shorts, all strung out as a series of distinct moments that have no meaningful relationship to any of the other moments. Somewhere along the way, I think I called him something like "a great director of images and a terrible director of editing", or maybe somebody else said that and I just thought that it sounded exactly right, because it does sound exactly right: Bay's films are all about what is happening now, on-screen and on your retina and in your chest, and the moment now becomes several seconds ago, you stop caring and go on to the next thing. And The Last Knight is the ultimate version of that: it is so much a collection of individual nows that I don't think I could tell you how they somehow all add up to a 149-minute narrative if you put a gun to my head.

That's a fucking long time for a movie in which robots who are also cars punch each other - and it's the second-shortest film in the franchise, no less! - which makes it impossible for this next thing I say to be true, but it's apparently not long enough. Many scenes, or even most scenes, or even all the damn scenes, feel only partially completed, as though the major plot beats were locked in place, but there was neither time nor space to place in all of the connections that stitch the beats together. It's very nearly impossible to follow what happens in the film, and not just at the macro level of "wait, how did we get from Merlin the wizard (Stanley Tucci, holding back nothing) being a sloppy drunk all the way to a decommissioned WWII submarine that's a Transformer, even though it never actually transforms?"

No, it's impossible to follow at the most very basic level of what plot events happen, where, and why. Characters pop up in scenes when they should be on the other side of London - or the Atlantic Ocean - and the existence of critical conversations needs to be taken simply on faith. We're in one location and then another and then a third before it's even fully registered what was supposed to happen at the first. And this is all besides the general broken, braindead writing of summer movies, which is here as well, largely in the final act, whichever number that is (my guess is fourth, but fifth is a possibility): good old-fashioned awful science, big damn plot holes (the most galling of which has to do with the victory over the main villain: what, so just a gun would work? Then why have the entire preceding hour of the movie?). And if The Last Knight can't really be parsed in and of itself, woe betide the viewer who tries to square anything we see here with the rest of the franchise - even I, who can't remember much of anything that happens in these damn movies without re-reading my reviews of the old ones (usually while wondering if I had a concussion while writing them), had a solid half-dozen moments where I got hung up on some plot point that flatly contradicted one of the preceding four movies.

And so I return to my first point, which is that The Last Knight feels like a whole lot of individual moments and ideas, failing in any way to combine into an incoherent whole, let alone a coherent on. The story goes that the Transformers franchise writers' room has the idea for 14 different sequels and/or spin-offs, and The Last Knight suggests that a possible way forward is to write them into one script. That's basically what we've got here: a film about how the Transformers helped King Arthur (Liam Garrigan) win the Battle of Badon Hill in 484 AD and gave Merlin a powerful piece of alien technology that, as it turns out, has no function whatsoever; a film about how Cade Yeager (Mark Whalberg) has become a pro-Transformer resistance fighter ever since Transformers: Age of Extinction; a movie about plucky homeless Chicago kid Izabella (Isabela Morner) who roams the wastelands saving Transformers; a movie about Vivian (Laura Haddock), who has two Ph.D.s and four female relatives badgering her to have more sex, and is the last living descendant of Merlin; a movie about the babbling crazyperson Sir Edmund Burton (Anthony Hopkins) and his ancient secret society dedicated to hiding Transformers from the world, apparently by confiscating great works of art by Leonardo da Vinci and Pieter Bruegel the Elder that have giant space robots in them; a movie about that old bastard Simmons (John Turturro) from the first three movies, now serving as a fixer for the Cuban government or I don't even know what, but the movie goes out of its way to clarify that Transformers have been banned everywhere in the world but Cuba.

Some of these films, admittedly, fit in with just fine with some of the others, but they don't all fit together, and none of them are the actual driving conflict of the film, which finds Optimus Prime (voiced as ever by Peter Cullen) turned toward the evil by Quintessa (Gemma Chan), who is apparently the Transformer's god, but also just hanging out angrily on the rock that used to be the planet Cybertron, plotting how she'll travel to Earth to suck out our molten core to restore Cybertron to its former glory.

So the whole thing is just a complete slurry, like I bet not even the writers themselves could tell you exactly how all the pieces fit together, and I haven't so much as glanced at some of the stupidest parts, like how the U.S. government releases a bunch of evil robots to track down a man whose exact physical location they already know, or how there's a robot character with an elaborate French accent (given to him by Omar Sy), and the film wastes many precious seconds clarifying that he's not actually French, he's just an idiot. Setting that aside. The filmmaking is just as much of a hatchet job as the story: the confusing scene writing is compounded by editing that skips through all actions in the film, be they mundane or be they huge-scale fight sequences (all of which are backloaded, to the film's considerable harm), like you're watching an ancient nitrate print where only three out of every five frames was intact enough to project. Even the cinematography is a shambles: the film shot on several different capture media, and the bastards didn't matte it, so the aspect ratio changes constantly. Constantly. In any given conversation - let's say there are two humans and an Autobot and it's outside - there will be a different ratio for the human close-ups, for the human wide shots, for the establishing shot, and for any shot with a full-body robot, but there are also two ratios based on whether the robot is in a one-shot or with the whole group. So literally every cut, the aspect ratio is fluttering like a drunk butterfly, and if that sounds like nitpicking, you tell that to my sense of equilibrium, which was just not having it. It's so rapid - this is a fast-cut movie, let's not forget - that it ends up doing all kind of horrible shit to one's peripheral vision, and it's already a busy enough movie visually as it is.

Why, then, the star and a half, as opposed to something more sensible, like deleting this entire site out of protest. A couple reasons. One is that the movie's effects are beyond gorgeous: the movie cost several fortunes, and every dime of it is lavished on the screen. Every Transformers film has looked better than the last, VFX-wise, and this is a firm contender for the best CGI of the year, assuming you can get past the part where the designs still look ten thousand metal shavings were glued into a humanoid form. The other is that the comedy is actually successful sometimes, which is a huge improvement over the last four movies. In particular, Hopkins is having an obviously great time prattering away with the deranged things he has to day, and insulting his robot butler Cogman (Jim Carter), who also appears to be homicidal and gay, and prone to making fourth-wall-breaking jokes with the film's soundtrack. It is a fine continuation of the series's habit of letting overqualified actors goof off - John Malkovich started it in 2011's Transformers: Dark of the Moon, Tucci continued it in Age of Extinction (he's also pretty decent in this film, if you can forgive the fact that he's basically doing a bro-ier version of Tim the Enchanter), and Hopkins does it best of all. He's a great ham, that one, and sparkling enough in his weird, unpleasant role that he makes the entire movie slightly more pleasurable to watch as it enters its considerably less godawful second half.

Reviews in this series
Transformers (Bay, 2007)
Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (Bay, 2009)
Transformers: Dark of the Moon (Bay, 2011)
Transformers: Age of Extinction (Bay, 2014)
Transformers: The Last Knight (Bay, 2017)