To borrow a phrase from the critic Robert Warshow via Roger Ebert: A man goes to the movies, and the critic must be honest enough to admit he is that man. Sometimes, that man must also be honest enough to admit that he loved Transformers: The Last Knight.
Perhaps loved is too strong a word, but nothing else accurately describes the sound of pure, incredulous joy that escaped my mouth when, after two incessantly clangorous hours of Mark Wahlberg doing battle with world-threatening robots, the piece of animate metal coiled around his swollen bicep magically transformed itself into a giant sword. I don’t say magically lightly, either. This is a movie about giant robots in which Merlin, played by a bearded Stanley Tucci, plays a pivotal role. Remember the classic Simpsons scene where Xena: Warrior Princess’s Lucy Lawless explains to nitpicking fans that any apparent gaps in the fantasy show’s plausibility can be explained by the fact that “A wizard did it”? In Transformers: The Last Knight, an actual wizard did it.
Transformers: The Last Knight is, by the standards of the head and not the heart, an objectively terrible movie. Its plot, concocted by four credited writers and who knows how many other uncredited ones, is both absurdly convoluted and absurdly simplistic: You could spend the equivalent of the movie’s entire 146-minute running explaining what happens, or you could sum it as “Good robots fight bad robots and also King Arthur.” Michael Bay, who has directed all five (!) films in the series, is not just uninterested in but actively hostile to narrative logic, to the point that the Village Voice’s Bilge Ebiri gave up trying to write about the movie in coherent sentences and styled his review as a string of keyboard-smashing gibberish. Great chunks of story are disgorged and then disregarded, and other apparently crucial developments take place off screen or are leaped over entirely. The movie obliterates any sense of conventional storytelling structure; it might have one act, or it might have 14. There was a point somewhere in the middle where I was no longer sure if it was the same day as it had been when I started watching.
But where most of Michael Bay’s movies are merely bad, The Last Knight is spectacularly bad, bad in such a knowing, deliberate way, bad with such steroidal intensity, that it breaks through into a hitherto unknown dimension of badness. Watching it is like stepping into the spacesuit of David Bowman at the end of 2001, except instead of getting spit forth into a white-on-white room at the furthest reaches of space-time, you emerge into a multiplex lobby, knowing that your world can never be the same. It is a movie in which Mark Wahlberg—whose character’s name, we must never forget, is Cade Yeager—trains sentient metallic beings in the shape of tiny dinosaurs to open his fridge and fetch him a beer; in which Cade Yeager adopts a teenage Latina orphaned by the cataclysms of a previous film and they agree to call each other bro; in which Anthony Hopkins plays a dotty English aristocrat who is the sole surviving member of the ancient order of Witwiccans, whose sacred task is to safeguard the knowledge that the Knights of the Round Table were backed up by 12 giant sword-wielding robots—who, by the way, could also combine their bodies into an even more giant three-headed dragon; in which we learn that Shia LaBeouf’s Sam Witwicky, whose only appearance in The Last Knight is via a single wild-eyed 8”-by-10”, was a direct descendant of Merlin. It is a movie in which Hopkins’ aristocrat is attended by an even dottier, and also quasi-sociopathic, robot butler named Cogman, who has served Hopkins’ family for generations, and one in which Hopkins warns Wahlberg, who is poking around the artifacts in Hopkins’ cluttered manor, to be careful with one particular gewgaw, because “That’s the watch that killed Hitler.”
A just and true accounting of all of The Last Knight’s absurdities would run for pages. I haven’t even mentioned how the film keeps cutting back to the (supposedly) elite military force known as the TRF, who—despite the fact that they’re present in nearly all of its major battles—never seem to do anything more than get in the way. (One of Bay’s raisons d’être is to provide spank-bank material for the military-industrial complex, but in this case, they’re shooting blanks.) Or how the movie’s female lead, played by Laura Haddock, looks uncannily like Megan Fox, who was fired from the series after comparing Bay to Hitler. (So eerie is the resemblance that we might as well call this Bay’s Vertigo as well as his 2001.) Or—and I’ll stop after this one, I swear—how there are literally dozens of shots in which characters slide down hard surfaces on their hips, even when there’s no apparent reason to do so. There is no circumstance in Transformers: The Last Knight which Mark Wahlberg cannot approach as if he is trying to steal second base.
For years, Bay was the emblem of all that is wrong with American blockbuster cinema. His movies were thuddingly bombastic, casually racist, overtly sexist, and incoherent to the point of idiocy. But with 2013’s Pain & Gain, Bay seemed to turn a corner. He became self-aware, like an artificial intelligence that had finally learned the trick of seeing human. Pain & Gain—the story of three Florida gym rats whose attempt at extortion goes horribly wrong—didn’t just embody the limits of thick-skulled bro-dude philosophy; it was about it, and that made all the difference. It’s not clear that Bay knew exactly what he was doing with Pain & Gain—for one thing, the movie took a troublesome approach to the murderous real-life case that inspired it—but Bay knew he was onto something, and he’s tried to replicate it in the Transformers movies he’s made since. The Last Knight isn’t exactly a comedy, although Bay encourages his actors to treat it like one. It’s too desperate and noisy to let any of its jokes land. Bay’s method is to throw everything at the wall, then pick up the wall and throw it at the audience. A lot of them are not funny, and a few are offensive, but the movie unloads so many gags with such reckless abandon that a few genuinely inspired ones make it over the transom. When Hopkins is delivering his big speech about how Wahlberg et al. need to save the world, Cogman jumps on a nearby pipe organ and begins playing ominous music to set the mood—a bit of tongue-in-cheek mockery you’d sooner expect from a Mel Brooks parody than a $200-million-plus summer blockbuster.
None of this makes Transformers: The Last Knight good, exactly. It’s incredibly wearisome at times, and the more Bay tries to amp up the tension, the less engaging it gets. (The climax, an all-stops-out extravaganza that features Earth nearly colliding with the Transformers’ home planet, is the dullest part of the movie by far.) But to be worthy of love, a movie need not be perfect, only pure, and this is as close to pure trash as it gets.