Michael Bay’s previous film was a cranked-up, little-seen dramatization of the 2012 Benghazi tragedy called “13 Hours.” By sheer coincidence – or, for all I know, by diabolical design – that title also sums up how long it would take you to watch all five of Bay’s “Transformers” movies back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back, not counting the occasional break to use the bathroom, pop another Advil or hurl yourself off the nearest cliff.
Don’t worry. Having just endured “Transformers: The Last Knight,” the latest in this endless and endlessly lucrative series, I can assure you that you would land on your feet just fine – even without a working parachute and even with chunks of flaming debris hurtling past you into the abyss.
You might wind up with dirt smudges on your face, but even those blemishes would be photographed for maximum heroic ardor (suggested Instagram filter: Optimus Grime). Human beings don’t bleed in the PG-13 land of Bayville any more than their giant talking, shape-shifting extraterrestrial cars do.
But I digress. Thirteen hours! Think of what you could get done in that time. You could put a dent in “The Brothers Karamazov,” binge the first season of “Billions” or run an ultra marathon – all experiences likely to leave you feeling less nauseated than having lines such as “I’m gonna hot-wire this bitch!” pound against your skull for half a day.
Fortunately, the “Last Knight” screening I attended was the only “Transformers”-related content I consumed all day, assuming that ugly pileup on the 101 Freeway doesn’t count. Seen toward the end of a sweltering afternoon in an air-conditioned, 3-D-equipped Imax theater, this latest dispatch from the interplanetary war between the good Autobots and the evil Decepticons turns out to be surprisingly bearable in its 150-minute bloat.
By this I mean it comes nowhere close to the brain-dead nadir of “Revenge of the Fallen” (2009) and “Age of Extinction” (2014), and at times it even approaches the fun-in-spite-of-itself apex of “Dark of the Moon” (2011). Overall, the odd-numbered entries would seem to be on this franchise’s side. Not that even the most hard-core “Transformers” devotees should be expected to keep track of exactly what happened when, given Bay’s casual disregard for even the most casual requirements of narrative logic and continuity.
Like few auteurs or hacks before him have managed, Bay has a genius for imbecility; he turns incoherence into its own form of hyperkinetic abstract art. He is a Pollock of pulverized metal, a virtuoso of vertiginous clutter. This is reportedly the director’s final “Transformers” movie before he turns over the reins, and he approaches it with infectious glee, as if he were the ringmaster of the world’s largest zero-gravity robot orgy and delighted at the chance to crack the whip one last time.
True to its title, “The Last Knight” opens with CGI fireballs raining down on a 5th century English battlefield pitting King Arthur (Liam Garrigan) and his knights against a large and deadly army. Just when you might be starting to wonder if you wandered into that Guy Ritchie movie by mistake, along comes Merlin (Stanley Tucci, trying on a different role after “Age of Extinction”), who turns the tide in Arthur’s favor with the help of the mighty Autobots, including one that handily morphs into a fire-breathing dragon.
Sixteen hundred years later, the world sits on the brink of apocalyptic doom. While Optimus Prime drifts through outer space in search of his ancestral home planet of Cybertron, his nemesis Megatron has vanished, leaving mankind and metalkind to duke it out without chaperones. The smoldering wreckage of Chicago (which was leveled in “Dark of the Moon”) is still a deadly war zone, which is to say a giant sandbox for that brash Texan inventor Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg) to play in while enjoying the soulful Camaro-derie of Bumblebee, the yellow Chevy he inherited from Shia LaBeouf (miss you, Shia).
Cade also has a new sidekick in the form of a plucky young orphan (Isabela Moner), plus backup from a few familiar faces including Josh Duhamel as that stoic military hunk and John Turturro as that super-annoying John Turturro character. But the richest scenery-chewing opportunities are seized by Anthony Hopkins as a bellicose British gent who helps Cade unpack the connection between the Transformers and all that revisionist Arthurian myth. Also on hand to correct, mock and arouse Cade is a skeptical British historian named Vivian Wembley (Laura Haddock), one of Bay’s regulation researcher-supermodel hybrids in thick-rimmed specs and high heels.
The scenes of Wahlberg, Haddock and Hopkins trying to explicate the busy plot while keeping up a witty stream of drawing-room banter are an unholy cross between Oscar Wilde and Dan Brown, plus a reminder of just how hapless Bay can be when it comes to the simple mechanics of blocking and shooting a conversation. Perhaps operating on the principle that talk is action, he films his characters as if they were warring spaceships, warily circling each other and often attacking without warning. Lines of dialogue are treated like rapid-fire missiles, clumsily detonated and only rarely connecting with their targets.
You might be tempted to check out permanently, as I was, once the action moves to London for some regrettably ill-timed scenes of vehicular mayhem. You may also find yourself wondering why even the peripheral characters must adhere to Bay’s sneering, stunted view of the human species in general and the female sex in particular – like Vivian’s mum and her friends, who, being British women of a certain age, have been directed to act like a bunch of randy, tittering cougars.
But if the film’s trio of new screenwriters (replacing series mainstay Ehren Kruger) have seamlessly upheld the crass and juvenile “Transformers” sensibility, then Bay’s visual sensibility has, if anything, matured, to the point of demanding and earning your exasperated surrender. He has a peerless command of the imaginative excesses of the Hollywood blockbuster, which range here from computer-generated explosions and self-assembling auto parts to more practical effects such as Wahlberg’s rippling torso.
Amid all the metal-humping chaos are moments of startling, incongruous loveliness. The maniacal villainess Quintessa (Gemma Chan), who could be a cousin of the Supreme Leader from “Captain EO,” doesn’t blow Earth to smithereens; she attacks it with honeycomb-shaped structures that embed themselves in the planet’s surface and pull it into a gentle, lethal embrace. Elsewhere, there are shots of the rolling green English countryside so gorgeous that even Bay can’t resist lingering on them. Sometimes he even holds them for longer than two seconds.
True, not everything makes sense. OK, nothing makes sense. Certainly it will take more astute “Transformers” experts than I (meaning, those who remembered to bring their thick-rimmed specs and high heels) to determine why much of the action takes place on the ocean floor. Or why Earth’s survival depends on the retrieval of an ancient, all-powerful staff from Merlin’s tomb.
Actually, the answer to that one is clear. Like its migraine-inducing predecessors, “Transformers: The Last Knight” is not just the product but the living embodiment of Bay’s boyish imagination. As any parent knows, the world of a child so intently at play can be an alternately lively and tedious place, one where we are treated as either engaged participants or bewildered observers. Sometimes a boy needs friends to help throw his toy cars in the air. And sometimes he just needs to be left alone with his staff.
‘TRANSFORMERS: THE LAST KNIGHT'
Rating: PG-13, for violence and intense sequences of sci-fi action, language and some innuendo
Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes