We’re at a point in the nostalgia cycle where Michael Bay’s original Transformers pentalogy has rotated into a more positive cultural consensus, at least amongst action fans. Sure, there have always been true believers. But for the most part, that run of extraordinarily loud, mean-spirited toy commercials was met with a bell-curve box-office trajectory and critical derision. Even as a fan, I can’t argue they’re not dumb as hell. The purity of their spectacle is matched by the shallowness of their storytelling; it says something that bringing in Mark Wahlberg to scream at robots is what finally gave these films a human element befitting the series’ tone. They’re endurance tests. Singular experiences, and perhaps the rare 2000s franchise that got more irreverent and disdainful of the source material as the decade dragged on and “fan culture” started taking over the popular imagination. I love them, and it’s frustrating to see so many people take this long to arrive years after the party ended. 

Transformers: Rise of the Beasts, a supposed sequel to 2018’s Bumblebee and supposed prequel to 2007’s Transformers, is why so many critics are now writing love letters to Bay’s run on the franchise. Simply put: Beasts is the result of Hasbro, who owns the franchise, setting out to craft its own IP-driven films without the interference of big-name Hollywood types like Bay. The market has changed. This is now a tested property, and someone with money (or, judging from the logos up front, a lot of people with money) sees Hasbro’s goals as a sound financial investment — which means adhering as closely as possible to the supposed canon, the characters and the traditions of Transformers lore as if it is sacred writ.  

Rather than a toy commercial made by an absolute madman like its predecessors, Beasts is just a toy commercial — a live-action version of those direct-to-DVD short films produced to mainline lore into little kids’ brains on a Saturday morning to make them collect all the newest figures. It will appeal to Transformers fans, but those who found something special in Bay’s vision for the series will be left wanting.

This entry in the series is set in 1994, established by multiple shots of New York City’s pre-9/11 skyline and the presence of Power Rangers merchandise, Game Boys, and references to Marky Mark & the Funky Bunch. (There’s still a scene where a character uses the Internet and what seems to be a very modern-looking search engine to conduct research, but it’s probably not worth worrying about that.) This is the type of film where the nostalgia bait is cloying and annoying; like Captain Marvel a few years ago, it professes to be “inspired by” such 1990s classics as Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Independence Day without actually harnessing the period-specific cinematic language that made them so good. Beasts is a 2020s movie through and through, no matter what vintage toys it throws onto the screen.

Our human protagonist this time around is Noah Diaz (Anthony Ramos), an ex-military electronics wiz who struggles to support his mother, Breanna (Luna Lauren Vélez), and younger brother, Kris (Dean Scott Vazquez), in their small Brooklyn apartment. Kris has sickle cell disease and needs constant medical care, but Noah can’t seem to land a security job due to his problematic discharge from the Armed Forces.

Through a series of events, Noah winds up recruited to help the Autobots, led by Optimus Prime (again voiced by Peter Cullen), who are searching for a way home to their planet, Cybertron. The key to their salvation might just be a Transwarp key, hidden on earth millennia ago by the ancient Maximals, which are Transformers that turn into Earth-based animals rather than vehicles. I don’t know why the Maximals turn into a gorilla, cheetah, rhino or falcon before they ever come to Earth. Don’t ask me to understand questions of that magnitude.

Anyway, the Maximals are hiding on Earth from the dark Transformer god Unicron (voiced by Colman Domingo), who is the ultimate enemy of the franchise and has been for decades. He was teased in Transformers: The Last Knight, but this is entirely different from that setup, which raises more questions that don’t matter. Noah is joined on the human front by Elena (Dominique Fishback), a museum intern with an encyclopedic knowledge of history that helps her uncover the clues to find the Transwarp key. Everyone is hunted by Scourge (voiced by Peter Dinklage), the leader of Unicron’s evil forces.

There’s not much to the story. Noah and his friends face off against the bad guys, eventually culminating in a big portal shooting into the sky that they must deactivate. Will they succeed? Well, it’s a prequel, after all.

That’s not to say there aren’t moments of charm and enjoyment in Beasts, but none of the action sequences mirror the absurd tactility of Bay’s earlier films or the slapstick fluidity of Travis Knight’s Bumblebee. For fans of Optimus Prime and this cast of characters, it’s fun to see them driving around, “hiding in plain sight” as modern American vehicles in odd settings where they’d stick out like a sore thumb. I’ll never tire of the cinematic version of Optimus, who spouts both noble platitudes and searing threats like “I’m going to KILL YOU” in equal measure. As someone who grew up with the Beast Wars toys, it was kind of cool seeing Optimus Primal (Ron Perlman), the leader of the Maximals, but only because it brought to the fore deep childhood resentments of my cousin’s much more substantial collection of Maximals. Samples of Steve Jablonsky’s original Transformers score thrilled me, too.

Those positives, though … it’s all nostalgia, isn’t it? There’s nothing more to Transformers: Rise of the Beasts than fleeting moments of recognition for something experienced long ago. The final scenes set the stage for a franchise future, a path that doesn’t seem worth following and that is destined to sputter out and die like every other overt attempt at building a universe we’ve seen throughout the last 15 years. At least Peter Cullen is still getting plenty of work.