Basing a series of movies on a line of toys is often a losing proposition.
It's easy to think director Michael Bay got lucky with the first "Transformers" film because it featured a trope that delights kids and haunts their parents. What if shoddy-looking Volkswagen was really a heroic robot or an ordinary cellphone happened to be a malevolent space alien. With the rise of AI, the latter theme seems creepier than ever.
If the first movie allowed Bay and his collaborators to remember how much fun it was to play with toy robots, the subsequent movies he made in the series reminded me of what happens when we outgrow our playthings. Pretty much all the humans involved seemed to be taking their cues from Hasbro and looked pretty bored doing it.
Steven Caple Jr. ("Creed II") can't muster much enthusiasm for this new assignment, either, and the five credited screenwriters (that's right, five) haven't given him or us any new human or cyborg characters to love or hate.
As with the previous films the battles between the Autobots and their antagonists du jour are loud, frenzied and difficult to follow. When one hunk of metal bests another it's hard to care because neither really dies. The characters are so thin that emotional investment slips right through them. It's sort of like going to a demolition derby if the cars could be recycled afterward.
The action neither rises nor falls. It just stays at the same numbing pace.
Of course, a new race of evil robots called Predacons worship a god who wants to eat the Universe the way Pac Man does. Their leader Scourge (Peter Dinklage) is trying to find a key to help him do that.
A second group of cyborgs called the Maximals have hidden parts of the key here on Earth, which seems pretty stupid even from a human perspective.
The leader of the Autobots, Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen, who has voiced the role for decades) is eager to help ward off the Predacons, and hopes the key can help his tribe get back to their home planet. Somehow a struggling veteran (Anthony Ramos, "Hamilton") and an art scholar (Dominique Fishback, "Judas and the Black Messiah") fit into the story, but both seem overqualified to be playing second fiddle to playthings.
Then again, castling familiar performers like Dinklage, Michelle Yeoh and Ron Perlman seems counterproductive when their voices are electronically muffled. Why cast an Oscar winner like Yeoh if you can't hear her talk or see her face? This was a maddening trend in the previous films and seems even more foolish now.
This also prevents the performers from giving the new bots much in the way of personality. It used to be fun to guess what quotation might emerge from Bumblebee's speakers. Now, he features samples from better movies, reminding viewers they could be watching superior films at the moment.
Hasbro even has the audacity to plug a second line of toys at the end of this tale, not realizing their sales pitch here has fallen flat. It was easy to imagine that it might have been more fun watching 6-year-olds play with the toys. They don't know the clichés yet, and they'd approach the process with a lot more gusto than the adults who made this scrap heap.