Early in Transformers: The Last Knight, an adorable tyke boasts, "We're kids, man! We can get away with anything!" That line's gleeful irresponsibility encapsulates everything wrong — and right — about the fifth installment of the Hasbro-toy-based film franchise. Halfway through the 149-minute spectacle, I started envisioning the three credited writers (Art Marcum, Matt Holloway and Ken Nolan) as sugared-up tweens squabbling about their story's direction, confident that the audience would greet the final product like indulgent parents. No one pays attention to the story in a Michael Bay movie, right?
Wrong! The biggest (only?) pleasure of The Last Knight is watching the film struggle with its identity and slowly become aware of its own awfulness. Half the time it seems embarrassed to be a movie about giant CGI alien robots who have lived secretly on Earth for millennia yet draw their personalities solely from 20th-century ethnic and cultural stereotypes. The filmmakers could have tried to make the Transformers less obnoxious, or at least easier to tell apart. Instead, like fickle kids playing with toys, they've sidelined them to foreground a human-centric story that evokes National Treasure and its ilk.
Turns out, King Arthur was real, and Merlin's "magic" was actually gifted to him by Transformers! After a wacky prologue set in the dark ages, with Stanley Tucci as the tipsy wizard, we rocket into a near-future in which the U.S. government has devoted itself to ridding the world of giant sentient metal heaps, good and bad alike. Meanwhile, Autobot leader Optimus Prime (voice of Peter Cullen) takes a jaunt back to his home planet; human hero dude Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg) discovers a strange artifact; and, over in the UK, Anthony Hopkins gets his portentous exposition voice ready.
This is only the leading edge of a plot involving an ancient secret society, a magic staff, a cyber Book of Kells, a sexy upper-crust professor (Laura Haddock) and an apocalyptic threat that resembles an avant-garde macramé explosion. Indifferent to the story's coherence or lack thereof, Bay does his part by filling the screen with his signature slow-motion action and "iconic" images of teary heroes against the sky.
Every other shot looks like the climax of an "inspiring" multimillion-dollar Super Bowl ad. Choirs frequently swell on the soundtrack, and Hopkins speaks the phrase "their finest hour" in utter seriousness. Yet we never witness the on-the-ground effects of all this carnage, and the triumph of good flashes by without evoking a flicker of emotion.
Meanwhile, the writers can't stop calling our attention to the cheesiness of their own creation — or, in TV Tropes parlance, "lampshading" it. As soon as they introduce a butler-robot who is painfully derivative of C-3PO, someone on-screen mentions the resemblance. The "French" robot complains that it wasn't his choice to use an exaggerated accent.
This kind of self-mockery might work in the Marvel films, but it's not as easy as it looks. In The Last Knight, only one self-aware gag really soars. The rest fall as flat as the characters' one-liners, which are less snappy than simply nonsensical ("Don't kill the messenger, or the messenger might kill you").
If kids get away with a lot, Hollywood also gets away with a lot on the pretext of pandering to kids. But don't blame the young audience, or the overseas audience, for this mishmashed monstrosity. We live in a landscape of "alternative facts," a world having a love affair with meme-worthy absurdity. And The Last Knight, with its buffoonery and bombast, fits right in.