There has been rampant internet speculation over the last few weeks about the running time of Transformers: The Last Knight, indicating that even enthusiastic fans were concerned their patience might be tested beyond limits.
Certainly, the magic is gone for star Mark Wahlberg, who just announced he's done with the franchise, and whose name will no longer appear in the credits after the ominous words "in association with Hasbro," a phrase that has yet to precede an Oscar-winning performance (but never say never).
Director Michael Bay's ear-splitting robot operas have been getting longer as they go, but rumors of a three-hour running time have proved exaggerated. Last Knight is a mere two hours and 27 minutes – actually reasonable when you take into account its new and certifiably insane mythology, which links the history of the Transformers (alien robots, if you haven't heard) to most of recorded human history – any story line that includes King Arthur, Hitler, Frederick Douglass, and Teddy Roosevelt is going to take time to explain.
The gist of it is that there's a kind of league of extraordinary gentlemen who have always tried to make Earth a happy home for alien battle-bots who wish us well, and who help us fight, from time to time, those evil battle-bots who show up looking for trouble.
One of these gentlemen is an English aristocrat named Burton (Anthony Hopkins) who in The Last Knight pairs up with an American friend of the Transformers (Wahlberg) and a beautiful English historian (Laura Haddock) to help the good robots.
This is tricky because the world's governments have decided Transformers in general are a headache, so they lump the good with the bad, and track them and hunt them and harass them, complicating the planet's efforts to repel the latest extinction-level invasion threat from bad robots, led by a female-ish troublemaker called Quintessa.
Bay invites you to laugh at the silliness of the plot, and is aware that his mission here (his partners this time include Chinese investors) is to create the kind of grandiose visual blob (it's available in IMAX) that can be "consumed" internationally.
Can this be done in a way that is not stupefyingly generic?
Bay makes a lot of familiar moves here. Cars race, then transform into robots with clanging sound effects that haven't changed much since the days of Shia LaBeouf. The half-hour finale has some decent animation (underwater worlds, alien ships with descending stingers), and Bay tries to make a room for pint-size combatants (actress Isabela Moner and her mini-bot), but gigantism carries the day, and sounds and images are, for the most part, recycled.
This is a problem that has beset the contemporary blockbuster – nobody seems to know how to end one. Filmmakers outsource emotion (formally the province of actors and writers) to special-effects artists, and the result is often empty spectacle.
When someone does come up with a conclusion worthy of being "etched into the cosmos" (to borrow the Last Knight bombast of Optimus Prime), it won't be done with computer drafting software.
Transformers: The Last Knight
Directed by Michael Bay. With Mark Wahlberg, Anthony Hopkins, Laura Haddock, CGI robots. Distributed by Paramount.
Running time: 2 hours, 27 mins.
Parent's guide: PG-13 (violence).
Playing at: Area theaters.