The Transformers are back for the seventh movie in the live-action movie franchise with Transformers: Rise of the Machines. This time out, characters from the popular 1990s animated series Beast Wars, which was both a sequel and prequel to the original 1980s animated series, join the action. Appropriately enough, the 1990s-set film itself functions as both a follow-up to 2018’s Bumblebee and a prequel to the Michael Bay-directed films from 2007-2017.
Franchise newcomers Anthony Ramos (In the Heights) and Dominique Fishback (Swarm) play the new human leads, Noah Diaz and Elena Wallace, while core Autobots Optimus Prime (voiced, of course, by Peter Cullen) and Bumblebee are joined by the likes of Mirage (Pete Davidson), Arcee (Liza Koshy), Wheeljack (Cristo Fernández), and Stratosphere (John DiMaggio), who must team with the animalistic Maximals to stop the planet-destroying threat that is Unicron (Colman Domingo).
Though Optimus Prime has been in all the Transformers films – albeit in a much smaller role in Bumblebee’s solo movie – Rise of the Machines puts a spin on the usual dynamic for the character, when it comes to his interactions with humanity.
A PISSED OFF PRIME
Optimus Prime is a beloved hero for multiple generations at this point. Sure, he’s a robot that transforms into a truck, but he’s traditionally portrayed as such a smart, brave and heroic leader, he’s akin to Captain America in the minds of many who grew up with him – with a lot of reinforcement from the comforting and commanding voice of Peter Cullen, who has voiced the character since 1984.
Rise of the Beasts plays things differently with Optimus though, putting him in a notably more combative and tentative position when it comes to helping and protecting humans, including the film’s main human hero, Noah Diaz. The Prime we meet here feels it’s a risk to assist humans and actively pushes against doing so, even with Bumblebee arguing otherwise.
Director Steven Caple Jr. (Creed II) explained he really wanted to shake things up with Prime, recalling that when he first joined the project, “Optimus Prime was written in the script and he felt similar to all the Primes I’ve seen before. And I remember at the time, the studio were like ‘This is how people like to perceive Optimus. We don’t want to tow too far left or right with him.’ But it just felt like we’ve seen that with Optimus Prime several times. And so I just wanted to challenge him.”
As he looked to give the character a bit more conflict and tension with humans, while still recognizably being the Optimus Prime fans know at his core, Caple recalled, “It was conversations with Peter Cullen that I had and trying to figure out a way in a story that I can sort of create a arc without losing the essence of him.”
In this film, the Autobots have been hiding on Earth for a few years since Bumblebee, not directly interacting with the humans, and Caple said Optimus, at this point, is focused on “Autobots and protecting Cybertron and protecting his own people, so to speak.” Caple noted that he doesn’t think the Prime we meet at the start of this film dislikes humans, “It’s just not understanding Earth, if that makes any sense – which is not the Prime that we know. [Usually] he’s kind of noble throughout and he would fight for humanity and the universe in general. But I wanted to see, how did we get to Optimus Prime [being] like that? I feel like this is that film that fills in that gap.”
Lorenzo di Bonaventura, who has produced all the Transformers films, pointed out that we first met the movie Optimus Prime in Michael Bay’s 2007 Transformers film, and given this takes place years before, “We took the opportunity, because we’re in the past, of showing him in a different way. We actually give him a character arc. It’s something we’ve never done before is give a robot a character arc. And we thought, you know, if you follow Bumblebee, he left Cybertron in desperation. And here he is [on Earth] and he’s not that comfortable and he’s kind of pissed off. So it was an interesting way to present him.”
I SAY BEASTS, YOU SAY WARS
While Rise of the Beasts introduces several prominent characters from Beast Wars into the film franchise for the first time, it’s not a direct adaptation of that series, which mainly took place far in the past. Asked what he most wanted to incorporate from the series into the film, Caple replied, “Mainly the characters in Beast Wars and somewhat the mythology and lore. If you know Beast Wars, you know that it can get pretty complicated with time travel when they actually arrive on Earth. So we try to tread lightly in terms of introducing that idea and or concept.”
Caple added, “There’s some lines in the film where Airazor [voiced by Michelle Yeoh] says ‘I traveled through space and time.’ She never gives a precise era and window. It just allowed us not to get too caught up in the mythology that the Maximals had in Beast Wars. But for me, it was the characters. Optimus Primal [voiced by Ron Perlman], the idea that he named himself after Optimus Prime, he knows of him and those kinds of things, I wanted to keep alive in this one for sure. And, of course, Cheetor [voiced by Tongayi Chirisa], Rhinox [voiced by David Sobolov] and Airazor, they feel very much true to who they were in a cartoon.”
di Bonaventura said they had long discussed how to bring the Beast Wars characters into the film series, remarking, “They’ve been fan favorites. The fans have been going ‘Come on!’ and we’ve been trying to figure it out ourselves, honestly… The key part was trying to render the characters to the fans who grew up with it. But you can’t just drop them in, it just won’t work. So one of the things we had to figure out was a story that put them in the jungle.”
Anthony Ramos grew up a big fan of Beast Wars, and comparing the Rise of the Beasts versions to the animated series, he noted, “Well, you know, Beast Wars was in the 90s and the VFX were definitely not what the VFX are in this film! So I would have to say that there’s no comparison there. But I would say that I was very satisfied as a Beast Wars fan. When I heard my man Optimus Primal say ‘Maximals, maximize!’ in this movie, it got me hyped. They got me super excited.”
Ramos added that while he loved having the Beast Wars characters in the film, he’d still like to see even more done with them going forward, saying, “As a fan, I just want the most out of the Beast Wars, but it’s amazing what they did with these guys. It’s incredible.”
Rise of the 90s
Rise of the Beasts makes the most of its 1990s setting, particularly in its early Brooklyn-set scenes, which are filled with all sorts of early 90s tech and some excellent 90s Hip-Hop needle drops.
Rapper Tobe Nwigwe, who plays Noah’s friend, Reek, said diving into so many 1990s elements while making the film brought about “Extreme nostalgia. It was an immaculate feeling. I feel like the 90s was one of the last seasons of music that had a lot of heart and soul and creativity and it was like it took time to make that type of music. So it was immaculate to hear Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul… to see clips of Tupac in Poetic Justice in the film. A lot of that stuff just just filled my heart.”
Dominique Fishback was born in 1991 and likewise embraced the nostalgia of the film, adding it also evoked “Having cousins and siblings who are older, who really grew up [in the 90s] and wanting to be like them and being inspired by the music that they like and the things that they did.”
She added, of one little move Elena does in the film, “Me and my cousins, we used to pretend to be TLC all the time… Doing ‘Waterfalls’ and the music video that had that little dance with their shoulders. Even bringing that into [the movie] in the airplane [scene] was really cool.” She also loved her 90s look in Rise of the Beasts, noting, “The green choker, the lipstick, the suspenders, it was just a really cool vibe. I really enjoyed it.”
Bumblebee was set in the 1980s and now Rise of the Beasts is set in the 1990s, but there’s been some debate about whether we should consider these films as set in the same continuity as the Michael Bay movies – which took place later, but also included many revelations about past events.
di Bonaventura says that by setting these films earlier than Bay’s were, they’re still doing their best to make it all one continuity, saying, “Well, We are kicking the can down [the road] to worry about it in a little bit. But, the truth of the matter is, we really don’t want to contradict [Bay’s films]. We’re doing our best not to contradict, and maybe we have somewhere, but in general, we’re trying to pay very close attention to what we have done. And the advantage of going and starting in 1987 [with Bumblebee], and now 1994, is we have a little bit of time before we have to catch back up.”
Transformers: Rise of the Beasts is now playing.