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8 Movies to Watch After You See ‘Transformers: The Last Knight’

Yes, you should see Transformers: The Last Knight, because it’s totally insane and sometimes marvelous.
Mark Wahlberg - Transformers: The Last Knight
By  · Published on June 23rd, 2017

Had I known that Transformers: The Last Knight would involve such significant characters introduced in Transformers: The Movie, I would have saved the 1986 animated feature for this edition of Movies to Watch. Alas, I recommended it three years ago to view after you see the previous live-action installment, Transformers: Age of Extinction. Hopefully you took my advice then, so you had some background material before seeing the latest.

Not that it’d help you comprehend the plot either way. Plus, there are also episodes of the ’80s animated series that would similarly give you joy to know going in, including the medieval-set “A Decepticon Raider in King Arthur’s Court” from 1985. Since I avoided including other Transformers things, I also avoided including other Michael Bay things, despite how much I was reminded of Armageddon and Pearl Harbor.

Transformers: The Last Knight is a whole lot of movie, sometimes feeling like multiple films mashed together. So choosing this week’s crop of recommendations was difficult to pin down. I probably could have done a list for every unique segment of the epic fifth part of the robot-alien franchise. Especially the Dark Ages prologue, the part with the kids adventuring in post-apocalyptic rubble, the underwater spaceship section, etc.

Here are the eight I decided on:

An Impossible Voyage (1904)

Georges Méliès was the original movie magician, or at least the one we recognize as the pioneer. Like Michael Bay, Méliès performed magic before becoming a filmmaker — for Bay it was just a childhood hobby, though, whereas Méliès was a pro. Both of them have considered cinema as a kind of magic show, and they both were particularly interested in the spectacle of and within movies.

An Impossible Voyage is a sort of follow-up to Méliès’s more famous 1902 film A Trip to the Moon and is similarly based on a work by Jules Verne (“Journey Throught the Impossible”). This one also features a trip to a celestial body depicted with an actor’s face: the sun. To return to Earth, the explorers get into a submarine and plunge back down and into the ocean. Unlike in The Last Knight, theirs does not encounter a sunken spaceship.

Méliès himself stars in the film as the head of the Institute of Incoherent Geography, which sounds like a place Bay might appreciate, given how hard it is to follow the geography of his movies.

If you appreciate Méliès, you should maybe appreciate some of what Bay is doing with The Last Knight. It doesn’t make sense, but it’s full of imagination. For an in-between, go from the Méliès to Terry Gilliam’s underrated The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.

Duck Soup (1933)

What would a Marx Brothers Transformers movie look like?

Nothing like Bay’s series, I’m sure, but that didn’t stop me from thinking about Groucho, Chico, Harpo, Zeppo, and Gummo while watching The Last Knight. I honestly don’t think I’ve seen a movie so anarchic since the Marx boys stopped making theirs. Duck Soup is arguably the best and has the most ludicrous climax of all their releases.

The plot centers on the bankrupt nation of Freedonia, which is newly led by Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho), and a scheme by the nearby Sylvania to take the country over. The other Marxes work for Firefly, with Chico and Harpo being enemy spies. The iconic mirror scene comes from Duck Soup, as does one of my favorite Chico and Harpo bits involving a street vendor who falls victim to their shenanigans.

There is definitely a different sort of chaos and genius on display in Marx Brothers movies compared to Bay’s work. While there are a ton of nutty things going on to the side of the main storyline of The Last Knight, none are also such brilliant gags and sketches as are seen in Duck Soup.

However, had he not been given a voice, the new Headmaster Transformer Cogman would seem to be a robotic homage to Harpo.

Robot Monster (1953)

Bay is not one of the worst filmmakers of all time, but his Transformers movies do tend to border on the incomprehensible.

The Last Knight actually takes the cake there, to an astounding measure. While his spectacle calls to mind Méliès and his madcap tone is reminiscent of the Marx Brothers, his handle on the story material is more akin to an awful B-movie director like Phil Tucker.

Robot Monster, which also was shown in 3D, doesn’t exactly have robots, but there is a monster from space that looks like a gorilla with a space helmet on. His name is Ro-Man, and he’s wiped out almost all of humanity, save for a family who’d taken a serum once that turned out to also immunize them against alien death rays. Or something. There are also giant lizards who inexplicably show up and fight each other. In the end, the whole story was all a dream. Or was it???

The ambiguous ending might have been something had the rest of the movie made any sense at all. Tucker made movies as nonsensical as Bay does now, only he didn’t have the technology or, yes, the tech proficiency the Transformers director benefits from to make up for his weaknesses.

All Tucker has is apparently the latest in bubble-making special effects, as indicated by the opening credit given to a special bubble machine manufacturer.

Dog Star Man (1961-1964)

In his review of The Last Knight for The New Yorker, Richard Brody sort of champions Bay as an experimental filmmaker of pure sensation, referencing Stan Brakhage in comparison.

It’s not the first time the avant-garde cinema legend  has come up in criticism of Bay’s work, particularly in response to his Transformers movies. Three years ago, critic David Ehrlich referred to the plotting of Transformers: Dark of the Moon as “Brakhage-like,” and Bruce Reid compared Bay to Brakhage and Bruce Conner way back in 2000.

The point of linkage between Bay and Brakhage is both in their technique (Bay was one of the first to use so much handheld camera work and fast cutting in mainstream blockbusters, staples of Brakhage’s work) and in Bay’s apparent disinterest in continuity or cohesion in his storytelling. Brakhage is one of the foremost non-narrative filmmakers, and Bay’s films lately only have narratives, or premises, as a formality.

In spite of their experimental nature, Brakhage’s films are far more personal than Bay’s (his famous Window Water Baby Moving shows the birth of his first child), and the essential Dog Star Man (like Bay’s Transformers run, made up of five films!) is no exception.

But it also, as the name would suggest, hints at being almost a cosmological sci-fi film. There’s a minimal narrative, but like with The Last Knight, the sensational visuals are what’s important.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)

There are a lot of movies based on Arthurian legend that could be recommended after The Last Knight. The 2004 movie King Arthur, maybe, because Bay worked on that for years and was supposed to direct it himself. It’s also interesting that Liam Garrigan plays Arthur in the Transformers movie after portraying the same figure on the show Once Upon a Time.

But because The Last Knight is such a silly place, only the Monty Python take will do.

In the comedy, directed by Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones, the troupe depicts the stories of Camelot’s heroes with loads of grime and gags. There are too many iconic bits in the movie to highlight, but one that I thought of in relation to Sir Anthony Hopkins’ performance in The Last Knight involves a modern day historian who bridges the medieval times to the present with hilarious results, setting off the most wonderfully nutty side plot and ultimate conclusion.

More than 40 years later, Holy Grail remains one of the funniest movies of all time. Yet as crazy as it gets with the Arthurian world with its Trojan Rabbit, killer bunny, and anachronistic ending, not even the Monty Python guys would ever have thought to put giant transforming robots in their movie.

Stanley Tucci’s drunken Merlin, though, would have fit right in. Meanwhile, Bay would probably kill to have a scene involving a castle full of lust-filled models.

The Big Lebowski (1998)

First they got John Turturro. Then, with the previous installment, they got John Goodman, or his voice at least. Now the Transformers movies have looped in Steve Buscemi as the voice of an Autobot called Daytrader.

When will Jeff Bridges give in and join the franchise? For now, quick, someone mash up his scenes as Iron Monger in Iron Man with scenes from The Last Knight.

It’s not just that the new movie features three cast members from The Big Lebowski that makes for relevance. It’s how the actors are situated. Turturro, who plays a minor outsider role in the Coen Brothers’ classic comedy noir, also has such a position in The Last Knight. As for Goodman and Buscemi, the former’s Transformer yells at the latter’s in a way reminiscent to how Goodman’s Lebowski character blasts Buscemi’s.

Is Bay a fan of the Coens? Besides this movie’s trio link, he’s worked with Nicolas Cage and William Forsythe of Raising Arizona, Peter Stormare of Fargo, Billy Bob Thornton, Tony Shalhoub, and Scarlett Johansson of The Man Who Wasn’t There (though he got Thornton before he did that movie), John Malkovich of Burn After Reading, and Coens regular (and Joel Coen’s wife) Frances McDormand. And he’s used Coens regular Buscemi a bunch.

It’s all likely a coincidence but it still makes me want Bay to direct a Coens script now.

Terminator Salvation (2009)

The fourth Terminator movie is not just the most underrated of the franchise but is one of the most underrated sci-fi action movies of the last decade.

Its scenes with the late Anton Yelchin as young Kyle Reese, alone, are terrific, and his introductory sequence came to mind during the first scenes in The Last Knight where we meet Isabella Moner’s character. This part, with its seek-and-destroy robots and teen revolutionary seems almost completely lifted.

Similar to The Last Knight, the script for Salvation might not be satisfying but it has some spectacular visual moments. One is a limited POV experience of a helicopter crash in a single take, an effect we’ve seen a lot more in movies lately, including in this year’s Kong: Skull Island and (with a plane) The Mummy. Another is a Mad Max-like chase. And I actually like Sam Worthington as a Terminator who doesn’t know he’s a Terminator.

But Yelchin is the best, with his perfect mimicry of Michael Biehn (if only Bay could have cast him in a prequel to The Rock focused on Biehn’s Navy SEAL character). No, Salvation doesn’t have the heart of the earlier movies, but it’s a different, darker installment.

At the very least, fans and critics alike should recognize in retrospect that it’s better than most blockbusters, including the Terminator series, have gotten in the eight years since.

Melancholia (2011)

In The Last Knight, a whole planet lunges through the cosmos at Earth (which is also apparently the Transformer known as Unicron — the part voiced by Orson Welles in his final gig, Transformers: The Movie). Somehow it doesn’t immediately destroy our planet, but maybe that’s because of its secret identity? And strangely people aren’t as freaked out about the impending doom as they are in even Bay’s own Armageddon.

Bay makes disaster movies on an uber-macro scale, but if you want to see the story of a planet destructively heading towards Earth from the micro perspective of one wedding party, including the bride (Kirsten Dunst) and her sister (Charlotte Gainsbourg), Lars von Trier’s psychological sci-fi film is the way to go. It’s even got sensational spectacle and a well-told story, in case Bay has given you the impression that’s impossible.

Maybe we could argue that while Melancholia is obviously representational of depression, The Last Knight is really all about ADHD. Nah, just kidding. One movie is an artful response to the filmmaker’s own disorder, the other a partially well-crafted yet completely soulless fireworks display.

Ironically the one where the planet is saved is more suggestive that our world is coming to an end. Culturally anyway.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.