After years of luring audiences back into theatres with the promise of actual real-world vehicles transforming into gargantuan alien robots, the live-action Transformers franchise is finally getting into Beast Wars territory with director Steven Caple Jr.’s Transformers: Rise of the Beasts. The idea of Optimus Primal teaming up with Optimus Prime on the big screen is certainly a compelling one, but Rise of the Beasts’ promise of transforming animals raises an important question: visually, how is this going to work?
Mainframe Entertainment’s Beast Wars series from the ‘90s flung the Transformers into the distant future where the — Maximals and Predacons, descendants of the Autobots and Decepticons — continue to wage war with one another. After their ships are sucked into a rift in time and space, both Optimus Primal and Megatron’s teams of Transformers find themselves stranded on a strange planet that’s ultimately revealed to be a prehistoric Earth. Because of the general time period (and a fair amount of ahistorical fudging for science-fiction’s sake), Beast Wars Transformers all took on the forms of animals rather than vehicles after scanning their surroundings for the dominant forms of life.
Both because Beast Wars put far less emphasis on the Transformers’ needing to hide, and because smaller animals like rats and cheetahs couldn’t reasonably fight a tyrannosaurus rex, the series’ characters were all of a similar enough size to make their animal forms more about function and style than reality. The original story already featured time travel as a plot device that might create a way to bring the Maximals and the Predacons into the modern day. But the question then becomes how characters like these fit into a story that isn’t just about a talking gorilla fighting a gang of talking dinosaurs and a treacherous spider.
While Paramount’s live-action Transformers movies have similarly played a little fast and loose with the scales of its transforming cars, trucks, and jets, a big part of their appeal has been the way the Transformers do read as somewhat “realistic” as they shapeshift. At some point in the bulk of the previous Transformers films, the vehicle forms have served both as a means for human characters to get around, and a way to help situate the alien beings within the human world they’re constantly battling on.
It would certainly be an interesting (and potentially horrific) choice if Rise of the Beasts ultimately attempted to introduce Transformers whose alternate forms appeared to be realistic organic animals, but it isn’t the only route available. Though Mainframe’s Beast Machines was set after the events of Beast Wars and followed the Maximals as they returned to Cybertron, its story focused on their gradual discovery of new physical forms straddling the gap between animal and machine. Thematically, Beast Machines was something of a sharp shift in tone for the franchise, but some of its ideas could work as an interesting way to bridge Rise of the Beasts’ Transformers to the Autobots and Decepticons we’ve seen so far.
What’s going to end up making or breaking Rise of the Beasts is how effective the movie’s visuals are, both in terms of their spectacle and how impressive the transformations are. Beloved as Beast Wars still is, the original series’ character models were definitely silly, and might not work as one-to-one live-action updates. But if Transformers: Rise of the Beasts gets its aesthetics right, and leads with a solid story, it could very easily end up revitalizing the franchise and give fans a reason to look forward to June 24, 2022.
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