My opinion of Michael Bay is low. Let’s get that out of the way right now; in fact, I hate him: he is racist, sexist and a homophobe, another one of the unremarkable cogs that help push, pull and rotate the gears of American exceptionalism. A patriot through and through, Bay’s filmmaking skills are about as artistic as moldering cheese. And even though theoretically you can find some use for moldy old cheese, something you can’t really say about Bay, I still found myself liking The Last Knight.
Why I found myself liking The Last Knight is not remarkable. In short, a lot of what made the previous Transformers films tedious is not to be found here. The racism, though still present in the form of jarring stereotypes, have been, overall, toned down (as is some of the more gratuitous objectification of women); the edgy attempts at social commentary, a la Age of Extinction’s awkward attempt at talking about age of consent, are nowhere to be seen; and the plot, though filled with a lot of messy narrative jumps, remains straightforward—Optimus Prime is missing, a ‘great evil’ is searching for a staff, and humans have to make a beleaguered alliance with Megatron to find it before this great evil obtains said staff. Mix in some epic action set-pieces and bam, you have yourself a Michael Bay blockbuster.
But I am not reviewing this movie on my blog—a blog about medievalism and today— because I really wanted to talk about the Transformers franchise. No. I have published this review because the film concerns itself with medievalism but goes that extra mile by associating medievalism with the present. Hence, it has concerned itself with my area of concern.
The story begins in early medieval England, late fifth century. King Arthur and his knights, accurately pegged as Roman Britons fighting against Anglo-Saxon invaders at Mt. Badon, are desperate to achieve victory. With the barbarian horde slamming against their ranks, King Arthur has placed his trust in Merlin’s magic to win the field; though the other knights distrust this magician, Arthur knows better and believes Merlin will come. Spoiler alert, Merlin does come and win the day with magic, except that it is not ‘magic’ but rather highly-advanced technology which is “sufficiently advanced to be indistinguishable from magic”; well, that and a gargantuan three-headed transformer dragon which decimates the Anglo-Saxon invaders. Such technology is, of course, Cybertronian in origin.
Fast forward about 1600 years to the present, and our spunky crew headed informally by Cade Yeager and Viviane Wembly (medieval history professor) is busy retrieving Merlin’s fabled staff from somewhere on Earth. Turns out that Merlin’s staff is an incredibly powerful Cybertronian weapon and that if it falls into the wrong hands (meaning, Quintessa’s hands, a fallen Cybertronian goddess), then the Earth will be destroyed. Thankfully, an enigmatic order exists to protect the staff; called the “Order of Witwiccans” and comprised of literally just about every famous person to walk this side of history, the staff is well-protected.
Now, let’s stop here because this is what I really want to talk about—the historical falsification.
To be fair, previous Transformers films have revised history to set up their narratives: the first film had Megatron frozen underneath a dam providing humanity with leaps and bounds in technology; while Dark of the Moon went as far to say that the space race was really just a race to recover a crashed Cybertronian spaceship. But The Last Knight is the first entry to devote the entire narrative to historical revision.
The crux of The Last Knight is that Merlin’s staff is the key to controlling an energy link between Earth (Unicron) and Cybertron. This artifact, then, is tightly connected to the legacy of King Arthur and since King Arthur’s legend survives into the modern day, but some of the fantastical elements did not, it occupies one of the many liminal spaces between fantasy and fact; namely, at what point the two can become differentiated. Needless to say, because it turns out that everything about King Arthur is true because all of those fantastical elements were simply Cybertronian technology, there is no actual liminal space, just misinterpreted fact. The Knights of the Round Table? Just a society of humans and transformers to protect the staff, its modern version the Order of Witwiccans; the Round Table itself? Merely another piece of Cybertronian technology meant to provide hints and assistance to the order as King Arthur attempts to warn those generations who follow him that a ‘great evil’ (Quintessa) is looming. Obviously, such a “prophecy” comes true as Optimus Prime is turned against his friends by this evil goddess to steal Merlin’s staff for the greater evil.
Needless to say, when it comes to history and how it is revised, The Last Knight’s plot takes that extra step by forcing the historical revisionism not merely as a plot device but as the entire movie. So, committed is The Last Knight to historical revisionism, that Bay doubles down on the historical revisionism; not only is The Order of Witwiccans comprised of every major upright bourgeois figure to grace the Western world, but Bay even writes in a small autoboot disguised as a hand-watch which assassinated Hitler while the Autobots weren’t busy wrecking up Nazi troops behind their lines. Historical revisionism is to this film what bigotry is to a Christian fundamentalist. It just fits and you can’t escape it.
Normally, things like this do not phase me. This goofy kind of historical revisionism, where secret societies reign and “what really happened” scenarios provide a cheap laugh, but are so corny and numerous that it is like Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code—you just have to laugh and take it at face value while appreciating the creativity involved in having one’s way with fact. But, occasionally, historical revisionism runs too madly. The Last Knight is just such an instance.
What pushes The Last Knight over the edge is because it appropriates medieval history, a field presently under a lot of scrutinies. If you do not already know, the area of study encompassing the ancient and medieval world has become a battlefield: on one side is a loose coalition of progressives and anti-racists while on the other side is a regressive force composed of the Alt-Right and neo-fascists; the former wants to engage the public in a respectful, historical accurate conversation chronicling the myriad of ways which the medieval world was neither so cruel or so White as is typically believed; the later side, meanwhile, seek to reify the ancient and medieval world to suit their White Supremacist agenda. How this connects to The Last Knight is that historical revisionism—which this latest Transformers film has much of in spades— goes hand-in-hand with historical falsification and the conspiracy theories which breed falsification.
The primary thrust of conspiracy theories is that something is hidden. This hidden construct—idea, person, organization, etc.—is supposedly fact but is covered up or obscured by reality’s status quo. To the conspiracy theorist, it is not that a conspiracy is incorrect factually but that it is misunderstood under a semiological regime which prizes one sign-regime over the other which is posited by the conspiracy. From this obscuration originates the scapegoats to explain why the conspiracy has been obscured; it is not that the conspiracy is naturally obscured but that a powerful elite of others purposely obscures it for a nefarious reason (power and control, wealth, etc.). However, because the reasons for this obscuration does not, in fact, hold up to scrutiny, a vast array of pseudo-history and false-facts must be built to create an alternative reasoning, one which talks away the innumerable contradictions and inconsistencies of the conspiracy (this is why we see pseudo-science and race-science, claims of vast “secret societies” (almost always Jewish), and outside influence distorting an otherwise perfectly functioning society). But, this alternative reasoning can only go so far in its talking away of material reality. History itself cannot be talked away hence why every conspiracy needs a vital cornerstone to solidify its claims; enter, historical revisionism.
Historical revisionism in its most toxic form enables alternative reasoning to legitimate its claims to authenticity. It is not that facts misalign or do not at all align, but that an outside power has intentionally revised history and the interpretation of history to favor the side in opposition to the conspiracy; in this sense, it is the conspiracy which is correct and actual historical fact which is incorrect, guarded as it is by elite agents of the state (professors and scientists, anyone holding an advanced degree). Anti-intellectualism, then, asserts itself as a pivotal part of any historical revision. In most circumstances, historical revisionism, as I said earlier, is harmless, just creative anachronisms birthed by desperate authors seeking some fun with ‘what if’ scenarios. Unfortunately, Michael Bay is not one such author.
Part of Michael Bay’s canon is anti-intellectualism. A corner-stone of conspiracy theories and fascism more generally, anti-intellectualism counters the intellectualism which de-mystifies the base desires of the conspiracy and the ‘new man’ which is inevitably posited. The Last Knight has anti-intellectualism in spades as does the idea of the ‘new man’.
To understand this, we must closely follow the story of Cade Yeager and Viviane Wembly. Both are opposites: one, Cade, is a fugitive on the hunt, an ex-NEST operative who never lost sight of the Autobots goodness. The other, Viviane, is an academic specializing in medieval history, someone who decidedly tells her students that the fantastical elements of the Arthurian legend are “bullshit”, as are those few brave warriors willing to sacrifice it all for the greater good. Already, this should raise some alarms.
Viviane represents authority and factual knowledge. She is the embodiment of elite power structures; she is the personification of the opposition to conspiracy and alternative logic. Her comments early in the film about how the Arthurian legend and how ‘a few brave heroes’ are “bullshit” is part of Bay’s oft-repeated trope of strawmanning academics. Later in the film, Viviane, alongside the JPL Engineer who recommends tactical warheads to destroy part of Cybertron and ‘allow gravity to take care of the rest’, both see their gambits fail: Viviane’s expensive education sees itself betrayed when the historical revisionism of King Arthur’s knighthood turns out to be true—and she subsequently tearfully repents about her callous comments about ‘a few good knights’ once she sees the NEST operatives launching themselves into danger—while the JPL Engineer’s plan simply fails, thus showing the audience that science lacks the solutions which only myth and destiny can solve.
In Bay’s revisionism, institutional knowledge and science are second-tier. The alternative logic and pseudo-fact of a history long forgotten, meanwhile, are the true barometers of understanding the present. Such a parallel has eerie connotations today during a time where Right-Wing reactionaries openly proclaim allegiance to a falsified path, a pseudo-history of their race built on lies and anti-Semitism. Bay’s revisionism is another drop in the effort to make false history mainstream; it is another attempt to de-legitimate academicism and give interpretative power to anyone with a chip on their shoulder. Really, The Last Knight is nothing more than a Rightist’s wet-dream: it is a fevered fantasy where the snobby academics are forced to see reality as it is (as a conspiracy, not fact) and where knights—soldiers—are given the respect they deserve over the science which upends them.
At the end of the day, and to his credit, Michael Bay isn’t propounding any conspiracy theory. But his acquiescence in supporting the basis for these conspiracy theories is loud and clear. He is not an Alt-Right edge-lord but he is something just as bad—a sympathizer. Sure, it is neat watching Bumblebee and Optimus Prime duke it out, knowing that this is a vague reference to the Arthurian legend when Arthur fights Lancelot, but such allusions do not help the here and now, a here and now under siege from literal fascists; an idea whose ignoring by Bay could be summed up in the laughable inclusion of an “Olde Cybertronian” language.
The Last Knight is probably one of the better entries in the much-reviled Transformers franchise, but that does not stop it also from being one of the worst politically. For all the intriguing fusions of the past and present, the film acts are just another legitimation of historical revisionism, conspiracy, and Right-wing reaction. Facts and science are thrown out the window to make room for predestination and the accompanying metaphysics. Throw in a choppily edited effort and a legacy which catered the lowest-common-denominator—teenage boys—and one can only hope that Bay sticks to his promise to no longer make Transformers movies. Fingers crossed.