Bumblebee Puts the Transformers Franchise on the Right Road.
DIRECTED BY TRAVIS KNIGHT / 2018
I really want to be kind to Bumblebee despite the fact that, all told, I don’t think it is a good movie. Oh, it’s perfectly serviceable, with an easy to follow story, a winsome lead- both human and robot, and there’s nothing in it that’s actively insulting the way previous Transformers movies have been. It’s script is a cut-and-paste job from dozens of other action and aliens films from the past 30 years, and it certainly never met a cliché it didn’t like. But I’m in no way the target audience for this movie. This is the movie I wish I could’ve taken my boy to see ten years ago, when he was a young child and way into Transformers. As much as I found myself rolling my eyes at the tired and played out events happening on screen, I recognized that he would have eaten this up, and he would not be wrong to do so. For all its flaws, Bumblebee should be catnip for the Transformers fan, and a welcome course-correction for the franchise.
Bumblebee is a sort-of prequel, sort-of soft reboot of the long-running (and insufferable) Michael Bay Transformers movies. The movie begins on the distant planet Cybertron (is this the first appearance of the Autobot’s homeworld for the series? I honestly don’t remember, and can’t be bothered to look it up). The (good) Autobots are losing their war against the (evil) Decepticons for control of the planet. In a last-ditch effort to stave off complete disaster, the Autobot’s leader, Optimus Prime, orders the remaining survivors to flee off-world. He charges his small friend, B-159 (the future eponymous robot), with traveling to Earth and defending it from any Decepticon incursions until such time as the Autobots can regroup and take refuge there. B-159 accepts his mission and takes off, the last thing he sees is Optimus acting as a one-robot holding action against the Decepticon hordes.
Bumblebee [is] a welcome course-correction for the franchise
When B lands on Earth (1987 Earth, to be precise!), he does so smack-dab in the middle of a squad of special forces soldiers on a training mission. This puts him at odds immediately with the United States Military, and when B and the squad are then attacked by a Decepticon jet, that just confirms the prejudices of the squad leader (played by John Cena), who sees all the giant robots as a threat regardless of which side they’re on. During the fight, B’s vocal box is destroyed, rendering him incapable of speech, and he is injured so gravely that he loses his memory and shuts down. I didn’t check my watch on this, but I’m fairly certain all of this happens in the first fifteen minutes. It’s an overloaded opening, to be sure.
Now we meet our film’s human protagonist, Charlie (Hailee Steinfield, True Grit and the voice of Gwen Stacy in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse). Steinfeild’s pretty good in a fairly rote role as someone who seems to have lost all sense of where she fits into the world. She lost her father some years before and while her mother has moved on to a new relationship, Charlie has put her life on hold as she mourns his passing. All she wants now is to work on an old car her and her dad shared as a project, hoping to get it running but she isn’t having any luck with that. One day she finds an old, seemingly abandoned VW Beetle in her uncle’s shopyard, and when he gives it to her, she brings it home in the hope she can fix it up. No points for guessing that this car is, in fact, more than meets the eye.
So Charlie gets drawn into the battle between the Autobots and Decepticons. She needs to learn to love and trust again, and B needs to regain his memory and stop the Decepticons from summoning an army to raze the planet. And together they’ll learn that the true treasure is the freinds we made along the way… or something like that. As mentioned above, anyone who has seen more than a handful of movies will be able to figure out Bumblebee’s plot points, beat-by-beat. Familar elements, many cribbed from E.T. (suburban Californian setting, absent father, Government agents hunting aliens, curious alien left alone destroying a house, fakeout death), abound and their use here, after being overused everywhere else, causes the film to feel stale.
And yet it’s the movie’s use of other familiar elements that help me to forgive its flaws. I’m talking mostly about the Transformers themselves here. These guys look like… well, they look like the Transformers. Though Bumblebee himself retains the vaguely insectoid face the Bay movies gave him, Optimus Prime looks like Optimus Prime as I remember him. So does Shockwave, Soundwave, Ravage, Cliffjumper, Wheeljack and Arcee (and there are probably more characters in the background I didn’t notice- this thing is packed with fan service!). The character designs are distinct from one another and reflect the vehicle forms the robots transform into. This alone makes for a huge improvement over the designs of the previous installments. Add to that a director who- while not doing anything particularly memorable- can establish proper geography during an action sequence, and knows to maintain a cut long enough for it to register, and you have clear, easy-to-follow action sequences where you can tell who is who and what’s happening where. It’s a revelation!
Bumblebee’s not going to win any end-of-year awards or accolades (even its special effects seem just okay), but neither should it appear on any worst-of-year lists either. It’s stale, but it isn’t stupid, and it clearly knows that its target audience is too too young for some of the more risque elements of the previous movies in the franchise. I would’ve taken my boy to see this if it had come out ten years ago. I might not have enjoyed it as much as he would’ve, but I wouldn’t have been angered by it, and he’d have loved it enough for both of us.