“Midlife Crisis Crossover calls Bumblebee the Greatest Transformers Film of All Time!” is how I expected to lead off this entry. With Michael Bay out of the director’s chair (though still credited as an executive producer) and replaced by Travis Knight (Kubo and the Two Strings), it couldn’t possibly be another empty failure.
After seeing the film, which was fine, I’m not yet feeling the “Greatest” superlative.
Short version for the unfamiliar: Technically Bumblebee is a prequel, but it plays fast and loose with the continuity of the five previous Transformers films, in much the same way the Wolverine solo outings reference or reject the X-Men films, which in turn freely ignore each other too. Bumblebee also aims for a broader audience — all-ages and not just pervy males, with 95% less ogling of scantily clad teen girls and no robots patterned after cringe-y stereotypes. That wider appeal is just one of the many retro qualities on display.
Anyway, in this quasi-reboot, once again the Autobots and Decepticons are waging their never-ending war, first on the surface of seemingly uninhabitable Cybertron (honestly, has there ever been a depiction of their civilization before their infinite war? Houses, stores, parks, robot wildlife?) but quickly transporting to 1987 Earth, the only other planet that ever shows up on their robot compasses. The soldier designated B-127 (because their military serial numbers are shorter than ours) takes about three seconds to stumble into his first major misunderstanding with the American military, followed seconds later by the arrival of the Decepticons to make everything messier with a lot of severe battle damage. That’s two battlefields on two planets, plus dozens of explosions, and we’re not even past the prologue yet.
Fast-forward some months and switch viewpoint to Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit) as teen loner Charlie, whose father is tragically dead, whose family is moving on far too quickly, whose auto-mechanic skills are above average for her age, and whose cassette collection reminds me of my own except I didn’t get into Morrissey until after I began upgrading to CDs circa 1991. By day she’s an amusement park food worker; by night she’s at the old auto garage wishing for wheels that work when she discovers a dilapidated yellow VW Beetle hiding in the back. It just needs some TLC and the right caring human to jump-start its dormant brain, rekindle its memory, inspire it to get back in the game, and act suitably shocked when it morphs into an extra-tall stumblebum with scary weapons and no voice. Bonding, misadventure, and eventually more Decepticon shenanigans ensue. Can this girl and this robot overcome their communication issues and save America from giant evil toys?
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: America’s second-favorite wrestling actor John Cena is the face of the military, sometimes but not always smarter than average, and of course redeemed by the end. Other superiors among the ranks include Glynn Turman (The Wire) as a commander and John Ortiz (Kong: Skull Island) as the scientist who too readily thinks the Decepticons are totally benign and trustworthy visitors who don’t need a background check or anything resembling reasonable skepticism or basic security protocols.
Charlie’s family includes Pamela Adlon (Bobby from King of the Hill) as the mom who doesn’t get her. Across the street is Jorge Lendeborg Jr. (the clumsy school newscaster from Spider-Man: Homecoming) as a kid named Memo who truly, deeply wants to be the film’s love interest. Len Cariou (Cardinal Law from Spotlight) is the gruff garage owner who lets Charlie take the battered Beetle home for free. Blink and you’ll miss Fred Dryer, ye olde star of TV’s Hunter, as the town sheriff.
Meanwhile in CG robot land, of course Peter Cullen is Optimus Prime. Before his larynx wires are ripped out, Bumblebee briefly has the voice of Dylan O’Brien (The Maze Runner). Representing for the Decepticons are Angela Bassett (Black Panther), Justin Theroux (Leslie’s onetime lawyer boyfriend on Parks & Rec), and, for a minute on Cybertron, Jon Bailey a.k.a. Epic Voice Guy from YouTube’s Screen Junkies channel.
Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? Charlie and Bumblebee are loners learning to deal with loss and separation. Her dad is dead and she’s struggling to deal with her family and other teens. His world is dying and he’s struggling to deal without his family around as backup. They’re each missing pieces that would make them whole, but together they win through a blending of skill sets, compensating for each other’s shortcomings in situations where they’d surely fail alone. Their team-up is a bit more complicated than the average kid-meets-alien/robot/monster/whatever fare. Jokes about E.T. and Mac and Me and Short Circuit and *batteries not included (etc. ad nauseum) aren’t hard to make, but Knight and screenwriter Christina Hodson have mostly set their sights a bit higher in that regard.
Beyond that central relationship, though: yep, it’s time for EXPLOSIONS! But they’re, like, EXPLOSIONS! with much clearer visuals than the blurry Bay bombings of old. Here whenever robots fight, you can make out most of the moves, tell which robot limbs are punching which robot parts, and — in a move for better storytelling and product salesmanship — tell the robots apart from each other and in many cases match them to the original toy looks. Celebrating improved toy-ad design seems like a weird quality to laud, but that tells you how low the bar sank into the underground after The Last Knight.
Nitpicking? Unfortunately, very few filmmaking modes lose me more quickly than “I LOVE THE ’80s!” overkill, in which production designers pack the surroundings with endless reminders and vintage collections and unsubtle Easter eggs and callbacks to their favorite bygone era, which I lived through but am no longer trapped in. I’m sure their set decorators and production assistants had fun scouring thrift stores and eBay for the cleanest cassettes and dated fashions, but tossed together in aggregate, it’s all wielded about as subtly as a Harley Quinn hammer with the word NOSTALGIA painted on its head.
Related side note: back then, no one under the age of 25 ever listened to the Smiths and Bon Jovi. One kind of music was a direct reaction to, and pensive relief from, the populist swagger of the other. Putting “Girlfriend in a Coma” and “Runaway” in the same film only works if there’s a scene where their respective fans sneer at each other in the halls between classes. Unless we’re meant to believe that Charlie will grow up to become a magnanimous music critic for Rolling Stone.
Also a major story component for the nostalgia fans out there: boy, are our military dumb. Much of the film relies on them negotiating a working relationship with two Decepticons named Shatter and Dropkick, who of course are totally telling the truth about their peaceful mission because they said so and they sure don’t have ominous names or multiple weapons or anything. Cena, the lone voice of reason for a moment until he has to go back to being a macho fool, even points out the biggest flaw in their tale: “They call themselves DECEPTICONS! That doesn’t send up any red flags?” But then the military go back to being the bad guys for awhile, albeit ones so incompetent that they confine an arrested teen girl to her bedroom but forget to station anyone outside the back door, and thus are flabbergasted when she sneaks away without having to really try at it. And when the Decepticons show their hand at last, our guys in green are agonizingly slow at getting the picture and ceasing fire on Our Heroes.
All that’s a typical Army-men-are-bad paradigm in your average kiddie sci-fi film, which tends not to make great recruitment videos (unlike, say, Josh Duhamel’s gung-ho role model of yore). It’s insulting to see an otherwise solid film fall back on such clichés when everything else about it tries amazingly hard to rise above.
I also wasn’t convinced in the final act when some of Charlie’s family begin coming around to her side, but their sudden about-face made them less grating, so I’ll allow it.
So what’s to like? If we leave the bar where Bay left it, Bumblebee vaults over it with ease. To be honest I still hold an unreasonable regard for Dark of the Moon (that’s the third one), in which they all but nuked actual downtown Chicago, the Milwaukee Art Museum was used as a filming location, Optimus Prime was pushed to become a capital-S soldier without mercy, Bay had to hold the cameras steadier for the sake of 3-D, the human stunts were more thrilling than usual, and Skids, Mudflap, and Megan Fox were nowhere in sight. I can’t explain or defend it, but Bumblebee falls a bit short of that one. The other four are easy takedowns, no contest.
It helps that the crack animation staff have gone all-out to deliver a better bot-fight experience, and in particular a better bot emotional experience. Until he figures out how to use his AM/FM radio gimmick, Bumblebee’s performance is all awkward pantomime, clever use of expressions, and size-changing bits that are inconsistent in their relation to the spaces around him but aptly convey his state of mind in each moment. While most of the cast do what they can within their stock parts, surpassing him is Steinfeld as the deeply wounded Charlie, working through her pain but finding resolve and motivation amid a distracting robot war where she finds herself eminently useful. A flimsier film might falter and collapse around that core, but between her experienced talent and the visual team’s acuity, the young lady and the weird warrior are a force to be reckoned with.
(Bonus points also go to the rather entertaining Stephen Schneider from Broad City as Charlie’s stepdad, who tries to reach her through goofy self-help books and who reveals in the third act that he has a surprise action-film specialty.)
Despite my griping, Bumblebee works as a much less frenetic, more enjoyable entry point into the world of Transformers toys. Anyone who doesn’t mind old-fashioned all-ages shiny happy SF flicks should be pretty satisfied with the results, even if they’re waiting on the home video release because theaters were far too crowded with new options these past few weeks. I can see how it would be hard to prioritize improved toy-bot warfare over the muscular giddiness of Aquaman.
How about those end credits? No, there’s no scene after the Bumblebee end credits, just a lot of Special Thanks and courtesy shout-outs for all those ’80s gewgaws. At this point do “I LOVE THE ’80s!” love letters still have to ask permission to overload on the oldies? Are there proprietors of poorly aging intellectual properties out there who refuse or require much convincing? Or who think they’re still worth a lot of money today? I can’t imagine the creators of ALF have much of an asking price or a licensing staff with tough negotiators on it.