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Bumblebee

Posted December 22, 2018 By Curiosity Inc.

I thought I was done with the Transformers franchise. Hell, it seemed like we were all done with the franchise. Between diminishing box office returns, Michael Bay’s departure, a string of predictable plots, and too many godawful world-building choices to count (to say nothing of the WGA strike that kneecapped the second film), it seemed like we had all agreed the well finally ran dry. The Bayformers series was a fun little failed experiment, full of lessons to learn from when the franchise gets rebooted in another five years.

But then he showed up.

You may know Travis Knight from his directorial debut, Kubo and the Two Strings. I know him as the president/CEO of Laika, also the son of Nike co-founder Phil Knight. And now he’s been given the keys to a multimillion-dollar franchise kept under the notoriously protective thumb of Hasbro and Paramount.

If the heir to billions is personally directing a movie, you can be damn sure he’s not doing it for the money. There is absolutely no reason why Knight would ever have to take several years out of his assuredly busy schedule, step behind the camera himself, and answer to so many studio execs when he literally has the resources to hire a full cast and crew to make any film he wants. For that matter, there is absolutely no reason why Paramount had to hire the freaking president/CEO of his own studio when any director fresh out of film school would’ve been happy to take marching orders in return for a splashy debut.

The message is clear: Travis Knight is directing a Transformers movie for no other reason than because he really, REALLY wants to be there. And if Paramount/Hasbro hired him, it’s because he’s got something truly goddamn impressive to bring to the table. All of that on top of Knight’s proven natural experience as a filmmaker (again, see: Kubo) and I couldn’t believe how impossibly hyped I was to see Bumblebee.

Let’s start with the obvious question: Is this movie a prequel in continuity with the Bayformer films? Put it this way: The Allspark is never mentioned once. Never even alluded to. It probably doesn’t even exist. Also, while there is a secret government organization called Sector 7 and they operate out of the Hoover Dam, that’s about it. The way they make First Contact in this movie, ain’t no way they’ve got Megatron frozen in the basement.

There are other examples I can’t get into without spoilers, but that should be enough to paint a clear picture. Every adaptation of Transformers thus far is more or less its own loose adaptation of the G1 canon, while cherry-picking and tweaking certain characters and ideas from other adaptations that have come along in the time since. This movie is simply another such adaptation, with the Bayformer movies thrown onto the growing pile of source material to pull from.

Right off the bat, the filmmakers are abundantly clear in paying tribute to the G1 era. We open on Cybertron, with the Autobot/Decepticon war in full swing. This is glorious fan service. Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen, obviously) is there, and he’s got his faceplate on tight without any flames to be seen. Soundwave is there with his voice properly synthesized (Jon Bailey in place of Frank Welker, alas), and Ravage is ready to spring from his chest. There are so many fan-favorite bots here, all looking and sounding like they did in the old days, every one beautifully animated, without any of the overly complicated and distracting designs of the Bayformers. These are the blocky ’80s-era designs brought to vivid life with cutting-edge CGI, looking fantastic in a way that Michael Bay swore up and down could never work.

What’s more, the film itself is set in 1987, which is of course the year when the franchise was in its prime. Obviously, this gives the movie a distinctly retro flavor, with a soundtrack of fantastic ’80s hits and delightfully quaint technology on display. The filmmakers even use the Cold War to paper over a couple of plot holes. It all very cleverly taps into the same kind of nostalgia that’s been powering this franchise for the last thirty years.

More importantly, the retro setting is a convenient excuse for filling the movie with all sorts of dated cliches. The supporting cast is loaded with superficial and pitifully uninspired characters (the bully played by Gracie Dzienny comes immediately to mind), but it works because this is taking place in a more superficial and simplistic time. Sure, it’s still annoying and lazy, but at least it works more effectively than Michael Bay putting these exact same threadbare cliches in the present day.

This brings me to the male lead and love interest, nicknamed “Memo”, and played by Jorge Lendeborg Jr. He’s a socially awkward and insecure geek desperately trying to find the nerve to ask this girl out even though she doesn’t seem to know that he exists… It’s Sam. This character is basically Sam Witwicky from the first three Bayformer movies, with only a few small yet vital differences. First of all, Lendeborg Jr. is only bland and unmemorable while Shia LaBeouf was annoying and toxic. There’s also the fact that Memo is a person of color, though his race is never brought up in any capacity, but at least that’s something new. Most importantly, Memo is a supporting character instead of our lead. Memo is a comic relief acting slightly adjacent to the action, which means that we never have to take him seriously as our protagonist or viewpoint character. That makes a huge difference.

Elsewhere, the supporting cast is pretty weak. In particular, John Ortiz and Glynn Turman — two seasoned veteran character actors — embarrass themselves as useless Sector 7 personnel. Easily the standouts in the supporting cast are Angela Bassett and Justin Theroux hamming it up as the voices of our Decepticon antagonists. And of course John Cena’s a blast — at this point, he knows perfectly well how to look like a chiseled action star while making a pompous ass of himself, and his skill set is in full effect here. Heaven knows he’s far and away more comfortable with the “campy self-righteous high-and-mighty government agent” act than John Turturro ever was.

Then we have our main character. Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld) is a freshly minted 18-year-old who lost her father to a heart attack some time ago. She’s still not over it by a long shot. She’s given up sports because her father went to one of her practices just before he died. (Can’t imagine that’s going to come up at some convenient point in the climax.) She’s obsessively fixing up the car that she and her dad worked on all the time. She’s upset with her family because her mom and her kid brother (respectively played by Pamela Adlon and Jason Drucker) have apparently moved on already. Her mom even has a boring new boyfriend (Ron, played by Steven Schneider).

Yes, Charlie’s daddy issues are flimsy and cliched, even overwrought. But it still makes her a million times more interesting than Sam Witwicky, the self-absorbed whiny middle-class white boy who never seemed to have any real problems. And again, Steinfeld is such an infinitely more talented actor that she has no problem wringing this for pathos. I am so profoundly grateful that Steinfeld finally gave up her crappy pop music career, because right now in theaters, she has two kick-ass characters in two fantastic movies — and potentially two jaw-dropping franchises — and everyone is better off for it.

Alas, a huge part of why the “daddy issues” angle doesn’t completely gel is because the rest of Charlie’s family doesn’t get a lot to work with. Her brother barely even gets a line until the climax. Her mother is a workaholic nurse who shows concern over Charlie’s well-being, but there’s nothing especially concrete or anything that connects with Charlie’s arc in any significant way.

As for Ron… this is the guy who gave Charlie a book about positive attitudes for her birthday, telling her to smile more. In the moment, it came off as a hopelessly ignorant act of misogyny. Only with hindsight do I realize that it was a trite and insensitive way of “helping” Charlie move on from her father’s death. If the latter point had been made more clear, at least it might have helped solidify the family’s place in Charlie’s development.

The script as a whole is pretty thin, I’m sorry to say. There are ridiculous contrivances, there are inescapable plot holes, a few major things happen without any consequence, the plot is virtually 100 percent predictable, and we even get a deus ex machina or two. And yet it works, because… well, this is Transformers. We’re not talking about a Martin McDonagh picture here, it’s a glorified toy commercial. The best we could’ve hoped for is something simple enough that kids could follow, but not stupid enough that the audience feels insulted. Something that accepts how silly the whole premise is, without making the audience feel silly for enjoying it. By those standards, the film works perfectly well.

As an example, the Transformers are capable of speaking English as soon as they make landfall, without the time or means to study Earth’s languages. How is that possible? Also, why does our namesake Autobot go by the name “B-127” when another Autobot proudly identifies himself as “Cliffjumper”? How does that make any sense?

The answer to both questions is this: Who knows and who cares? We never questioned it as kids, so why should we or the filmmakers question it now? In fact, when the movie actually tries to explain itself (the origin of Bumblebee’s name, for example), that’s when it most often falls flat.

Bumblebee himself (voiced briefly by Dylan O’Brien in the film’s opening minutes) was clearly modeled after his Bayformer incarnation, complete with those huge expressive eyes and the stupid faux binkie in his mouth. Of course he’s mute, and his memory banks were damaged, which conveniently allows exposition dumps to be spaced out as the plot demands. It also requires Bee and our human characters to communicate in more simplistic and intimate ways (touch, emotions, music, etc.).

Oh, and by the way: His voice gets ripped out and his memory gets damaged while he’s being interrogated by a Decepticon. Seriously. Think about how stupidly counterproductive that is.

The upside is that Bumblebee is a beautifully expressive character who’s surprisingly easy to get attached to. Plus — I cannot possibly stress this enough — Hailee Steinfeld is selling this like iPads on Black Friday. She spends so much of this movie talking with a CGI creation, and with all due credit to the marvelous effects and animation teams, Steinfeld acts against this imaginary robot like it’s effortless.

Bumblebee lost his home planet to an all-encompassing war, and he needs to find a new ally while he learns about humanity and why it should be saved. Charlie lost her father and she needs to relearn how to connect with others, and figure out what kind of future she wants to build for herself. The two characters and their (admittedly hackneyed) arcs dovetail beautifully and inform each other in sincerely heartfelt ways.

While the Autobot/Decepticon war is certainly there, and it is technically what drives the plot forward, it’s on a much smaller scale. We never see the Autobots coordinating or fighting on multiple fronts (aside from the brief yet phenomenal Cybertron war scenes) because the only Autobot on Earth right now is the one the movie’s named after. And the cast only really features two Decepticons — any fewer and it wouldn’t be a challenge for one Autobot to handle alone, any more and it wouldn’t be plausible for the Autobot to win. And of course we have Sector 7, but they’re barely a nuisance — more of a philosophical antagonist to represent the dumbest, proudest, and physically strongest of the species that the Autobots are trying to befriend while the Decepticons are trying to subjugate or wipe out.

The upshot is that the action here is on a much smaller and more intimate scale. The biggest action set piece in the film is confined to a dockyard, never mind any massive city-wide giant robot battles. That said, we do get some pretty neat car chases, one of which puts considerable effort into using the “transforming car” premise in clever ways.

But then we have the fight scenes. The giant robots openly defy all laws of physics, not moving as slow and heavy behemoths but as lighting-quick MMA professionals with a vast array of moves to attack and counter each other with. This is nothing new. Michael Bay pioneered this approach all the way back in 2007. The difference here is that the character designs are not only bright and distinctive, but smoother and less distracting. Of course it also helps that our good guy is consistently the yellow one, and we only have one or two bad guys to keep track of.

As a direct result, we can actually see what’s going on! It’s always plainly visible who’s doing what, where the various limbs and weapons are, who’s in what position, and it doesn’t look like two clouds of metal shards flying into each other! And it looks fantastic!

Of course, it certainly helps that we’ve got another director behind the camera. While nobody could deny Michael Bay’s visual skill — in particular, he can shoot cars like nobody else in the business — Bay’s signature method is to use angles, close-ups, movements, and compositions in such a way that every single shot looks like something massive and important. Even during the smaller and more intimate moments, everything has to look sexy and badass. Everything has to keep going, going, going.

(Side note: I strongly recommend “The Whole Plate”, a series of video essays in which Lindsay Ellis skillfully dissects the Bayformer series to demonstrate Michael Bay’s filmmaking style in particular, and filmmaking theory in general. This episode is especially helpful in demonstrating the above paragraph.)

Travis Knight, on the other hand, is good enough to switch up the pacing where it counts. Thus the character-driven moments are slower and more intimate, the action scenes are bigger and faster, and they both carry a lot more weight as a direct result. I can’t believe I have to state something so basic, but that’s how low Michael Bay set the bar.

Last but not least, the filmmakers introduce themes of community, personal sacrifice, and humanity’s relationship with machines. All of these were present in the Bayformer series, and none of them stuck. Those movies never took the time to really explore those themes, and they didn’t have any characters worth attaching those ideas to. Those are not problems this movie has.

There’s no denying that Bumblebee is a stupid movie, but a two-hour toy commercial about giant alien robots turning into cars could only ever do so much. There were always going to be weak spots and drawbacks inherent in the source material, but the filmmakers compensate for that by putting the focus on a powerful core relationship between a superbly animated robot and a magnificent female lead. More importantly, the energetic action scenes and the more sympathetic moments are balanced out in such a way that they beautifully enhance each other. Couple that with a palpable love for the original G1 Transformers era, and you’ve got a movie overflowing with heart.

I think I can state with confidence that this is the movie we were hoping for ten years ago, and I’m very sorry that this wasn’t the original proof-of-concept for the first live-action Transformers film series. Here’s hoping it’ll serve as the pilot episode for the next one.