The Transformers series has its Fast Five moment
There was a time, not long ago, when Transformers movies were box office juggernauts that loomed over their competition like storm clouds. These days, Transformers flicks just linger in multiplexes like noxious farts. Consider the franchise down but not out. Director Travis Knight (Kubo and the Two Strings), knows a thing or three about breathing life into animated characters. Working off Christina Hodson’s Amblin-inspired script, his new Transformers spinoff Bumblebee takes the series in a new direction.
Gone, for better and for worse, are the signature Bay-isms linked to the franchise. Say goodbye to the pee jokes, masturbation references, and blatant objectification of women. This also means missing out on his unmatched talent for producing holy-s#!t moments – the good kind, not the offensive ones.
Necessity is the mother of invention, and Bay sits atop his Hollywood throne, wanting for nothing. His recent films are shallow acts of indulgence. There has never a better time to let a hungry young director take the reigns. Working off a $135 budget, Bumblebee is by Transformers movie standards, practically an indie film. Still bigger and bolder than most action flicks, this new installment comes from a director and screenwriter who care more about teen angst than interplanetary conflict.
The film kicks off amidst an all-out war on the Transformers’ home world, Cybertron. And honestly, it’s nice watching them wreck their own damn planet for a change. The tides of war have shifted to favour the evil Decepticons. Sensing defeat, the Autobots’ heroic leader Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen) commands his soldiers to flee Cybertron. In an act of last-minute planning – unacceptable for a being whose brain is a literal operating system – Optimus commands the young soldier Bumblebee to hide out on Earth and establish a secret base of operations where the Autobots can regroup.
Bumblebee is tracked to Earth and critically damaged before he escapes by the skin of his grill. Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld), a lonely teenager with a knack for fixing old cars, finds Bumblebee at a scrapyard hibernating in vehicle mode. Mistaking him for an old clunker, Charlie takes him home for repairs. When Bumblebee comes back online, they’re both in for a huge surprise. Bumblebee’s corrupted memory banks keep him from remembering who he is and what’s his mission. With her new robot friend, Charlie starts to let her guard down, something she hasn’t done since her father died. But the duo doesn’t have much time for self-discovery. The US military is hot on their trail, aided by a ruthless pair of Decepticon headhunters.
What separates Bumblebee from previous films is the amount of consideration that went into the script. Right from the jump, you feel how much effort screenwriter Christina Hodson put into establishing Charlie and her world. We have a solid idea of who Charlie is and what obstacles she faces before Steinfeld even speaks a word. It helps to have one of the best young actresses working today as your lead, sure, but the character feels like a synthesis of performance and the page. Charlie is the rebellious and misunderstood child we’ve seen in countless 80s films, but Steinfeld brings her own brand of “true grit” to Charlie that makes her charming, relatable, and lovable.
It’s too bad the script doesn’t fully realize the other human characters. Jorge Lendeborg Jr., Pamela Adlon, and John Cena are all charismatic actors capable of great work. But here they’re one-dimensional props. They get in a quip here and a funny expression there, but never break the shackles of their underwritten roles. I get the sense that given a couple more passes over the script; Bumblebee would be even more rewarding. The film strives for an Iron Giant/E.T. vibe but never quite gets there. There are flashes where the film moves past pastiche and becomes its own thing. However, it mostly feels like a cold-blooded blockbuster masquerading as something warm and earnest.
Lest you forget you’re watching an 80s movie, Bumblebee loads its soundtrack with throwback tunes. Expect to hear Tears for Fears, Stan Bush, and The Smiths. Lots of The Smiths. To further immerse the audience in Charlie’s retro world, cinematographer Enrique Chediak recreates an intimate suburban coastal town vibe evocative of The Goonies and Poltergeist.
Chediak also does a great job framing the action. In previous films, the fighting is as hard to track as watching the Tasmanian Devil breakdance in a hurricane. That’s no longer the case – this time you feel like you’re watching giant weighty robots tussling. Though frantic, the action remains in focus and steady enough to soak up every inch of the robot on robot action. Most importantly, the film captures the Transformers’ sense of scale. You want your giant, powerful robots to look giant and powerful.
There are moments where Bumblebee plays like a love letter to lifelong Transformers fans. Setting the film in the 80s serves as a soft-reset; a chance to present characters unsullied by Bay’s over-stylized vision. Knight gives the characters their vintage looks and throws in Easter eggs that remind old heads why they fell in love with the series.
The film’s brief prologue, set on Cybertron, is a peak nerdgasm moment. Seeing Cybertron brought to life, inhabited by Soundwave, Ravage, and Arcee may bring tears to lifers’ eyes. There is no reason for the Cybertron prologue to exist other than to please diehards (and stack the trailer). By comparison, the rest of the film is restrained, focused on Bumblebee and the two Decepticons tracking him.
Bottom Line: The Transformers series sits right alongside the Potter-verse and the MCU for fuelling Hollywood’s tent-pole driven profit model. Unlike the MCU, the Transformers films have only declined in quality. Bumblebee’s formula is the remedy for what ails the series. The picture offers explosive action, two compelling heroes, and a sentimental story to string them both together. But the ingredients require minor tweaking. With a stronger supporting cast – including a menacing villain – these spinoffs will stand head and shoulders above the last six installments. Bumblebee proves that overstuffed, spectacle-driven Transformers movies have reached their “age of extinction.”
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