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Non-Review Review: Bumblebee

In some respects, Bumblebee feels like the Transformers movie that the franchise has been trying and failing to produce for over a decade.

Bumblebee has its share of problems. Some of those are inherited from a franchise working from a template established by Michael Bay, which means that the style of action direction carries over in certain cases. Some of those are inherited from the fact that the film is “based upon the toys produced by Hasbro Entertainment”, which means that the film occasionally feels obliged to cram in various characters and elements for reasons more toyetic than narrative.

“You really don’t get this ‘robots in disguise’ thing, do you?”

That said, Bumblebee largely works due to a combination of factors. Hailee Steinfeld is the most likable protagonist in the series to date, if not the most likable character in general. The direction from Travis Knight largely steers clear of the cluttered excesses that define the other films in the franchise. The script from Christina Hodson cleverly pushes the film down both in scale and spectacle, meaning that Bumblebee is the first Transformers film not to loose sight of its humanity (let alone its human characters) in its storytelling.

Bumblebee is perhaps not the best film that it could be, but is very easily the best Transformers film to date.

A girl and her robot.

There is an appealing simplicity to Bumblebee. The movie is dated to the late eighties, unfolding against the backdrop of the end of the Cold War. The film largely eschews obvious visual cues to the era, instead saturating the dialogue with references to Alf! and Miami Vice, and filling the soundtrack with a selection of beloved hits. This is a world without mobile phones or the internet, where the United States is still locked in Cold War with the Soviet Union, and one that has yet to become embroiled in the franchise’s surprisingly thick continuity.

There are a few interesting moments when Bumblebee brushes up against the challenges in adjusting the franchise’s narrative language to the new setting. Because the film is set in the late eighties and focuses on military personnel, one early exchange has a soldier lament, “I never should have saved your life in Grenada.” Delivered in the midst of a paintball game, it underscores an effective contrast with the earlier films’ War on Terror settings. Similarly, while the Cold War is mentioned only in passing, there is no unilateral robotic military intervention.

Ol’ blue eyes is back.

Instead, taking the setting as a narrative framework, Christina Hodson’s screenplay makes a point to borrow the structure and rhythms of an eighties teenage adventure film. Bumblebee feels like a spiritual successor to films like The Goonies or E.T. or even The Lost Boys or Monster Squad, stories about teenagers who encounter something magical and otherworldly that also provides a nice vehicle for a coming-of-age story. There are secrets kept, playful training sequences, oblivious adults.

Bumblebee is not as streamlined as it might be. This is most obvious at the start, a prologue unfolding on the war-torn planet of Cybertron that finds the Autobots and the Decepticons at war. The sequence is heavy on computer graphics, and packed to the brim with detail. Although director Travis Knight ensures a certain level of clarity, the opening sequence feels like it could have been plucked as a flashback from an earlier Transformers movie, providing unnecessary exposition and suggesting a cluttered mythology. It evokes the Krypton sequence at the start of Man of Steel.

A smashing success.

However, things clear up once the film falls to Earth along with its striking yellow protagonist. Bumblebee understands the need for narrative clarity in the midst of computer-generated explosions, and so works relatively hard to establish and maintain very straightforward character arcs. Steinfeld plays Charlie, a young teenager still struggling to come to terms with the loss of her father, who gave up her diving after his death and still connects with her father through working on cars. The trajectory of her story is clear, but there is no shame in that. Bumblebee hits each of its marks.

Indeed, Bumblebee is decidedly more invested in its human characters than any earlier Transformers film, which is a shrewd move. None of the characters or their arcs are radical or subversive, but they are clean and efficient. This is a big step up, and the film benefits greatly from strong casting. John Cena plays Burns, the film’s military pseudo-antagonist; the script works hard to both humanise him and to give him clear motivations that inform his actions. Jorge Lendeborg Jr. plays Memo, a nerd (literal) boy next door with a crush on Charlie.

A deep dive.

Again, all of these character dynamics are very simple. There are no real sharp turns in the plot, no developments that catch the audience off-guard with their cleverness or their depth. However, there is something almost radical in that, in the broader context of big budget spectacle-driven blockbusters like Bumblebee and in the Transformers series as a whole. While Charlie and Burns are not the most compelling characters in contemporary cinema, Bumblebee marks the first point in a Transformers film that the audience might actually enjoy spending time with the humans.

A general self-aware playfulness also helps. The early Transformers films took themselves very seriously and very earnestly in exploring the franchise’s convoluted mythology, which inevitably creates issues when the audience wonders why Bumblebee is able to transform into a sports car before he comes to Earth. Maybe Cybertron has cars, but why would it have cars? Why would those cars be to human scale? What is the purpose of a gigantic “robot in disguise” turning into a car on a planet full of robots?

Good buzz around this one.

It is all very silly, which is not an issue at all. Silly things are great. Silly things can be fun. There is a charm in silliness that should not be easily dismissed. However, the stoic high-stakes drama (and crippling exposition) from the earlier Transformers film tended to suck any fun out of the silliness. Instead, Bumblebee embraces the silliness. When the United States government aligns itself with two robots hunting Bumblebee, Burns is justifiably alarmed. “They literally call themselves Decepticons? Is that not raising any red flags for anyone?”

This playfulness runs through Bumblebee, lending it an easy and affable air. It helps that Steinfeld is an immensely likable young performer, even when acting opposite a computer-generated yellow robot. Similarly, both Knight and Hodson understand that Cena has distinguished himself as a great comedic performer in films like Blockers and Sisters, and make a point to play up that side of the obligatory macho soldier character in these films. Bumblebee understands that asking John Cena to react to stuff can provide a solid throughline in any movie.

Looking forward to a new wave of toys.

There are moments when Bumblebee does very a little too heavily into the usual Transformers cacophony. This is especially clear at the climax. The film’s climax works remarkably well as a chase sequence involving one robot and a bunch of human characters who are all broadly defined and broadly likable. However, the movie runs into difficulties when it has to throw its eponymous character into conflict with other computer-generated antagonist. Even then, though, the movie benefits from a tight core cast of computer-generated characters.

Bumblebee is a charming old-fashioned throwback to a style of teen-driven blockbuster that has largely lost ground to superhero films and massive spectacle. While Bumblebee suffers a little bit from the problems that tend to affect those sorts of films, it benefits from an endearing simplicity and a charming warmth.

5 Responses

  1. You are doing the impossible and making me think maybe I should actually see a Transformers film for the first time in close to a decade. The first two kind of turned me off to the franchise in general.

    Welp, either “third time’s the charm,” or “three strikes and you’re out.”

    • I think this is the sixth one or something actually. I am just glad they are rebooting the whole thing

    • It is the best live-action transformers film ever. (It’s been decades since I saw the original cartoon, but I liked this more.) It’s not a great film. It won’t bother my top hundred for the year. But it has a lot to recommend it, particularly if you lobbed about five minutes off either end.

      • Verdict: third time was the charm. I would not have seen it without your recommendation, but I’m glad I did.

        Daena, I know they made more movies in between. It’s just that I stopped watching after two.

      • Thanks. Glad I pointed you in the right direction!

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