MOVIE REVIEW: Bumblebee
BUMBLEBEE— 3 STARS
If there was ever a filmmaker that should not be an advocate for the oft-used proverb popularized by William Edward Hickson that states “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again” it’s Michael Bay. His five progressively worse Transformers movies over the course of the past eleven years have done more harm than good, where the better bumper sticker over Hickson’s would have been “less is more.” Louder and dumber with each entry, the franchise bloated the basic intangibles of what made its cartoon source appealing in the first place. We didn’t need cool things being made supposedly cooler. We didn’t need loud things being made louder. We didn’t need fun things inflated with dumb humor. We didn’t need bigger.
We needed better. The missing elements for the Transformers films have been tone, character, and heart. Flash and volume are never substitutes for any of those traits. Maybe it was a miracle. Maybe it was the diminishing returns of Transformers: The Last Knight. Nonetheless, the genesis and arrival of Bumblebee feels like Michael Bay listened to the old Michael Jordan McDonalds PSA. He stopped and he got some help. The powers that be changed the people trying to succeed and they have made all the difference.
Bringing in Laika studio animator Travis Knight (Kubo and the Two Strings) as a new director and writer Christina Hodson (Shut In) as a new female voice in the writer’s room was a creative godsend. Plenty of loud and dumb still comes out of Bumblebee, but at least the pompous hubris and sophomoric fixations that fuel it are exchanged for those three missing elements of tone, character, and heart. The charming zeal of this revisionist prequel stands as the beacon signal to welcome back those who wrote this series off (including this very writer) years ago.
Knight and Hodson turn back the clock to 1987 to show the story of how B-127, the titular, diminutive and flaxen Autobot soldier, arrived on Earth to pave the way for his retreating comrades who are losing their civil war versus the Decepticons on their home planet of Cybertron. The little metal bugger encounters a rough introduction to coastal California crashing the middle of a Sector 7 train exercise and warding off the Decepticon Blitzwing who followed him. The two tin combatants lay collateral waste to the unprepared grunts led by Lt. Jack Burns (John Cena). Voiceless and badly injured in the ruckus, Bumblebee disguises himself during a recovery shutdown as a 1967 Volkswagen Beetle.
That deathtrap of a German beater is found by Charlie Watson (Hailee Steinfeld) at a seaside junkyard. She’s a lightly punkish, newly 18-year-old gearhead working carnival concession stands who has recently lost her guiding force father. Seeking an exit out of the household led by her mother (Pamela Adlon of Better Things) that doesn’t feel like home anymore, Charlie tries to align her own wheels to freedom and stoke the spirit of shared memories by trying to fix up her father’s old classic Corvette. Discovering more than meets the eye under the hood of that Beetle, Charlie becomes an eager and empathetic caretaker and companion for the broken soldier. Secrecy is paramount, but so is preserving the future after two powerful Decepticons, Shatter (Angela Bassett) and Dropkick (Justin Theroux), track B-127 to Earth, take advantage of Sector 7 and seek to summon more of their evil destroyers to Earth.
LESSON #1: CAREFULLY READ INTO SOMEONE’S NAME — I get that tarot cards aren’t going to work on Decepticons and asking for a resume will get you blown up by a big giant robot with energy blasters. But, dear humans supposedly in places of influence, don’t makes deals with intelligent things more powerful than you with suspect monikers. As Cena’s Lt. Burns laments, Jon Ortiz’s Dr. Powell might not be as annoying as John Turturro’s government goon of past movies, but he’s more clueless.
LESSON #2: THE 1980S WERE A MAGICAL TIME — Among all the predictable peril that follows, Bumblebee has tone going for it thanks to its era. The filmmakers smartly borrow from the playbook of Spider-Man: Homecoming to embrace and energize the quintessential John Hughes fancies associated with teen life, especially of that, his wheelhouse era. The period-perfect fad clothing, automobiles, lingering Cold War politics, social commentary, and stellar soundtrack playlist in the film greatly add to this film’s feel and appeal, a huge improvement over the noisy and indistinct present day settings of the past films.
More challenges in Bumblebee are mortal instead of metallic as the film presents an enlightened and enterprising main character. Take the popular Strong Female Character t-shirt for Hailee Steinfeld and add the descriptors of vibrant and layered on the back. Her drive has essence and the actress creates an honestly compelling performance swimming where normally one-note angsty performances and cinematic cheese reside. She is twice the presence of any Shia LeBouf twitch or Mark Wahlberg muscle pitted against the relentless John Cena and all his zingers. Up-and-coming young actor Jorge David Lendeborg Jr. (Brigsby Bear, Love Simon) offers a sweet complimentary partner-in-crime and unforced romantic interest to pair with Hailee.
LESSON #3: THE POWER OF NONVERBAL COMMUNICATION — No crush, however, can compete with the affable and adorable dusty gold centurion. Part-protector and part-confidant created through the visual effects of Ron ames and Jason Smith, Bumblebee becomes an emotive character as rich as Charlie. In true less-is-more fashion, the simple and solid joy of their relationship comes out of this lesson title. For all the love stories gracing the screen in 2018, the hugs shared here could win a Best Embrace awards category at either the Oscars or MTV Movie Awards.
LESSON #4: THE FREEDOM GRANTED BY A CAR — The coming-of-age cues of Bumblebee, even with an atypical female lead, point to the right of passage of owning a car. Sure, this one transforms into something bigger and cannot stay around forever, but that first car is special. The maturation of responsibility combines with the springboard of potential futures that come from having transportation that expands your boundaries.
There is an affecting shot in Bumblebee that nails that lesson with symbolism. The camera lingers on a sideview mirror that reads the factory standard phrase of “objects in the mirror are closer than they appear.” One could easily color that as a play on the old “more than meets the eye” slogan of Transformers. Instead, it matches the lesson of freedom. The mirror presents the human ties that the driver is departing. They are images of a new past that can be preserved for memories. The driver can look back fondly while the mirror’s stamp reminds them that those loved ones are never really that far away. Heart like that is a welcome swell to a Transformers film.