Review: Less Bay and more Amblin builds a better Transformer in Bumblebee

“It’s a death trap. She’s happy, though.”

The live-action Transformers films have always been so dumb—just big budget adaptations of an animated series from the 80s that was itself a thinly-veiled attempt to mythologize a few (admittedly pretty neat) toys imported from Japan. But being rotten hasn’t stopped the movie franchise from persisting for over a decade, raking in literally billions of dollars globally (robots punching the living hell out of each other is a universal language) since the first one arrived in 2007. With a nearly unwavering return on investment over five films, studio Paramount and toy company Hasbro haven’t really given a shit about quality, letting blockbusting nightmare humanoid Michael Bay continue to churn out every multi-million dollar mess since his first.

For whatever reason—be it studio paranoia, avarice, or (gasp) a sudden burst of creativity—this year, the paradigm shifted: Bumblebee, a spinoff Tranformbot movie fairly removed from the main storyline, and even directed by a different dude (Travis Knight), has been allowed into the wild. Eschewing the oppressively dour stupidity of the thoughtless Bay shitties, this new feature bins almost all of Mr. Bay’s clattering, confusingly dumb-fuck narrative and visuals by being a preamble to the entire franchise; a prequel deserving of its existence by taking place before everything became a cacophony of shit. Bumblebee is unencumbered by Bay’s signature noisy, clanging nonsense, free to tell a simple, earnest tale by taking place decades before Mark Wahlberg ever chugged an aluminum bottle of Bud Light.

Bumblebee‘s story isn’t new for the franchise, but certainly more mercifully straightforward. In 1987, the robot inhabitants of planet Cybertron—who can for some reason change into very specific models of Earth vehicles—are embroiled in a civil war of good guy Autobots vs. baddy Decepticons. Autobot leader Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen) sends scout B-127 (Dylan O’Brien) to Earth to set up a rendez-vous point for the embattled Autobots, running afoul of a Decepticon jet and the same secret Sector 7 agency from the previous movies outside San Francisco in the process. (Note: the straightforwardness is relative.) B-127’s voice and memory circuits are damaged before he changes into a busted, yellow VW bug, where he remains basically comatose until teenaged human protagonist Charlie Watson (Hailee Steinfeld) finds him and fixes him up. Still mourning the recent death of her father, Charlie befriends the amnesiac B-127 and dubs him “Bumblebee”, or—in an escalating effort to never not be affecting—”Bee” for short. (To really hammer the name home, he’s discovered with a bee’s nest in his wheel well, and his HUD features a hexagonal targeting pattern.)

The two outcasts develop an adorably soppy, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial-esque—or, more specifically, Iron Giant-esque—friendship where they learn to grow, run from callous government meanies (led by a jarringly not-as-funny-as-lately John Cena), and prove—finally—that, yes, a Transformers movie can have feelings, too. Knight credits Steven Spielberg for the initial story idea, as if the E.T. riffs, Northern Pacific setting, and pervasive dead-dad stuff wasn’t evidence enough.

Even more tellingly Spielbergian is that the film’s late-80s setting drenches the whole affair in enough era-appropriate nostalgia to find itself steering into Stranger Things or Super 8 territory—because of course a Transformers film should be set in the mid-to-late-80s! If Man from U.N.C.L.E. can arrive confidently as a period piece, why did it take Transformers six tries? The toys and accompanying animated series debuted in 1984, with the original animated feature hitting theaters in 1986, so it stands to reason that any ticket buyer clinging to a fondness for Transformers would similarly be clinging to a fondness for Reagan-era America. (Aging fans will thrill at the G1 character designs, as briefly glimpsed as they are.) It just makes sense—lazy Alf references, new wave cuts, and all. (Bumblebee repeatedly jokes about the title character’s fondness for vintage John Hughes, to boot.)

The obligatory Decepticon vs. Autobot storyline, wherein a pair of serviceable villains try to use the United States’ satellite system to summon their comrades to invade Earth, is placeholder material at best. (Though Angela Bassett and an almost-unrecognizable Justin Theroux have a good time as the voices of the condescending robots, eager to zap insolent humans to snotty, Men in Black-style goo at a moment’s notice.) Bumblebee is really a story of A Girl and Her Robot. Though, with Charlie and Bee’s relationship approaching something close to the chaste romance of Lost in Translation, complete with their own overhead reaching-to-embrace shot—not to mention the handful of times Bee slowly closes his eyes as Charlie lovingly touches him—it gets a little weird. Is it that the alluded romance is between a car-man and a teenage girl, or that it’s between a teenage girl and a child-brained, near-puppy of a machine, that makes it more weird? That’s up to the uncomfortable viewer, but suffice to say: a bit of their genuine sentimentality is lost in the debate.

But while this thing is definitely going to be a gimme of an erotic manga, it still kind of works, thanks to the unduly-winning performance from Steinfeld. Transformers are used to being fronted by Wahlbergs or LaBeoufs, and having an invested, compassionate lead for once is a good look for the franchise. Charlie’s character beats are far from interesting—a Clueless-but-Well-Meaning Mom (Pamela Adlon); a crap job slinging lemonade at an amusement park—but Steinfeld imbues them with a refreshing panache. She’s dorky and unglamorous, first glimpsed sniffing her armpits while air-drumming to the Smiths, then trashing a box of Chekhov’s diving trophies on her way to hang out at a junkyard to look for car parts.

The Smiths are just one of Charlie’s diagetic bands that tritely establish Bumblebee‘s 80s setting but a little “Higher Love” or “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” are as inevitable as they are welcome. (A certain Stan Bush track even makes an appropriate, winking appearance for somehow the first time in the series.) The retro soundtrack also provides the basis for Bee’s communication-by-way-of-sound-clips speech he uses in Transformers 1 through 5—those five interminably sloppy Michael Bay features that Bumblebee easily tops by being just the slightest bit humanistic and, amazingly, the most coherent thing on screen. (Bumblebee‘s fights and transformations make sense and are clearly realized under the guidance of Knight, in contrast to Bay’s exhausting and confounding penchant for hyperactive cameras and whirring, CGI metal tangs.)

Well done, Paramount. For the second time in a year they somehow pumped out a sixth film in a tentpole franchise while also making it the undeniable high-water mark of the series. Bumblebee is not to the level of the studio’s Mission: Impossible – Fallout, mind you, but it’s still a hell of a lot better than its predecessors, and represents the kind of film the Transformers series should’ve been all along: sweet, nostalgic, funny, and uncomplicated. After five forgettable, headache-inducing, 2-hour-plus (Oh my god—Transformers: Age of Extinction was goddamn 165 minutes long) adventures with these big robots that turn into cars and stuff, it’s nice to know that a halfway-decent Transformers movie can be made. All it took was a modicum of heart. And draining the Bay.

Grade: C+

Bumblebee
Director: Travis Knight
Studio: Paramount Pictures
Runtime: 114 minutes
Rating: PG-13
Cast: Hailee Steinfeld, John Cena, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., John Ortiz, Jason Drucker, Pamela Adlon

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