To declare that “Bumblebee” is without a doubt the best of the Transformers series is accurate but also pointless. A comment like that is in the same category as “the most left-wing alt-right activist,” “the healthiest cigarette” or “the nicest guy who was ever convicted in the International Court of Justice in The Hague.” There are people who fit the description, but it doesn’t mean anything. But this new movie, which expands the universe of alien robots, is at least a small step in the right direction.
It’s also the most important turning point in the world of the Transformers since the first live-action movie in the series was released 11 years ago. Already back in 2007, the toys that morphed into a television series and an animation film were a sweet childhood memory for kids of the 1980s and ‘90s. The reins were placed in the hands of Michael Bay, an experienced action-movie director with a fetish for explosions, flying objects and yet more explosions. Longtime fans may have hated all that, but Bay scored big with the new generation.
The five films Bay directed grossed $4.38 billion, placing the Tranformers in 13th place among the most profitable series in cinema history, prior to the release of “Bumblebee” last month.
Even before the fifth movie, in 2017, Paramount Pictures decided it wanted to create a cinematic universe along the lines of Marvel Studios. To create such a universe around Bay’s movies, Paramount bosses convened a few scriptwriters, headed by Akiva Goldsman (“A Beautiful Mind”). The writers came up with more than 10 ideas for films, and “Bumblebee” – which is relatively modest in terms of the series, with respect to the plot and in other ways as well – was chosen. Christina Hodson, who came up with the idea of a movie whose plot takes place earlier than that in the Bay pictures, was given the opportunity to write the screenplay, and the direction was entrusted to Travis Knight, known for the animation film “Kobo and the Two Strings.”
The plot of “Bumblebee” begins in motion, as the camera dives into the depths of the planet Cybertron, where the Decepticons are on the brink of crushing the rebels, led by Optimus Prime. Fights and explosions in every corner, chaos reigns and pieces of robots flying every which way. At first glance it looks as if Bay never left the set. But this is only a brief prelude, in which the faithful yellow soldier named B-127 flees to Earth.
B-127, who hasn’t yet acquired his earthly name – Bumblebee – leaves Cybertron far behind, without knowing that two Decepticons are hot on his trail. Then, just minutes into the picture, the explosions are set aside in favor of a respectable amount of screen time for plot development. If there was any lingering doubt, Michael Bay doesn’t live here anymore.
A beautiful friendship
We meet the movie’s heroine, Charlie Watson (Hailee Steinfeld), in a quiet suburb of San Francisco. Charlie is a rebellious adolescent who hasn’t recovered from the death of her father. In her past, she was a professional high diver, which is a pretty odd pistol to plant in the first act. She’s also a car buff who dreams of having a vehicle of her own. She finds an old yellow Volkswagen Beetle in a junkyard, which only she can fix. This marks the beginning of a beautiful friendship with the Autobot B-127, now disguised as that same Beetle, which she nicknames Bumblebee.
While Charlie tries to maneuver between American high-school cliché characters, like mean girls and scumbag guys, she and Bumblebee have to fight off two malicious Decepticons and forces led by former U.S. Army Ranger Jack Burns (John Cena).
For the viewers, this is an opportunity to get answers to questions that no one thought of asking: What’s the origin of the name Bumblebee? How did he morph later into a Chevrolet Camaro? And why does he speak with the aid of the radio?
Even though the picture begins and ends with action, its inspiration derives primarily from other sources. Bay had no compunctions about sacrificing characters and entire narratives on the altar of special effects – and then blowing up said altar – in an attempt to stun viewers. In contrast, the new screenwriter and director aim their appeal at a younger audience than the adolescent males Bay tried to please.
This is a story that focuses on the relations woven between a teenage girl and an alien that she hides in her suburban home. The dynamics and the time frame – 1987 – constitute serious homage to “E.T.,” bordering on gross imitation, although at times the crass gestures also slide to the level of “King Kong,” when Charlie needs to protect her overgrown pet.
The characters are artificial and unsophisticated, but just thinking about them and attempting to engage with them are a leap forward compared to what happened when Bay was around. But still, every human gesture that might feel authentic is engulfed by cloying nostalgia that underscores the artificiality. The creators of “Bumblebee” did not resist the temptation to offer saccharine memories of the 1980s, but they arrived late at the party. Even Steven Spielberg, who is credited as executive producer of “Bumblebee,” had already evoked those references in his “Ready Player One,” earlier in 2018. Hodson and Knight then compound the problem by injecting references with the subtlety of a bulldozer.
The 1987 of “Bumblebee” is more 1987 than 1987 ever was. Only the biggest hit songs, television series and movies are referenced – and they’re slammed into the viewers at every opportunity and T-shirt. Every song is at the very least The Smiths; every TV series is at least “Alf”; and every film is “The Breakfast Club.”
Creating nostalgia, too, demands skill, as director James Gunn realized in “Guardians of the Galaxy.” The feeling of nostalgia is stirred in us when we remember what we forgot we loved, but in this case Knight is afraid to take the risk and offers songs that are still big on radio stations here and abroad.
Despite the many flaws, Knight and Hodson’s focus on a small story for a young audience pays off. Charlie is more interesting than her predecessors – Shia LaBeouf and Mark Wahlberg – were in the lead role. She is also more human than all the Transformer women, who added up to a male fantasy. The bar Bay left is so low that Charlie is easily the most interesting organism in the Transformers’ universe, though in herself she is not actually an interesting character and could disappear from the series without anyone noticing.
Bumblebee, though mute through most of the film, is more human than she. The dialogue with Charlie is conducted by means of the eyes and facial expressions, with Knight drawing on his experience with stop-motion animation and his fine attention to the small details. A very considerable investment is apparent in the Transformer’s features to give him a more sophisticated and human look without verbal expressions. The movie’s best scenes are concealed in these small moments even more than in the big battles. It’s too bad there are so few of them.
But let’s not forget that this is an action movie and that is its purpose. The action scenes were and remain the crowning glory even without Bay, but their form and scope have changed and shrunk. No longer are whole cities wiped out in a relentless orgy of explosions, with pieces of computerized metal flying in all directions. Bay’s trademark – rapid cuts that don’t allow us to understand who’s against whom or what’s attacking what – has vanished into thin air. In exchange, the new director offers precise and measured action sequences that the viewer can follow and understand. That’s not a great compliment, but it’s a small step for Transformers and a giant leap to prevent viewers’ headaches.
“Bumblebee” is a genuine turning point for Transformers, thanks mainly to the welcome disappearance of Michael Bay, but also because of the appeal focused on younger children. The foundations that have already been laid in the five earlier films shackled the creators to a story whose end is foretold – and they insist on clinging to a decade to which we have already clung too much. However, Bay prepared the ground for a conclusion that is supposed to be obvious and this time is a compliment: “Bumblebee” offers forgettable action but nevertheless is a major upgrade for the series. It’s the first Transformers movie that isn’t a total loss.
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