Image owned by Hasbro and Paramount and from Consequenceofsound.net
It would be safe to assume that after an okay first live action Transformers movie and four subsequent,terrible Transformers movies, that the property just doesn’t work that well on the big screen. They are loud, devoid of coherent or consistent plotting and over time just an excuse for director Micheal Bay to masturbate to what he does best: Make over half the film seem like it’s occurring at sunset, objectify women and destroy stuff. Save for the “women” example, unless “Magic Mike” proved a double standard, there is nothing wrong with the elements Bay used to paint his garish portrait of the 80s cartoon/action figure icons. While perhaps artistic in its subjective nature, the films are in terms of symmetry what Jackson Pollock was for art. Not inherently bad, just badly implemented.
By the fourth and fifth films, it can be argued that Bay is self aware and is actively trying the audience’s patience rather than the critics, maybe so he can stop making them. If Travis Knight is the new trendsetter for this flailing franchise, then maybe we can go back to saying there is actually more than meets the eye. For now, it’s what we should expect from competent filmmaking.
Bumblebee is the most marketable Transformer yet, even more than Autobot leader Optimus Prime and Decepticon leader Megatron. As was intended in the original 1980s animated series, Bee was intended as the “kid appeal character”, the one who hangs out the most with the human audience surrogates like Spike Witwicky, his father Sparkplug (nicknames I hope) and the former’s eventual girlfriend Carly. That he is the only Autobot to consistently survive Bay’s series other than Optimus is no accident. Of course he would get his own movie! It’s marketing sense. The strange thing is how oddly uncorporate Bumblebee as a movie feels. Probably stems from Travis Knight of Kubo and the Two Strings fame, actually giving a f**k about the source material however chronologically vicarious it may be.
In the first of many new retcons for the storyline, which here seem more of a relief than a headache for reasons I will elaborate further on, Bumblebee is sent to Earth by Optimus from the Transformer homeworld Cybertron to recon for a new home. The Decepticons have all but won despite Megatron being conspicuously absent from the entire movie. The loyal Autobot, referred to at this point as B-127, obliges and lands on Earth. He immediately runs into John Cena’s Burns, a gruff military figure running a training exercise at the spot B lands in. Cena is surprisingly solid in his performance and is actually quite reasonable with the insane situations he is put in due to the Transformers. Of course, seeing a giant alien robot show up out of nowhere puts him on the offensive for the majority of the film. In due time, a Decepticon scout who looks like Starscream but very much isn’t for reasons made very apparent in the film, fights Bumblebee in the midst of the military’s chase and manages to take away Bee’s literal voice box. The damage from the fight also damages his also literal memory banks.
As well done as the rest of the film is, and make no mistake, compared to the fare we’ve received from Bay in the following decade, Bumblebee is nearly a revelation of what could have been in that time, Knight is a bit too liberal in borrowing elements from films of the past. If you have ever seen or heard of E.T. and the Iron Giant, then a lot of the beats will feel almost painfully familiar. Eventually, Charlie, the human female lead of the movie( Hailee Steinfeld), finds B in much the same way that Sam Witwicky did in the original, at a used car yard/junkyard and buys him to renovate.
I give some lenience to Knight in that he is trying to establish a nostalgic period piece for the 1980s and the popular culture it brought with it. In terms of fanservice for the era, it is well handled and not overwrought. Some of it is clever, such as the use of Stan Bush’s The Touch, the iconic song from the original animated film of that same decade. It is not used how you think it will be used and that is one of the more legitimate surprises Knight offers.
That being said, the cliches of movies from that era do still feel worn, even if done intentionally to suggest a bygone era from Hollywood. The mean girls, the dorky friend, the (possibly) brainless jock, the annoying younger brother, the deceased dad for the main character and the silly stepfather whom she hates. It’s all there and it can distract from how genuine if familiar the connection Charlie makes with Bumblebee. She does clear up why the Autobot would have the name of an earth-based insect. From B-127 to Bumblebee.
I would be lying if I still felt more engaged with the film when it came to the larger implications involving, you know, the Transformers, the reason you’re here. Two Decepticon hunters, both of which are brand new to the hundreds of robots to choose from,Shatter and Dropkick, are the antagonists searching for our big yellow hope. They are quite enjoyable in how unabashedly evil they are. Of all the things to carry over from Bay’s take on the franchise, Decepticon cruelty is one of the few worth keeping. It doesn’t hurt that Cena calls them out on their clearly sinister name when all the military humans consider a truce to hunt down Bumblebee.
I mentioned earlier that Bumblebee brings new retcons to the series. Originally, Bumblebee traveled to Earth in the 1970s to search for the first of many macguffins, the Allspark. Bumblebee in this movie arrives in 80s America just to find a home for the Autobots to hide and survive. There are callbacks to the first Bay film, suggesting this is still the same universe as the prior films. Other moments suggest otherwise, perhaps an alternate universe take. If this was a reboot of the series containing elements from the original run, that would be fine by me. To be honest, the timeline for this series is so royally screwed, especially by bonkers and even offensive revelations in 2017’s The Last Knight (Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass as Autobot allies for starters), that Knight and his writers omitting, even rewriting the storyline without the really stupid stuff is fine by me.
Bumblebee, despite its hardly fresh story for Bee and his human friend, does feel refreshing for the film series as a whole. The action is clean yet thoroughly enjoyable, and I not once, ever got confused to which robot was which, which in turn was a constant issue with Bay’s Quintology. It suggests that a future lineup of Transformer movies without Bay’s direct involvement is no longer something to fear or worse be wearily resigned to, or better yet, to skip outright. The Transformers have got their touch back for the first time in what seems like forever and it is quite grateful to know a universe designed to sell toys can feel more than plastic.