by Joe Hammerschmidt
If there was ever a series of films that only sought to degrade on itself over an extended period, many will say it’s the Transformers series, going far back to its original live-action incarnation in 2007 (the 80s animated film needn’t apply here). And if there were a filmmaker bold enough to sink the ship on purpose, while maintaining his rather eccentric credibility, it would be Michael Bay. What had started out as a fun, almost whimsical series of sci-fi dramas had slid over time into glorified, intolerable disaster porn. Personally speaking, I can sense a sinking ship immediately, which had resulted in my routine ignorance of the franchise. To think there’d be any chance to revisit it would be futile, laughable even. And yet, the idea of a prequel NOT to be directed by Bay, that would be enough to at least pique my curiosity. Bumblebee, an origin story directed by stop-motion stalwart Travis Knight, is just that, held firmly to the ground by a trunk load of heart and humor. To say that does fill me with a little surprise, given the franchise’s history. And, a twinge of hope, that with the right people involved, there can always be room for a turnaround.
And that starts with Knight, the former whiz kid of Laika best known for helming the pure visual spectacle that was Kubo and the Two Strings. Some could say his inner fanboy too easily gets the best of his directorial judgment, assuming right from the beginning that one is familiar already with the core struggle between Autobots and Decepticons. Balancing that world, and its escapees into Earth to send the first preemptive message of attack and build a defense base, not an easy task that I would’ve expected achievable. Not without a bit of hesitation, as our hero, the cocky scout fighter B-127 (voiced very briefly by Dylan O’Brien), is sent to Earth on behalf of rebel leader Optimus Prime (once more voiced by the dulcet-toned Peter Cullen).
His crash landing, in the Bay Area, in the spring of 1987, triggers the immediate attention of a top-secret government task force with an eye for eradicating the extraterrestrial. Its leader, Jack Burns (John Cena), is naturally oblivious to the message B-127 is sending, more so due to a loss in speech following a scuffle between Shatter (Angela Bassett) and Dropkick (Justin Theroux), the two Decepticons responsible for luring the scout back to Cybertron as sacrifice for Prime’s war crimes. Seeking refuge in a scrap yard, he sits idle for a rather undetermined period. That is, until he makes a new friend in the plucky Charlie Watson (Hailee Steinfeld), a sullen young adult just turning 18 and still trying to bounce back after her father’s passing. The rest of her fam appears as if they had already moved on: mother Sally (Pamela Adlon), little bro Otis (Jason Drucker), and new stepdad Ron (Stephen Schneider). The moody teen’s chance encounter with the covert VW bug, whom she nicknames Bumblebee, turns quickly into a deep, vocal friendship running circles around the community, and blowing smoke toward those keen on destroying Bee, either for parts, secrets, or revenge.
Without so many Autobots floating around, fighting each other, Knight’s eye for a more human connection wins out all too easily. Christina Hodson’s script doesn’t necessarily contribute a great deal (she at least bounces back after having been involved with the ironically titled Unforgettable from last year), as much as it does serve as an organized outline for exactly where Knight wishes to take his vision. As mentioned briefly, it’s the late 80s, it’s near San Francisco, and it looks very summery. Carefree, vivid, and often saccharine without being too bubblegummy.
It’s the same decade where the original toy line and cartoon had thrived for millions of youngsters and judging by the audience reactions heard all throughout, it may just be the time period where these characters belong. They’re a bit overly adherent to formula, and in the case of Cena, cheesy as far as villains go. He was the best surprise, as the man continues to evolve endlessly as an actor. He may not have the chops built up yet for full-on dramatic work yet, but with every legitimate part, he does manage to expand on his flexible range, while still maintaining that mighty Cena mystique, something only he could create.
For as much as the film borderlines as an E.T. pastiche through its alien eradication dynamic, I couldn’t stop smiling at how closely it plays like The Iron Giant, which is still a film I value and appreciate beyond any other animated feature in its time. Steinfeld is pure head-on-shoulders in building a valuable bond between human and robot, a captivatingly bubbly burst of personality in what could be one of her most enjoyable roles to date (the timing of her having two films opening during the holiday frame is pure icing on the cake; her voice simply completes the already perfect cast on Spiderverse, for those who have yet to experience that treat). Half of the time, she’s an almost-spokesperson for the recovering bot as he rediscovers the power of voice through a refurbished radio with cassette deck. Through that, there is a strong selection of standard 80s hits populated throughout the runtime, most of which Bee’s own attempts to speak back to Charlie, and one of them delivering a subtle franchise throwback that will be obvious when it hits.
Mercifully, Knight isn’t incredibly overt with the 80s references and nods, they only serve to project a raw time machine effect for the viewer, almost like this film could’ve existed at the turn of a new decade, and would’ve been just as large a hit, albeit with more practical effects taking the role of the CGI. And even then, the digital effects still appear at a certain minimum, they neither detract nor distract from what matters more. That certainly doesn’t mean seeing a few Transformer characters isn’t any less fun, than it would in experiencing an entire rogue’s gallery of them, here it’s a more balanced mix between heavy action and carefully coiled humorous moments, and even some accidental romance; granted, Jorge Lendeborg Jr. portraying a somewhat absent-minded love interest for Charlie didn’t do a whole lot for me, yet he had some clever moments. It was somewhat more refreshing to see cinematographer Enrique Chediak try his hand at framing a comical scene, compared to just endless dramatics, as was Paul Rubell returning to the franchise to edit that fine line of funny and action-packed with a real fondness for the universe he had helped build.
I’m likely not the only person to say this, for these initial reasons, but Bumblebee is exactly what the Transformers franchise ought to have represented in the first place. Not so much a pointless, aimless, almost plotless barrage of VFX shots that barely cobble together into what some would consider a film. I’m rather grateful to Bay, for willing to take a backseat in the producer’s chair (of how much he actually contributed is anyone’s guess), and leave someone else to take the universe in a whole new direction, by starting from scratch, going to the basics, and leaving solid, steady blueprints behind for whoever’s given the keys next, whether Knight returns, or if Paramount can entrust someone else other than Bay to shepherd one of their prime franchises into the next decade of existence. What we have here is a step in the best possible direction, an adrenaline-pumping love letter to a time when filmmaking was certainly a fun free-for-all, and character development could be the whole film or most of it. One can hope 2019 could be one of those years where more directors could take that chance, to seriously focus more on character than on the visual aesthetic. Keep one eye on the individuals that fill the screen, and the rest is sure to follow, provided they don’t drive away as renegade beetles or even Corvettes. (A-)
Bumblebee opens in most area theaters this weekend; rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action violence; 113 minutes.