A film review by Craig J. Koban January 12, 2019

BUMBLEBEE jj
     

2018, PG-13, 114 mins.

 

Hailee Steinfeld as Charlie Watson  /  Dylan O'Brien as Bumblebee (voice)  /  Jorge Lendeborg Jr. as Memo  /  John Cena as Agent Burns  /  Angela Bassett as Shatter (voice)  /  Justin Theroux as Dropkick (voice)  /  John Ortiz as Agent Powell  /  Peter Cullen as Optimus Prime (voice)

Directed by Travis Knight  /  Written by Christina Hodson

 

 

 

BUMBLEBEE is the very best possible TRANSFORMERS live action movie that I've ever seen.   

Now, considering that I've hated the five (dear Lord in Heaven...five) previous Michael Bay helmed franchise installments and that every single one placed high on my lists of ten worst films of their respective year...that may not be saying a whole hell of a lot. 

Okay, sarcasm aside, let me get serious for a bit and start on a positive here.  

This is the first TRANSFORMERS film that's not over two hours long.  

That's good.  

This is also the first TRANSFORMERS movie that's not directed by Bay himself, meaning that the makers this go-around can essentially de-Bay-ify (if I could use such a descriptor) the series and start fresh.  

That's also good.  

BUMBLEBEE also features a female lead in young Hailee Steinfeld (TRUE GRIT, THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN), so no more hysterical Shia LaBeauf camera mugging or...well...whatever Mark Wahlberg did in the last few film's that he constitutes as acting.  

That's especially good.  

I really like Steinfeld.  She's such a limitlessly lovely and talented actress that elevates just about any film and material she's in, with BUMBLEBEE being no exception whatsoever.  She's so emotionally authentic here that, for the very first time ever, I felt like I was watching a TRANSFORMERS movie with - God forbid - a bit of heart and soul.   

That's refreshingly good.  

Now for the bad. 

 

 

Everything built around the tremendous performance good will and thankless commitment that Steinfeld brings to the proceedings is pretty much undone because, at the end of the day, the film built around her is just more illogical and eye rollingly nonsensical TRANSFORMERS hooey.  Having Steinfeld on board, though, is major casting coup and moral victory here, seeing as she plays a fully fleshed out and believable teen character with real vulnerabilities and insecurities.  She's the furthest thing away from the exploitative eye candy extremes that Bay used to typify the female characters in TRANSFORMERS films, who all were just there for his camera to gawk at to near pornographic levels.  Beyond that, BUMBLEBEE also has a new filmmaker at the helm in the tremendously skilled Travis Knight, making his live action debut after directing one of the best animated films of recent memory in KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS.  Unfortunately, and despite everyone behind and in front of the camera trying their best for series course correction, BUMBLEBEE still suffers from some logic defying scripting, a lack of careful attention to the side characters, and more redundant robot on robot action that's become painfully more tedious with each new entry.   

That, and BUMBLEBEE somewhat plageriistically pilfers its premise and storyline from so many other better films about young people finding unlikely friendships with beings from beyond the stars, like E.T. - THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL and THE IRON GIANT.  Also, the film is kind of needlessly set in the 1980s (I'll elaborate on that in a bit).  Opening in 1987 San Francisco, BUMBLEBEE introduces us to Steinfeld's Charlie Watson, an attractive and spunky 18-year-old tomboy that has a knack for working on cars (traits that sort of embellished Meagan Fox's character in the first two TRANSFORMERS films), who finds emotional solace in spending time in junkyards and working on old clunkers.  Her father tragically passed away, leaving her in the care of her mother (Pamela Adlon) and stepfather (Steven Schneider), who seem oblivious to her still grieving and processing of her dad's death.  Charlie seems relatively well adjusted, but feels that her life is going nowhere.  Plus, she's a social introvert with few friends and feels like she's wasting away at her summer job working at a local fair's corndog stand.

One day she comes across a very broken down yellow Volkswagen Bug, which she is able to start and makes it her mission to bring home to her garage to restore.  Of course, and rather predictably, she's stunned when the car morphs into a giant Autobot that's rendered conveniently mute during a previous skirmish with some dastardly Decepticons, all of which have just recently arrived on Earth.  We already know (via the film's prologue) that Optimus Prime evacuated the Autobots from their homeworld of Cybertron during their massive civil war with the Decepticons, leaving "Bumblebee" (as Charlie names him) stranded on Earth with Decepticons Shatter (Angela Bassett) and Dropkick (Justin Theroux) hot on his trail.  Complicating matters is an obsessive military man, Burns (John Cena), that believes Bumblebee is a threat to Earth.  In the meantime, Charlie and Bumblebee get to know and confide in one another, with things soon spiraling out of control.

As previously mentioned, there's an honest and commendable attempt here by Knight and company to make BUMBLEBEE a more grounded dramatic affair, with a keen focus on the main human character and some defining of the issues that plague her.  Yes, BUMBLEBEE contains as much monotonous robot carnage as any previous TRANSFORMERS entry, but Knight isn't the cinematic nihilist that shows absolute contempt for his audience like Bay.  He shows more compassion and care for characters (human and not) and their relationships.  Charlie has relatable adolescent issues - arguing with inconsiderate family members, dealing with school bullies, and grieving over parental loss - and Steinfeld is pretty damn great here at making her flawed character feel like an genuine human being and not a prop.  Bumblebee is also an endearing character, who communicates mostly via body gestures and R2D2 boops and beeps.  He's cute, despite being a giant robot that could kill a human with one swat of his mechanical hand.

However, and rather depressingly, there remains so much else in this film that drove me bonkers while watching it.  Under modest scrutiny, there's simply no need for BUMBLEBEE to occur in the 80's.  Now, the TRANSFORMERS toyline was created during that neon-hued decade, but outside of paying homage to that and placating the current popular trend of 80's infused nostalgia, there's really no requirement for this film not to be set a few years - as a prequel - before the events of the first 2007 TRANSFORMERS film.  Maybe it was an excuse to pepper the soundtrack with hip and cool tunes that defined the era (Simple Minds, Ah-ha, Tears for Fears, The Smiths, and Steve Winwood stick out).  Other aspects of now archaic 80s cultured are mined rather obviously to set the mood, and at one point Bumblebee discovers the pleasures of John Hughes cinema via a VHS copy of THE BREAKFAST CLUB.  The retro vibe here seems forced instead of feeling like an organic necessity to the story.

And much like Bay's franchise iterations, the other human characters around Charlie are laughably disposable and not well developed at all.  There's the obligatory boy-next-door and potential boyfriend to Charlie (Jorge Lendeborg Jr) that's painted in broad and nervous geek stereotypes, and not much more.  And much as was the case in many a Hughes film in the past, the adult characters are portrayed as clueless and unsympathetic stooges, especially Steven Schneider's goofball, self-help focused stepdad that feels like he walked in from a different film altogether.  John Cena's army brute is weirdly defined as well, and frankly doesn't get much screentime despite the actor getting top billing in the credits.  The military in this film are also incredulously stupid in the story, seeing as, at one point, they grant the Decepticons - strange and dangerous looking alien mechanical monsters from another world - access to their computer networks at their base (falsely believing them to be noble and good) without any hesitation at all.

By the time BUMBLEBEE hurtled towards yet another CGI-effects heavy battle between humans and robots an overwhelming sense of been-there, done-that swept over me.  Plus, BUMBLEBEE forced me to ask more thorny questions regarding the internal logic of the Transformers mythology as a whole, like, for example, why do alien robots speak fluent English, even too each other on Cybertron?  Why are alien robots - like the two baddies in this story - given male and female voices?  Aren't they sexless?  Why do alien robots have human accents?  Why do alien robots assume the form of Earth based vehicles on their home world when some have never been to the planet before?  And considering the massive amounts of destruction - and the appearance of the Autobots and Decepticons themselves - in plain view in 1987, how come no one seems to remember them at all in the first TRANSFORMERS film that serves as a sequel to this? 

Am I nitpicking?  Maybe.  But these issues serve as a distraction for me in terms of my fully and finally embracing this series.  Plus, strip away Stenfield and the capable hands of Knight behind the camera and we're simply not left with enough here to warrant a full recommend.  BUMBLEBEE's heart is in the right place in trying to telling a more internalized and quieter film about a human's bond with a giant morphing extraterrestrial robot, but it's just as mindlessly and carelessly written as anything before it.  Maybe we'll eventually get a TRANSFORMERS film that's truly more than meets the eye...and this one's close.  Just not close enough. 

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