Hey, so it turns out that the problem with Transformers movies all this time hasn’t been the fact that they are based on a cartoon that was created in the 1980s with the purely mercenary motive of selling more toys, which everyone should have seen coming after restrictions were lifted from American broadcasters that had previously limited how they could market stuff to children. (Of course, neoliberal profit-first corporatism directing children’s entertainment was and remains a problem.) The problem has been — but we knew this already — that Michael Bay, who loves explosions more than people or story or meaning or anything, has been the one giving us Transformers movies.
Keep Bay away from the director’s chair of a Transformers movie (he’s a producer here, but you’d hardly know it), and this is what happens: We get a cute, funny, heartfelt throwback that is nostalgic without being mindlessly retro, an action-adventure buddy dramedy that offers agreeable reminders of E.T. and other 80s kiddie sci-fi. You know, the 80s kiddie sci-fi that told a cool, interesting story first, and then sold us lots of crappy plastic toys that we played with for a couple of days before we got bored with them, in the proper way of things.
With Bumblebee, we have gone back to the 1980s not just in spirit but in cinematic time: it’s 1987 here; this is a prequel to all the previous Transformers flicks, not that the plots or characters of any of them were demanding deeper backgrounding. After a major defeat for the “Autobot resistance” in their war against the evil Decepticons, scout Autobot B-127 (the voice of Dylan O’Brien) is sent ahead to Earth by Optimus Prime (the voice of Peter Cullen) to prepare a new base for the Autobots. Now, I am not deeply steeped in the Transformers mythology, but I feel like this could a problem, because isn’t Optimus Prime supposed to be a great hero not only to the Autobots but for humans as well? And yet with this move, the big OP dumps Earth right in the shit, painting a target on our planet and on humanity for the Decepticons to come and use our world as a battleground. (We see in the opening sequence of that defeat how destructive Transformer warfare is.) OP does tell B-127 to protect the people of Earth, but c’mon: Transformers don’t need a breathable atmosphere or blue skies or anything like that. OP could have sent B-127 to an uninhabited solar system where no innocent civilizations would be threatened. (This also retroactively renders a Transformer connection to Earth that is revealed in the first Transformers movie, in 2007, a ridiculous coincidence. In all the enormous universe, how do the Transformers keep ending up on our little speck of it?) I mean, in his orders to B-127, Optimus Prime says something like, “If the Decepticons find Earth, all is lost.” Gee, thanks, buddy.
Anyway, of course things don’t go well for B-127, who ends up running away from Earth authorities who then unwittingly team up with some Decepticon baddies (the voices of Angela Bassett and Justin Theroux!) who have arrived to hunt down the “criminal.” It doesn’t take much time or effort for the Decepticons to track B-127 to Earth. I’m beginning to wonder about the military wisdom or even basic survival instincts of the Autobot resistance. Even B-127’s disguise, as a yellow Volkswagen bug, is almost instantly shattered by 18-year-old Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld), who finds him in a junkyard, uncovers his secret, names him Bumblebee — B-127 was damaged and cannot speak to tell her his name — and makes him her new best friend, the perfect companion for a lonely misfit like her.
Honestly, though: forget about all the plot holes and inconsistencies. Bumblebee is a sweet, gentle girl-and-her-alien-robot-car lark that hits all the right notes of human-alien (and organic-metallic) friendships. I despair at yet another female character who isn’t stereotypically feminine — Charlie is into cars, is a good mechanic, and rolls her eyes when her stepfather tells her she should “smile more” — whom The Movies cannot seem to avoid giving a boy’s name: Charlie? really? But she’s cool and Steinfeld is terrific... which is, perhaps, the result of having a female screenwriter, Christina Hodson, who finds just the right balance between Charlie’s teenage despair and her smart awareness of just how the cards are stacked against her. There’s stuff here that it’s difficult to imagine a male screenwriter would have come up with... like how Charlie deals with the crush her cute, shy neighbor Memo (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.) has on her.
Charlie even gets to save the planet, because naturally there will be robot battles with the fate of planet Earth in the balance in which Charlie has a small yet vital part to play. The battles aren’t the focus of the movie, and the robot-fighting is not fetishized, because, as mentioned, this isn’t a Michael Bay movie. It’s from director Travis Knight, his second film — and first live-action one — after his charming animated debut, Kubo and the Two Strings. (He doesn’t even fetishize the relationship Charlie has with Bumblebee, who is coded male and is cute and shy like Memo. I dread to think what Bay would have done with this, when he had Megan Fox humping machines that weren’t even sentient.)
All is not perfect here: the flick is a bit too long, and could have done with some judicious trimming. It can’t quite make the best use of John Cena as the 80s-sci-fi-essential government agent who’s after the alien visitor; he has one great line, but the movie misses tapping into the unexpected vulnerability and wonderful comic charisma he has been demonstrating onscreen a lot lately. On the other hand, there’s a ton of great 80s pop and rock dropped in, just because the movie can. Overall, it’s a win.
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