The opening moments of Bumblebee nearly took my breath away. As God as my witness, my eyes watered a little, seeing all my childhood favorite Autobots rendered, mostly true to their original looks, on the big-screen. This, I was sure, was the Transformers film I’d been waiting on since Michael Bay’s first fugly steel wool Transformer images first started to trickle out in the lead-up to Transformers 2007. They had Soundwave! Shockwave had his old-fashioned, pompous voice, spot-on! Watch:
What played out over the next two hours was not the movie I had hoped for, however. And it wasn’t bad, but it just wasn’t what I wanted.
First, though, a look at the commercial for Transformers: Fall of Cybertron, a 2010 video game which did the best job of portraying what people like me who’d grown up with the original Transformers in the late ’80s and early ’90s had wanted to see in a respectful, mainstream adaptation:
Maybe I’m being petty, or worse pathetic, but I felt a little wounded after being so clearly pandered to in the advertisements, and in the opening moments of Bumblebee, only to largely be left over the next nearly two hours of run time realizing that the first scene on Cybertron was all I was going to see of Arcee, Brawn, Wheeljack and the rest. Oh, they did show Cliffjumper at one point, and murdered him. Spoiler.
I only say all that because as I watched this movie, it became obvious it was a mixed bag of demographic targeting, and it seemed to have made a lot of compromises to cast as wide a net as possible. It wanted to be a cool, explosive action fest that anyone can enjoy, like the stupider, darker Michael Bay films, but it also had a script which, but for its human liquifications, its “damns”, “hells” and “shits”, was clearly written with children primarily in-mind.
Bumblebee is so called because it is not a movie about many other Transformers at all. It is a movie about Bumblebee (who appears, thankfully, in his original VW Beetle form—I don’t know how Volkswagen okayed this, but I’m glad). The only other Transformers that play active roles alongside him are a pair of red and blue (respectively) Decepticons, who I don’t believe were even named over the course of the film. Wikipedia tells me they were called Shatter and Dropkick, and only the latter seems to exist outside this film. Fine.
All that would be all right for me as an old school fan if, in the end, we were given some hope that this was a reboot to the franchise…that all these classic designs were actually meant to go somewhere. Instead though, this is clearly shown at the close to be a diret prequel to the Michael Bay films, as if they’re afraid to let them go.
But why? This movie was made by a bunch of different companies from the previous Bay films, including a studio owned by Hasbro. It’s also worth pointing out that any children who were growing up with the Bay films—and bless their dear hearts—are already grown and off to college or dead-end jobs at this point. The coast is now clear; it is safe to reboot the franchise. Make it fun and colorful, you know?
As for Bumblebee, on its own merits, I want to applaud Hailee Steinfeld in the lead role as Charlie, for bringing her trademark skill and class to this role because she was damn near the only one who did. And that’s fine, I’m not knocking the movie. John Cena, who over-acts and wrecks almost every line handed him, is what this movie is supposed to be, how it is supposed to be presented.
Quick note: I loved Cena in Blockers, and I loved Blockers as a matter of fact. I believe the man can act, even if he isn’t as often good as Dwayne Johnson or Dave Bautista. Is it wrong of me to think that his over-acting will go over very well in China, where an over-the-top delivery in a language the audience may not be overly-familiar with will actually do a better job than one more contained? I only mention this because Tencent contributed to the production, so this was obviously meant to sell in China, as Transformers films tend to do.
As I was saying though, it’s a Transformers film aimed at babies. It is not worthy of Steinfeld’s talents. And yet there she is, emoting her heart out, crying and staring in wonder, and making us believe her trite back story about a dead father and how she isn’t ready to be an amazing diver again—unless the plot calls for her to be when a friend needs it. Or perhaps I’ve said too much.
It was also neat to see Pamela Adlon was in the film as the mother of Steinfeld’s Charlie. She is a favorite of mine, and I’m always excited to see her. I also recognized Jorge Lendeborg Jr., who I’d last seen in Love, Simon, and I like him a lot, but he was largely useless here. It was the script’s fault, however, not his.
The script rests much of the film’s humor on Lendeborg’s shoulders, but the lines just aren’t very funny. The rest of the humor largely comes down to Bumblebee being a bumbling (hah) fish-out-of-water, which we got enough of in 2007’s Transformers. And I know that stuff is all there for the kids, but for the most part, they weren’t laughing either.
As an aside, I loved the film’s portrayal of the 1980s, and its soundtrack was impeccable.
I think the reason this film was so well received was because Michael Bay had nothing to do with it, not because it is actually very good. It’s just refreshing to see robots smacking one another around, and actually being able to follow it with your eyes. It is refreshing to have a female protagonist who is well-acted and not defined by the men around her or given away at the end to the #niceguy friend like a trophy.
But it’s not a great movie. Besides being a gradual let-down for people like me who bought the advertising suggesting it would feature more of our favorite ’80s Transformers characters, its biggest fault is that it is boring. It is slow and there are too many scenes of Bumblebee goofing around. Too little characterization is given to the comic relief character, and so little characterization is given to the villains that, again, if they were named I certainly didn’t catch it once.
There is action in this action film, sure, but it’s simply what the script needs it to be. If we’re in the opening [or the inexplicable call-back scene later to the] war on Cybertron, then combatant Transformers are simply executed with single shots from the ends of rifles. When the script needs to carry many, many minutes with its fight scenes however, it always comes back to robot judo, with Bumblebee grabbing an arm and flipping over its owner to pull him or her to the ground. Over and over again.
This is the best Transformers film in years if not decades, but that’s really only because someone else was in charge besides Bay. I went, over the course of the film’s run time, from being excited, to being happy enough with it, to being disappointed, and now, only three hours later, wholly over the experience. I would have a better feeling leaving it if it had turned out to be a reboot, but again, it only leads directly into the Shia LaBeouf era, so it doesn’t even leave one with much to get excited about going forward.
2.5 out of 5 stars. I’m calling it Good, but only barely, and mostly for Steinfeld’s performance. See it at the second-run theater or get it out of a Redbox.