REVIEW: Bumblebee (Spoiler Free)

Let’s remake (500) Days of Summer, but with Bumblebee instead of Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Picture this: Zooey Deschanel, “do you like The Smiths?” – Bumblebee, “…” – Zooey Deschanel, “… oh”.

Whilst war rages on the planet of Cybertron, Autobot warrior, Bumblebee, is tasked by Optimus Prime to relocate to 1980s Earth where Bumblebee comes to befriend an introverted Californian teenager named Charlie.

For the years I have spent discussing, analysing and reviewing film, a large percentage of my time and energy have gone into explaining why the Transformers movies are some of the worst flicks to have ever been released in modern cinema. The heartless, cash grab, nonsensical, self-indulgent five-part, Michael Bay driven CGI “film” series has offered audiences nothing but the same three-hour, repetitive metal on metal action sequence for over a decade now with the most disturbing part being that people continued to pay money to see each instalment unfold, year after year. Sure, I never truly despised Bay’s original 2007 Transformers effort, but the sequels to said blockbuster churned out nothing less than the cinematic equivalent of patriotic, sexualised, explosive rat sh*t with each instalment seemingly getting worse with no real explanation into why… look, I just really dislike the Transformers franchise and believe the movies to be an unrelenting plague on modern cinema ever since their inception. However, this write-up is not about the Michael Bay Transformer movies, so I’m going to stop discussing them (for now, at least). What I am here to preach to you all about today is a little, enjoyable action film called Bumblebee to which, in all honesty, made the last decade of big screen robot drivel almost completely redundant – for the better!

Bumblebee was easily the most surprising film to be released in 2018. A heart-warming, comedically tuned action flick with unexpected attention given to a central relationship rather than massive set pieces and on-going explosives; Bumblebee could not be further from the style and feel of a Michael Bay Transformer film as new director Travis Knight used the messy, tainted source material to craft something unapologetically refreshing.

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(Paramount Pictures via Associated Media, 2018)

Let’s talk about  what state Michael Bay left the Transformers franchise in (yeah, I know I said I would stop discussing Bay’s Transformers movies… but come on, it’s too difficult to resist). Honestly, I’ve always thought that the quality of the original Transformers series was never completely the fault of Michael Bay, but also simultaneously, entirely the fault of Michael Bay. In my mind, a great filmmaker is one that has an established, uncompromising vision – one that cannot be matched or replicated but instead appears so unique that whenever said director makes a new film, that film automatically becomes an event. I look at current filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino, Christopher Nolan, Wes Anderson, David Lynch and so on and wholeheartedly believe them to be true filmmakers – true auteurs – for whom become largely talked about whenever they even announce a new project. And, you know what, I would say Michael Bay rests within the same camp. Sure his films are far from great, not even good enough to reach ‘satisfactory’ levels most of the time, but the thing is that his films at least adhere to a certain style, flavour and feeling that could only come from the vision of one man – that one man being Michael Bay (and if you want to hear more about why Michael Bay should be classed as a true filmmaker rather than just palmed off as a bad director, I would recommend the YouTuber, Patrick H. Willems and his Michael Bay series – great stuff, I will link it below). What I’m getting at here is that as much as you may loathe Michael Bay’s movies, the man behind the camera at least knows exactly what he wants to do without studio interference or a dull colour palette or cliché after cliché. So, therefore, in explaining all that, you may be wondering if I’m about to say the Transformers franchise is actually ‘art’… well, I wouldn’t go that far.

The Transformers movies are undeniably terrible and the worst products to come from Michael Bay’s arsenal; yet, they’re ‘uniquely’ terrible. Name another franchise that in the course of one movie can make Mark Wahlberg an inventor, have his underage daughter sexualised to the max that her adult boyfriend has to present a specific literal licence to f*ck her, have the central Transformers play supporting roles, have the movie start on a random farm and end in a large scaled Chinese city, include an actual transforming device purely to advertise for real world products, have the mythos of the previous movies completely forgotten, have the selling point of the entire feature (the Dinobots) appear onscreen for five minutes, include two 45 minute long climax sequences and have the lead Transformer (Optimus Prime), at the end of the movie, f*cking fly into space without any foreshadowing or visual revelation that he possessed such a skill in the first place – oh and also, the movie was even longer and more tiring to read than that sentence. Michael Bay’s Transformers were horrible but they still adhered to a unique style – Bay’s style. What the Transformers movies were, were just Bay’s overindulgence as every filmmaker tends to overindulge on at least one project. At the end of the day, those five movies could more appropriately be titled bad Michael Bay movies rather than bad Transformers movies; they were just too packed and convoluted, resulting in five massive money-making vanity projects from their director. And all this may make you wonder when and how I’ll finally Segway back into Bumblebee, and to that I say: I just did.

Bumblebee, by Travis Knight, was the most condensed, relieving, small-scaled adventure film in comparison to Bay’s recent blockbusters; the key word being ‘comparison’. I feel a lot of the praise for Bumblebee would be as a result of the film’s timing of release. Bay’s final abysmal Transformers product, Transformers: The Last Knight, was released a bit over a year ago now in 2017 and so to have Bumblebee, a refreshing and much smaller film, be released not too long after with a completely new take and feel, it would be almost insane to think that due to that fact, people wouldn’t respond better to it. I’m not saying Bumblebee is overrated by any stretch, but I would say that the film’s greatest strength would be how it compares to Bay’s recent franchise. Bumblebee did everything that Bay’s movies never did or even attempted to do; the quality levels of Bumblebee were exemplified due to the garbage it had proceeded. Bumblebee was outstanding because finally the Transformer name was not associated with Michael Bay being Michael Bay.

So, say in an alternate dimension, if Michael Bay never made a Transformers movie and the first live-action Transformers film we ever got was this 2018 version – would Travis Knight’s Bumblebee be as good as people consider it to be? Well, honestly, yes, I think it would.

Bumblebee could quiet easily be considered a soft reboot, but would also work as a prequel to Bay’s franchise. Since the Bay movies never kept track of their own continuity or mythology, Bumblebee could work as a loose continuation to those movies but also an entirely new franchise of its own. Knight’s Bumblebee offered all the Transformer action and mythology the Bay movies refused to give audiences whilst also centring on a powerful and beautiful relationship between a human and a Transformer for which the Bay movies tried and completely failed to give audiences.

It felt as if the filmmakers behind Bumblebee had a checklist before making the movie. The checklist would have included every notable, repetitive element utilised in the Bay movies with the filmmakers assuring themselves they would never need tick any note on said checklist. And amongst less explosions, shorter and more intimate battle sequences and the minimal sexualisations of literally anything onscreen, what Knight’s Bumblebee excelled in most prominently were, in fact, the titular Transformers.

Knight, having previously directed Laika’s Kubo and the Two Strings, seemingly translated his oversight for detailed character descriptions and visual storytelling techniques, all through the appearance of the Transformers. The opening sequence of Bumblebee alone was enough to completely trounce all five previous Transformers flicks in a heartbeat with a sweeping, gorgeous action sequence taking place upon the well-designed, brilliantly visualised Cybertron. Featuring a world well structured and defined with characters visually exact and proper in comparison to their comic book, animation and toy appearances, Bumblebee truly made an effort to mine all the nostalgic elements of the Transformers for which people have wanted to see faithfully adapted for years. With awesome ‘real’ transforming effects and robot men for which never appeared as jagged metal man-babies but instead clean, retro accurate depictions of a many audience’s favourite animated characters, Bumblebee operated primarily off nostalgia at its finest. The most nostalgic call back the film would have adhered to most, in the field of its Transformers, would have been the design and characterisation of Optimus Prime. For the fleeting bookended moments Prime appeared in this film, the character felt written in accurate accordance to his classic persona – calm, kind, lean but with the capacity to be mean. Prime’s visual design also truly sold the character as a complete reboot of the shallow being we saw depicted in the Bay films in turn for a more boxy, colourful precise reflection of retro Prime. In fact, every damn Transformer in this movie looked awesome as a huge amount of thought and effort obviously went in to making each character visually pop and appear powerful and opposing whilst simultaneously nostalgic in call backs to childhoods of many.

Although, much like the Bay movies, the focus of Bumblebee was not exactly the Transformers, but instead the film’s human characters. Both the original series and Bumblebee took to crafting the story predominantly around the inhabitancy of Earth and human being’s reaction to Transformers and their arrival. The difference between the Transformers series and Bumblebee however would be how the series and the singular film managed to handle the narrative and central focus on the human characters. Whereas the Bay movies never gave a crap about the human characters and instead used them only to a) stand in as Michael Bay’s cinematic personification of himself, b) just be a hot chick for the sake of having a hot chick and c) be some bloke or gal to represent the U.S. army and/ or government, Bumblebee honestly showed how much the film cared for every character it provided as protagonist, whether human or Transformer.

Again, referencing his earlier work on Kubo and the Two Strings, Knight was able to craft an unlikely but adorable and heartfelt relationship around Bumblebee and the young Charlie. I do not think people can intentionally get cranky that this film featured a small amount of Transformers since the title clearly stated ‘Bumblebee’, therefore initiating the idea the film centred around a single character as opposed to an assemble. What Knight and his team did was completely strip the series of all its excess to a tell a personal story away from the heavy action and explosions. Bumblebee was mostly a film centred around the relationship formed between Bumblebee and Charlie above all else – a complete change in the rough tides of the Transformers franchise, easing into a calmer and settled sea of tranquil reflection on friendship and coming-of-age.

Usually with a Transformers movie I would complain about the interference of human characters in a movie meant primarily for Transformers, but Bumblebee utilised its human character of Charlie and her own story to compliment the arc of Bumblebee and his growth exceptionally well. What Bumblebee truly boiled down to was a coming-of-age story where young Charlie was portrayed early on in the film as an introverted loner seeking solace – a place to belong – a voice. Enter Bumblebee with a removed voice box, seeking his own purpose on an alien planet with no means of communication and absence from the place he once called home – Cybertron. From there on, Bumblebee set itself up to be an emotionally arresting and fulfilling rollercoaster ride. Over the course of the film, Bumblebee and Charlie assisted one another in finding the other’s voice (with the former being more literal in some stages) for which, we can all agree is the embodiment of what it means to come of age. Transitioning from childhood to adulthood moves beyond just physical body changes, but instead more the confirmation or assertion to one’s true identity – the locating of one’s voice. And, I can’t believe I’m saying this but, an actual Transformers movie attempted and prevailed in exploring themes of isolation as a result of grief as the rediscovery, mending or uncovering one’s identity is greatly assisted by the importance of friendship. Bumblebee even kind of reminded me of early days Spielberg, who infused action entertainment with the values of family and friendship so effortlessly.

So yeah, Bumblebee featured an abundance of human characters as opposed to Transformers, but the story worked all the better for it, leaving an emotional gut punch towards the film’s climax. Oh, that ending – one specific shot towards the end of the film really got me in ways I did not think a film of this calibre could. Although, to understand the impact the ending Bumblebee had would mean I must first focus in on the film’s two leads to really sell the strength of Bumblebee’s climax. Firstly, the titular Bumblebee was so damn delightful, fun and breezy to watch onscreen. The character was probably the most endearing roles of Bay’s series and in this film, Bumblebee really shun as a fleshed out, sympathetic protagonist. Complimenting him greatly appeared the film’s second protagonist, Charlie portrayed impeccably by a great Hailee Steinfeld. Not only did Charlie deliver much of the needed heart for this film but her character arc felt so well structured, moving from scene to scene so naturally that the character even stole the show from Bumblebee on some stages, based purely on passion alone. It’s no competition between Charlie, Sam or Cade (I bet you don’t even remember who Sam and Cade are), but to keep the record straight, Charlie would have to 100% be the best human character to appear in a Transformers film with performance and writing working side by side to completely sell the character. And so, when the ending of Bumblebee eventually came around (and very mild spoilers, I guess) a singular shot in Bumblebee’s rear-view mirror of Charlie featuring a text on the glass stating “objects in mirror may appear closer than pictured” really hit me hard. To get the full impact of that singular shot would mean you would need to definitely watch this film from start to finish and to that I would totally recommend it for the Iron Giant-like relationship depicted between Bumblebee and Charlie. The two characters were written so intelligently, hand-in-hand as one of the best pairs on film in 2018… but it was really only their characters whom received such great treatment.

I felt, as for the rest of the characters in Bumblebee, nobody really popped out or even appeared ‘interesting’ enough to include in the narrative. Sure, John Cena had charisma and all but his macho army man character felt like an unfortunate carry over role from Bay’s Transformer films. Jorge Lendeborg Jr. also portrayed an awkward teenager with a massive crush on Charlie, and despite his chemistry with Steinfeld being cute, I didn’t think the film needed his character whatsoever. Also, Charlie’s family were honestly some of the most annoying characters I’ve had to watch onscreen for a while. The mother, the stepdad and the younger brother were all acted poorly and kind of lazily written as their subplot, along with, in fact, every other character’s subplot really paled in comparison with the main narrative featuring Bumblebee and Charlie.

But again, despite the mediocre side characters and subplots, the leads of Bumblebee and Charlie really shun against the specific backdrop of the 1980s. I honestly thought before this film was released that another onscreen feature set in the 80s or at least channelling vibes of 80s pop culture was just another tiring and boring continuation of a fad popularised in cinema as of late. Yet, Bumblebee’s use of the 80s setting really worked to great effect with the highlight being the film’s soundtrack. As I said, with Bumblebee being a film about centrally finding one’s voice, it made total sense that heavy 80s ballads were used to set the mood and craft entire scenes in the film. Sure, at some points the music may have been a bit heavy handed with three songs playing in just one scene (like Suicide Squad, aye) but the more the film drove home the reasoning for including so much music, made the sounds of the 80s such a comforting and meditative tone setter for the film. Most films just throw in songs because they can but Bumblebee, like the Guardians of the Galaxy movies, really made an effort to give each song meaning thematically as the characters would search for their own voice, eventually reverting to the power of music to speak for them.

Outside of just the music though, Bumblebee really outdid itself in the subtle art of utilising nostalgia. It’s as if the film realised what it was following on from – a series of modern CGI trash that could not give a rat’s a** about the past – and decided to instead of subjecting audiences to the reality of modernity, return people to the days colour and vibrancy, when the Transformers were fresh and inviting new additions to pop culture. Bumblebee treated nostalgia as a tool to recall familiar, comforting and reliable ground – to ensure audiences they were in the right hands this time around. Bumblebee managed to appear suitably old but refreshingly new.

If anything, though, I would say even despite the fact that Knight obviously knew how to set up a shot and tell a story visually, the general colour and appeal of Bumblebee was not exactly up to par with the rest of the film’s quality. Similar to the problems of Marvel Studios, Bumblebee lacked character in its visuals due to some dull colour choices. The film did not entirely suffer from this fault, but for a movie set in the 1980s, I would have preferred a more colourful palette to show off a retro California… then again though, with Bay at the helm, this fault would not have been a fault…

… but to counteract that even further, Knight is still a newish director and is currently settling into his style and role as a filmmaker. Sure, not everything technically in Bumblebee was up to par than the spectacle Michael Bay had to offer in his films, but full disclosure, Bumblebee was the exact right direction for this franchise moving forwards.

It’s the end of an era; Bay’s Transformers franchise may have seemingly met its demise at the hands of a less experienced, but ultimately thematically richer and intelligently told feature. Bumblebee is living proof that not everything is a lost cause and bits and pieces can still be salvaged – like junk metal for a sacred car. For years now, I have wondered out of everything wrong with the Transformers franchise what may have been the worst essential element for which cursed the whole franchise in its entirety. Was it the explosions? The patriotism? The sexualising? The characterisations? No. They were all by-products. By-products of an overindulgent Michael Bay. By-products of a singular voice – Michael Bay’s voice. And if Bumblebee taught us anything, its that finding your voice is the most important element in making you, you. So, I believe, finally the Transformers franchise has found its voice… and it definitely doesn’t sound like Linkin Park for a change, but instead, surprisingly The Smiths.

Bumblebee is a bloody… CRUSADE!!

 

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Patrick H. Willems: MICHAEL BAY – Understanding A True American Auteur

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