Posts Tagged ‘Bumblebee’

I’m not really one for New Year resolutions – I usually end up with the same ones, along the lines of ‘get more sleep’ and ‘do more productive stuff’ – but it does seem an appropriate time to break a long-held resolution, something which is probably more of a surprise to me than anyone else. I occasionally make a big fuss about how open-minded I am, and how I’ll go and see nearly anything at the cinema, but astute readers will probably have noticed that there are a few high-profile franchises which I refuse to touch with a ten foot pole, magic free ticket card or not. When it comes to the live-action Transformers movie franchise, which has been befouling multiplexes worldwide for over a decade now, this is simply because I had such an utterly appalling experience watching the first one that I vowed not to bother with any of the others, something I have stuck to with unusual (for me) firmness.

And yet now I find myself about to write about Travis Knight’s Bumblebee, a prequel/spin-off type offshoot of the Transformers series. How come? What happened? Well, to cut a short story even shorter, the trailer looked genuinely fun and charming, and – this second fact may explain the first – Michael Bay has vacated the director’s chair. Collecting critics’ pithy lines about Bay and the Transformers films has been a bit of a hobby of mine for some years now – I particularly enjoyed Vern’s observation that watching the first movie is a bit like climbing into a tumble dryer which is then pushed down a hill, not to mention Peter Bradshaw’s insight that one of the sequels (I forget which) is essentially ‘a machine for turning your brain into soup’. Nevertheless, these films seemed to be critic-proof for years, and the fact that Bay has been forced from his dreadful throne of power is probably just due to the fact that the 2017 movie was sort of a flop, as gargantuan bombastic effects movies go, only making about six times the GDP of a small country at the box office. So, following Transformers: The Last Knight, we now have the first Knight Transformers (do you see what I did there?), and I have to say… well, where was this guy in 2007?

The movie gets underway on the machine planet Cybertron, where the heroic Autobots are taking a right pasting from the evil Decepticons. (The whys and wherefores of this conflict are not gone into; this isn’t that sort of film, although that probably goes without saying.) Stentorian Autobot leader Optimus Prime packs a bold young Autobot scout (he who will become known as Bumblebee) off to Earth in the year 1987 in order that the planet can be used as a refuge by the rest of their faction. However, Bumblebee is tracked and ends up taking the Transformer war to Earth with him, earning the hostility of a secret US government agency in the process. Having fended off his initial pursuers, a mute and amnesiac Bumblebee lapses into whatever the equivalent of a coma is for a giant robot that can turn into a car.

At this point we switch focus to the story of Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld, who’s been picking good scripts lately), a teenage girl living in California and having to cope with annoying family members, a terrible job, unresolved issues from the premature death of her beloved father, and so on. A glimmer of hope appears when she discovers a rusty old yellow VW beetle in a local scrapyard, and is allowed to take it home and try to get it running again. Yup, you are ahead of me: Charlie takes the discovery that her new ride is actually a sentient multi-form extra-terrestrial warrior remarkably well, and she and Bumblebee soon form a close bond. Which is probably for the best, as it transpires that a couple of Decepticons have detected Bumblebee’s presence on Earth and have arrived to hunt him down, with the help of the authorities…

I feel that at this point I should just clarify that my issue with the Bay Transformers films has nothing to do with the inherent absurdity of the concept. I have nothing against absurdity as a story element; many of the Marvel movies are pretty absurd, but they’re still probably my favourite current blockbuster franchise (it almost scarcely needs mentioning that the Transformers once ostensibly shared a universe with the Marvel characters, even teaming up with Spider-Man, without it feeling at all forced or tonally inconsistent). We have to bear in mind that the whole canon of Transformers fiction is basically a marketing device to shift toy robots that turn into cars or planes (or vice versa) and so it is almost inevitably going to be a bit silly. No, my issue with the Bay films is with their empty, pointless bombast, their sheer over-excitability, their shallow objectification of both human and machine, and their interminable running-times.

Knight has managed to avoid all of these things and come up with a film that is genuinely charming and likeable, and seems unlikely to inflict long-term cerebral damage on even the most enthusiastic viewer. Much of this is to the credit of Hailee Steinfeld, who essentially carries most of the movie once the prologue is out of the way – nobody else gives a substantial performance, but then nobody else really needs to, for Steinfeld gives the film warmth and heart. (John Cena plasy the chief government agent, but honestly doesn’t make much of an impression.) The whole story strand about how accidental involvement in an extra-terrestrial war helps Charlie process her personal issues is a bit clunky, and the film has some of the most spurious foreshadowing I can recall in a serious movie, but somehow this just adds to the fun.

So does the 80s setting, although I get the sense this isn’t really genuine nostalgia aimed at or made by people who actually remember the mid 80s, but more a sort of tick-list of pop culture icons from the period – ALF, Mr T, and so on. It virtually constitutes an acknowledgement that the Transformers themselves were another 80s fad as far as many people are concerned. As I say, while this element of the movie is fun, it’s also quite superficial and not thought-through – for me, the most impossible-to-believe thing in the movie was not the existence of shape-shifting alien cars but the suggestion that the same person would own a Motorhead T-shirt but also have both The Smiths and Rick Astley in their tape collection. (Maybe the tribes run differently in California.)

I have to say that part of the reason I was so unimpressed by the first Bay Transformers was because I didn’t recognise either the tone or the characters from the Transformers stories I remembered from back in the middle of the 1980s – it was all very dark, very violent, very grungy. One of the genuine pleasures of this film was being able to recognise many characters in their original form (I believe these are known as G1 Transformers) – sitting in a cinema going ‘It’s Optimus Prime! It’s Ironhide! It’s Cliffjumper! It’s Starscream! It’s Soundwave! It’s Shockwave!’ isn’t the most high-brow kind of entertainment, but entertaining it still is. The rest of the story doesn’t take itself too seriously, either – at one point one of the characters openly observes that it’s just possible aliens calling themselves Decepticons may not be entirely trustworthy – and I don’t think there’s much here to inflame the sensibilities of most reasonable-minded parents looking for something to show their children (Bumblebee is fairly unusual for a big studio franchise movie these days, in that it only has a PG certificate in the UK).

All this said, this is still a fairly goofy and obvious movie about a girl who makes friends with an alien robot car, albeit one with a lot of charm and a very enjoyable atmosphere. It’s not going to change the lives of anyone in the audience, probably, and it may indeed be that I’m predisposed to praise this one slightly more than it warrants, simply because it’s so unlike the Bay movies. But nevertheless: an extremely likeable movie; hopefully from now on all Transformers films will be like this.

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