SPOILER WARNING – THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR Paramount PICTURES’ NEW FILM BUMBLEBEE
The Transformers have had quite a rollercoaster ride at the cinema. That seemed to have peaked in 1986.
I’m not, of course, talking about box office. Regardless of their quality of lack thereof, Michael Bay’s Transformers films have been ridiculously successful. Altogether the movies – often referred to as “Bayformers” with no small amount of derision – have grossed nearly five billion dollars.
Whatever form it took, this mega-successful franchise was not going away.
I like some of the movies more than others – with Revenge of the Fallen being a low point not just for the franchise, but for the history of film in general – but could never make the argument that they are doing a good job at representing the property. At best they’re jam-packed but forgettable action flicks, at worst they’re racist, hard to follow, and utterly lacking in charm.
In a move that shocked everyone, Paramount announced a soft reboot starring the most popular Transformer – Bumblebee – that would scale the franchise back, represent the fan-favorite 80s era, and be in the hands of a filmmaker who could hardly be considered experienced as far as blockbusters go. Director Travis Knight has worked in animation for years and helmed the excellent Kubo and the Two Strings, but had no live action on his resume. Putting the next Transformers film in his hands was a huge leap of faith.
Did it pay off or is the franchise in the same sorry shape The Last Knight left it in? Read on and find out!
1 – Bringing it Back to the Old School – I’m sure plenty of people are sick to death of all of the 80s worship going on in entertainment right now. I, for one, am not because I truly believe the 80s were the best of times. And people my age are making everything now, so everyone might as well settle in for at least another decade of this nostalgia storm.
I don’t know how necessary (or wise, to be honest) it was to set this movie in 1987, but I loved it. The setting felt very genuine and the soundtrack is a perfect slice of 1987 aside from “It Takes Two”, which didn’t come out until 1988.
Note: I do not care about such things. This is a fantasy movie about an Earth that has to deal with sentient transforming alien robots. It is not our Earth. Maybe in that reality Rob Base and DJ EZ Rock got together a little earlier. I can accept that.
Sure – when something is set in my favorite era I’m inclined to like it more. But it’s not a factor that will save garbage; it will just elevate something that is intrinsically good to begin with. And fortunately, Bumblebee is very good.
2 – Less Than Meets the Eye – I think part of the reason the previous live action Transformers films have skated by is that they’re throwing so much in your face that you can’t really analyze any one thing too much. They’re so damn big that they get away with having shallow characters and dumb, yet convoluted plots.
Bumblebee is a much smaller, more intimate film.
While the scenes set on Cybertron are loaded with robots, there are really only three main Cybertronian characters in the movie – the Decepticons Dropkick and Shatter and our hero, Bumblebee. Just the fact that I can name them all, generate an accurate mental picture of what they look like, and remember all of their modes is a massive step up over previous films. Aside from Prime and Bumblebee I couldn’t tell you with any certainty which Transformers appeared in which movies or what kind of vehicles Bay decided they should change into.
Bumblebee is much tighter story-wise, as well. It’s a typical “kid makes a special friend” movie, but with characters who are much more charming than what you usually see and stakes which are much bigger.
What the movie manages so well, though, is to have those massive stakes present, but not as the focus of the film. This is a Transformers movie, so obviously the fate of Earth is on the line, but the real story is about the characters and the relationships. That story is simple, but executed with precision.
3 – Instruments of Destruction – Shatter is voiced by Angela Bassett and Justin Theroux voices Dropkick. Thanks to a smaller cast and a better focus on characters, they are two of the best villains this franchise has seen.
Shatter is laser-focused and evil. Her disdain for Earth and its inhabitants is delicious to watch (hear). She’s a triple-changer that uses the alternate forms of a Harrier jet and a very distinctive red muscle car. Her car mode sports a set of rally lights that the filmmakers use to great effect in several scenes, creating an almost horror movie kind of tension as they approach in the distance.
Dropkick is also a triple-changer; his alternate modes are a blue muscle car and an attack helicopter. He’s less refined and more brutal than Shatter. He likes making humans explode into water.
Note: That’s as graphic as the movie gets. It happens twice and it’s pretty disturbing, but to a kid it’s probably a hoot – it’s certainly played that way.
4 – Puny Humans – As much as some fans like to think a human-free Transformers movie would work, human characters have become an integral part of the franchise’s stories.
Sometimes we get pretty cool characters; sometimes we don’t.
Hailee Steinfeld’s Charlie Watson is the best human companion I’ve seen in the history of the Transformers franchise.
Charlie is relatable. She’s also confident without being the kind of dumbass that would try to fist fight Megatron. She’s funny but not goofy, which was a great call because I am sick to death of the incompetent, frantic, falling-all-over-themselves humans that weaker Transformers stories tend to rely on.
Granted, she likes The Smiths a little more than I care for, but otherwise she’s a great character that is (of course) going through an emotional life change.
One of the great surprises of the movie was discovering that Pamela Adlon plays Charlie’s widowed mother (the father’s death being the emotional life change thing). Adlon is always fantastic and it was great to see that not only was she in the movie, but she actually had some solid story stuff to take part in.
Relative newcomer Jorge Lendeborg Jr. plays Memo, Charlie’s would-be love interest. He’s fun and charming and does a bit of that falling-all-over-himself thing, but it’s about being an awkward teen in like with another teen and not about geeking out over giant robots.
5 – SHABBADOOOOO!!!! – I was so relieved to discover that John Cena is not technically a villain in this movie. His character, Lt. Jack Burns, has a very good reason to dislike Cybertronians and is actually a rational voice for humanity throughout the film – “They’re called Decepticons! That’s not setting off any alarms?”
Don’t get me wrong – he muscles and charms his way through the role, but Cena does a fine job here. He gets one great “saving the day” scene that I look forward to seeing set to his entrance music as soon as YouTube gets ahold of it.
6 – Look, Ma – No Wires! – Like most fans, I’ve disliked the designs of the Bayformers from the start.
All of the exposed wiring and gears and circuitry never sat right with me. It looked ugly, it made all of the Transformers too similar, and all of the unnecessary detail made action scenes very confusing. Plus, every time one of them hit the ground a shit-ton of scrap would fly off of them.
They were needlessly complex designs that added nothing to the characters and, in fact, made them less distinctive and relatable.
For Bumblebee the Cybertronians were essentially redesigned from the ground up. They aren’t quite as boxy and cartoony as the 80s versions, but they retain the soul of those wonderful designs. Each ‘bot has a primary color – yellow, red, blue – as opposed to being mainly silver wiring. They have plating and armor that defines them and makes them instantly visually recognizable.
The fight scenes also benefit from these more solid designs. It’s very easy to tell who is doing what and how it’s effecting the combatants. Plus, the choreography and cinematography are worlds better. Camera shots are generally from a distance rather than seeming six inches away, so you can see the full sequence of the fights, which resemble well-done wrestling matches as much as anything.
Bumblebee’s climactic battle against Shatter reminded me very much of Ronda Rousey’s recent match against Nia Jax, and that is high praise.
7 – Cybertron – A small portion of the movie takes place on the Transformers’ home world of Cybertron and it is fantastic. If you’re around my age, this portion of the movie is going to blow your fucking mind.
Look – the rest of Bumblebee is very good. Great, even. But seeing Soundwave and Shockwave and Ravage and Seekers in their Cybertron modes and way more that I probably didn’t even catch on this first viewing was pure fan candy.
Later in the movie we get a battle flashback when Bumblebee’s memories are being recovered. It shows Optimus Prime standing alone against a massive army of Decepticons and even though the scene cuts before we see what happens, it had so much more power and drama than any Prime scene in any of the Bayformers movies because he looks like Optimus Prime and is fighting easily recognizable, dastardly Decepticons.
8 – What Have You People Got Against Cliffjumper?!? – Speaking of great-looking robots that are true to their classic designs, Cliffjumper looks exactly like Cliffjumper. Unfortunately for him that means he’s gonna die like Cliffjumper often does. Shatter slices him right in two, which for me was the most brutal and traumatic death in the film.
9 – The Touch – Yes, Stan Bush’s song is in Bumblebee.
Yes, it is used in an excellent manner.
Yes, everyone in the theater went nuts.
10 – Dare to Be Stupid – I took issue with one scene in the film.
Bumblebee gets left alone in Charlie’s house and unintentionally destroys everything. It’s funny while being utterly horrifying (to a homeowner). The thing I found stupid was that Charlie and Memo find all of the wreckage and for some stupid reason Charlie tells her mom it’s her fault.
All she had to do was feign ignorance because her family had absolutely no reason whatsoever to think it was her fault. She could have just gone along with their reaction – which would absolutely have been “Someone broke into our home and wrecked everything!”
I suppose the answer is that Charlie is virtuous and truthful and couldn’t omit the truth in that way, but she’s hiding a giant freaking alien robot from her family. I think this one little white lie wouldn’t have besmirched her character. And it’s not like she was even there when it happened.
In the end it didn’t matter because the family came together, but it bugged me at the time.
11 – Dare to Be Even More Stupid – Okay, so there’s another plot point that seems extremely dumb.
Shatter and Dropkick discover that Bumblebee is on Earth while they’re murdering Cliffjumper. While I like the idea that they just straight-up come out to the American military in order to utilize human resources to track Bumblebee, Sector 7 – the branch they deal with – capitulates just a bit too easily.
Then again, in the framework of the Cold War (“We could always just take this to the Russians…”) and the very 80s-esque tone of the film, the cooperation seems a bit more palatable. That’s what I told myself, anyway.
12 – Eternal War – I find the conflict in the previous Transformers movies to be a little hard to follow. Bumblebee makes the war between the Autobots and Decepticons much more coherent.
The Decepticons see themselves as the rulers of Cybertron and the Autobots as unruly rebel trash. They are clearly the dominant side of the war and have the Autobots on the run. Intellectually I know all of this from cartoons, comics, and toy boxes, but never before have the live action movies used the characters to express the idea so clearly. Just hearing Shatter and Dropkick exchange dialogue – and they have great chemistry, by the way – lays down so much of the backstory and the depth of the rift between the warring factions.
13 – Dare – Okay, Paramount – you hold the future in your hand.
Bumblebee ended as a seeming prelude to the live action Transformers movies we’ve seen before.
SCRAP THAT SHIT AND START OVER.
Whatever follows this film should disregard Bayformers entirely and forge a new path based on what was in this movie. Director Travis Knight and writer Christina Hodson hit upon a magical formula that gave us big robot action with a ton of heart. There’s no need to go back to confusing battles between barely dissimilar robots. I’m not saying they need to follow the cartoons or comics or anything else, but they should absolutely use Bumblebee as a touchstone for a new tone and direction.
If you can make it to the theater three times in the next few weeks, go see Aquaman, Bumblebee, and Into the Spider-Verse in that order. If you can only see two, skip Aquaman and make sure you see the latter two. Your heart will be warmed and your geek soul will sing!
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