Bumblebee (2018) Review

MORE THAN MEETS THE EYE


 

The Transformers live-action movie franchise has been somewhat of a “slippery slope” since it began back in 2007. Overseeing by director Michael Bay, the cinematic saga (based on Hasbro’s classic toys line of “robots in disguise”) has been called many things, including loud. bloated, slightly racist / stereotyping, nonsensical, too silly, repetitive, mindless, etc. However, despite these glaring problems, the films have never been boring, creating a big visual spectacle worthy of the very definition of what man would consider a classic summer “popcorn” blockbuster from Hollywood. The first film (2007’s Transformers), the first installment in the live-action franchise) was met with problematic scrutiny and criticism from both moviegoers and critics alike, but was still able to garnish the most positive acceptance from its viewers (of the entire film franchise no less) and did score big at the worldwide box office. Naturally, this prompted the studio hivemind to green light future installments, further continuing the adventures of the Autobots, the Decepticons, and their alien conflict on Earth. Unfortunately, after the success of the first film (setting the cinematic foundation for the large-scale sci-fi tale of giant alien robots with their war brought to Earth, the Transformers sequels (2009’s Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, 2011’s Transformers: Dark of the Moon, 2014’s Transformers: Age of Extinction, and 2017’s Transformers: The Last Knight) missed their mark, with series director Michael Bay helming each installment and ultimately pulling the saga down with his signature barrage of explosions, excessive action, and other senseless elements. Thus, the Transformers franchise has been “on the decline” of movie popularity, with many loosening interests in the cinematic series altogether. Even series director Michael Bay has lost interest in directing the franchise, stepping down the role and moving on to other projects and endeavors. Now, a year after the release of 2017’s Transformers: The Last Knight, Paramount Pictures and director Travis Knight return to Bay’s movie world of Autobots and Decepticons with the prequel / spin-off film Bumblebee. Does this latest Transformers movie bring the franchise back to its former glory or is it a failed spin-off endeavor from a failing cinematic saga?

THE STORY


On the alien planet of Cybertron, civil war is raging between the two factions: the Autobots and the Deceptions. With the Decepticons having the upper hand, Autobot leader Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen) sends the remaining Autobots across the galaxy, electing to send Bumblebee (Dylan O’Brien) to the planet called Earth to await further instructions. Soon after landing in California (circa 1987), Bumblebee is damaged by a Deception solider who followed him, left without his memory and his voice, and soon taking cover disguised as a yellow Volkswagen Beetle. Close by, Charlie Watson (Haliee Steinfeld), a teenager girl having trouble moving past the death of her father, stuck with a dead-end life she’s ready to escape from, and in desperate need of a car to call her own. Finding Bumblebee in a scrap yard, Charlie takes the care home, ready to fix up the run-down Beetle. However, what she actually finds is a confused, muted warrior from Cybertron, and he’s in need of help as well as a friend. As Charlie and Bumblebee bond with each other, trouble is stirring nearby, with Decepticons enforcers Shatter (Angela Bassett) and Dropkick (Justin Theroux) finding their way to Earth, talking Sector 7 scientist Dr. Powell (John Ortiz) into joining their cause to find Bumblebee, while fellow Sector 7 agent Jack Burns (John Cena) is leery of these alien robots; regardless if they are Autobots or Deceptions.

THE GOOD / THE BAD


As many of know (from reading my opening paragraph or just from your own movie viewing experience from the franchise itself), the Transformers movies have been somewhat of a paradoxical conundrum unto itself. What do I mean? Well, its own worst enemy, with director Michael Bay influencing the movie with his own “big, bang, boom” theatrical style (i.e. the Michael Bay Syndrome) as well as other nonsensical nuances that didn’t go over to well with critics and moviegoers. Although, the franchise (as a whole) has been financially successful at the box office, it’s really been on the downward spiral after the first Transformers movies. Growing up with Transformers in my childhood (from both the toys action figures and from the various cartoon series iterations), I was well versed in the Transformers brand, so I was pretty excited to see the first film (and still love it to this day). However, the sequels Transformers films, are less-than favorable in my eyes, with pretty much recycled ideas, bloated and excessive action sequences, childish / stupid scenes, and ultimately failing to be wholesomely entertaining (or engaging) as a cinematic blockbuster narrative. Personally, I still think that both Dark of the Moon (still can’t buy into Patrick Dempsey as a bad guy) and The Last Knight (totally confusing and haphazard) are my least favorite of these follow-up installments. That being said, some have called Revenge of the Fallen the worst or even Age of Extinction, so I guess it does vary from person to person what which Transformer sequel is the worst. Regardless, the Transformer film saga have lost interest with the mainstream crowd of moviegoers (and possible some of its fans), with this particular live-action franchise endeavor have grown less appealing and often regard as dumb, mindless popcorn flicks for cinematic series long after its expected lifecycle.

Naturally, this brings me back around to talking about the movie Bumblebee, the sixth movie in the Transformers live-action that’s more of a prequel / spin-off endeavor rather than continuing the narrative left off at The Last Knight. Given how much The Last Knight left a sour taste in my mouth, I personally wasn’t too excited or even enthused for another Transformers movie, which was what my first initial thoughts were when Bumblebee was first announced. This was even more apparent with the idea centering an entire feature film around the character of Bumblebee (yes, I know he was sort of the “in the focus” of the first three Transformer movies, but Optimus Prime was a better protagonist character…at least to me). So, I wasn’t really super intrigued this movie for quite some…that was until I saw the film’s movie trailers and (I’ll admit) that it looked pretty good. Just judging from the trailers, it looked pretty good and seemed more of a “downplay” all of the craziness and over usage of CGI from the Bay’s Transformers; stripping away the bloated and loud nuances and more time spent on the relationship between a girl and her car (an autoboot). Thus, my interest in seeing Bumblebee grew as the months leading up to its release came and gone; finding my curiosity intrigue by how this particular would ultimately shape up and how critics / moviegoers would receive this movie. So…what did I think of it? Well, it was actually pretty good. While there are some areas that the movie does stumble, Bumblebee is a fun, heart, and an action-filled Transformers prequel that succeeds better than all of the other sequels to this franchise. It’s definitely one of the best Transformer installments to date (and that’s a good thing) and takes the franchise in a better light.

As stated above, with the franchise director Michael Bay stepping down from helming any more Transformers movies, the baton is passed to director Travis Knight, whose previous directorial works include Kubo and the Two Strings as well as various animated projects as an animator. Given the fact that Knight’s only has one directorial feature length film under his belt, Bumblebee acts as his sophomore directorial film and is definitely the more ambitious project of the two, especially since he tasked with revigorate moviegoers everywhere with the Transformers franchise. To his credit and to his vision, Knight actually does succeed in that regard, crafting Bumblebee to be a throwback 80s action / adventure film that’s more focused on “smaller scale” moments (in both scope and elaboration) instead of large-scale (and overwrought) extended battles and blaring nonsensical scenes. To me, I think that’s where the movie succeeds the most. While blockbuster sequels (especially the Transformer ones) have always “banked” on the motto of “go bigger” in these endeavors, Bumblebee turns down a different path in “reducing” its scope by providing a more smaller-scale adventure for its narrative. The result of this actually works…. quite well for that matter, finding Knight able to dismiss a lot of continuity (and otherwise perplexing) narrative nuances and mythos that Bay established in Transformers and allow the movie of Bumblebee to stand upon its own narrative. There’re still a few aspects that do carry over (i.e. the war on Cybertron), but that’s mostly due to the franchise lore of the Transformers brand and not so much on the cinematic version from Michael Bay.

That being said, there are a few backlashes in Bumblebee ignoring the rest of the narrative from its predecessors, but I’ll get more to that below. Suffice to say that Knight makes the most out of the Bumblebee and succeeds, creating a more streamlined, but heartfelt / fun motion picture that’s brimming with nostalgia entertainment and sort of offers a new “refresh” for this movie franchise. As a side-note, I really do have to praise Knight for making Bumblebee effectively (and reasonably) short, with the film’s runtime clocking in at 114 minutes (one hour and fifty-four minutes). This also makes Bumblebee the shortest Transformers movies and considering how long some of those films are (I’m looking at you Age of Extinction).

With Knight’s directing, the likeability of the movie also extends to the film’ script, which was penned by Christina Hodson, which (again) strips away the bloated and often sometimes silly / confusing narrative structure setup and continuity from the previous Transformers movies and makes Bumblebee more of a streamlined story plot, focusing on a young wayward girl and her robotic friend. As I mentioned above, Bumblebee takes place during the 80s and Knight utilizes this particular time setting to the film’s advantage, with him and Hudson crafting a classic 80s feature (akin to Stephen Spielberg’s E.T.) as well as harkening back to the more nostalgia refence of Transformers; back to certain time of longtime fans (and its characters) discovering these “robots in disguise” beings in a more child-like wonderment sort of way. This also does parallel the film’s story, with the character of Charlie discovering Bumblebee and how the pair bond and learning from each other. In truth, it’s a more intimate bond of friendship versus anything we have seeing from these particular Transformer movies and it surely does bring a lot more heart and warmth to the proceedings that before. Further examination into the film showcases the movie’s core driving force catalyst, which is the dynamic friendship between Charlie and Bumblebee, even more so than Bumblebee’s mission to protect Earth from Shatter and Dropkick or rally point for the rest of his Autobot brethren. In fact, Hodson builds much of the film’s narrative solely around this particular premise and sort of “grounds” the, especially with its sci-fi / action premise on alien beings coming to Earth. Thus, with Hodson’s script and Knight’s direction, Bumblebee finds that certain “sweet spot” of storytelling of humanity and empathy within its toy brand roots, which is quite something, especially from this particular film franchise (the other Transformers were seriously lacking this).

In terms of filmmaking presentation, Bumblebee certain does look quite well and (as a whole) certainly feels (and looks) like a solidly make feature film. Of course, the movie doesn’t have that the super high budget expansive that the previous Transformer movies had (i.e. large-scale battles, intricate settings, and abundance of CG visuals), but the film still succeeds in bringing some of the more sci-fi / action scenes to the big-screen when called upon, with Knight and his team creating several action scenes that do the film justice, including a great opening salvo of showing the battle on Cybertron (something that the other movies never showed) as well as big third act showdown finale. Plus, it also does help the fact that the Transformers themselves (be Autobots or Decepticons) looks quite impressive and intricately detailed. Thus, I really have to give an applause to the film’s visual “behind the scenes” wizards (as well as cinematographer Enrique Chediak) for bringing these Transformers to life once again, but (to me) in a better light…sort of speak. In addition, the film’s setting, much like the rest of the movie, feels more reduced (and that’s a good thing), providing enough context within its background setting to feel sort of reminiscent of a classic 80s film (i.e. home, theme park, forest area, etc.). Because of this, the movie setting aesthetics help elevate the film and feels more “grounded” with characters not just setting off to famous vistas and locales. Thus, I really have to mention Sean Haworth (production design), Dayna Pink (costume designs), and Anne Kuljian and Lori Mazuer (set decorations) for their efforts in making Bumblebee background and other nuances pleasing to the eye and “jiving” with the film’s tone and aesthetics. Lastly, while the film’s score, which was composed by Dario Marianelli, is rather good and certainly fits correct with the movie, the rest “musical” star of the feature is the plethora of 80s music that plays throughout the film, which does add that sort of “extra” into making Bumblebee feel like a classic 80s movie, especially when hearing songs from Duran Duran, Simple Minds, The Cars, and a-ha in the feature.

Naturally, there were a few problems that I noticed with the movie that, despite the film definitely being one of the best Transformers sequels of the franchise (so far), were pretty noticeable and does hinder Bumblebee slightly from becoming truly “cinematically” awesome. For me, the biggest criticism that I have with the movie is in narrative continuity with the rest of the series. What do I mean? Well, Bumblebee takes place in 1987; pre-dating the other Transformer films and taking placed at the beginning of the series (before the first Transformers movies). While this okay and fine, but (without spoiling the movie), Bumblebee has some problems with the already established timeline of this cinematic universe, with bits and pieces story / plot clashing more than harmonizing. As stated above, The Last Knight delve deeper into the mythos of Transformers (the Arthurian legend and WWII), but got more convoluted. Bumblebee seems more to simplify everything and “tosses” away what was stated in The Last Knight or for that matter quite possibly the rest of the narrative from the five films. (i.e. the Allspark from the first Transformers, the Fallen from Revenge of the Fallen, Sentinel Prime from Dark of the Moon, the dinosaur Transformers from Age of Extinction, and even Quintessa from The Last Knight). It’s hard to say if all of these major players of the Transformers cinematic narrative are erased from cannon as Knight (and Hodson) don’t go deep into the backstory mentioned in Bumblebee.

So, does that mean that Bumblebee is taking place in alternative timeline or is Knight just pushing aside the narrative to makes room for his own (kind of what 2017’s Halloween movie did with its already established narrative timeline). It’s kind of hard to say what exactly Knight changes without spoiling a little bit of the movie, but you get the idea (I hope). Suffice to say, Bumblebee does give more “license” for Knight to play around and sort of putting his own stamp on the franchise, but does so in a way that “discards” the already established “cannon” that Bay step up. So…I asked again…. does this take place in an alternative universe timeline or is it just simply the movie studios ignoring a lot of the bloated and / or unnecessary cannon timeline that was present in the previous Transformers movies.

Another problem is some of the film’s rather clunky narrative that doesn’t seem to fit quite well or rather the movie glosses over. This is mostly notable with the secret organization of Sector 7 and how the deal with the Decepticons Shatter and Dropkick. It’s vague as to why Sector 7 trust them and the film doesn’t even give that much talk nor time to show us the overall leeriness that the organization has with these two alien beings. We get a few moments of dialogue from Agent Burns of not to trust them, but Sector 7 automatically ignores him and they form an alliance with them. Yes, I know it’s supposed to serve the narrative plot forward (without getting bogged down), but all seems rather convenient and not much thought put into the overall “positive and negatives” for trusting these two otherworldly beings; if they’re friend or foe. Again, I know it’s a movie world, but still….no really sense of caution with Sector 7. Furthermore, we (we being the viewers) never really get a sense of what Sector 7 really is. Of course, past Transformers movies establish what Sector 7 is, but in Bumblebee…. nothing is really mentioned what the secretive organization is and what it stands for. Thus, it could’ve been just another shadowy organization of the FBI or CIA. I know that sounds like a minor quibble towards the film, but a little expositional scene or two could’ve helped add more context for Sector 7 group that appears in Bumblebee.

Lastly, there are a couple of characters and / or scenarios that doesn’t exactly pan out quite well or not as fully realized as they’ve could’ve been. Scenes like Charlie’s past, Charlie’s relationship with her family, and Charlie dealing with certain people and scenarios seem to get a bit muddled throughout the course of the movie as if there were scenes to further elaborate on these particular key points, but were ultimately cut from the film’s final cut. It’s not a huge deal breaker, but certain aspects could’ve been added more substance to make these movie moments have more impact or poignancy to the narrative.

The cast of Bumblebee has a relatively smaller cast in comparsion to its predecessors, which (again) is a good thing, with a few recognizable faces from its selection of actors and actresses in the movie. Headlining the film is actress Haliee Steinfeld plays the film’s central protagonist (human) character of Charlie Watson. Steinfeld, known for her roles in Edge of Seventeen, True Grit, and Pitch Perfect 2, has proven to be a strong young actress in Hollywood and does so again with her portrayal of Charlie in Bumblebee. Much like several of her other roles (mostly Edge of Seventeen), Steinfeld does quite a good job in providing the plights and frustrations of a typical teenager, which translates well on-screen, while also proving to be a stronger lead female character (so much better than Shia LaBeouf). The success of the movie also rests solely on Steinfeld’s performance in making the friendship between her character (Charlie) and Bumblebee (or rather “Bee”) believable…. almost heartfelt / compelling to watch and unfold throughout the film. All in all, Steinfeld is quite solid in the movie as Charlie.

The secondary prominent figure in the movie would be pro-wrestler / actor John Cena, who plays the character role of Agent Jack Burns of Sector 7. Known for his film roles in 12 Rounds, Trainwreck, and Blockers, Cena has also proven himself to be a prominent name in his career as well in Hollywood movies (not so much known for his super serious dramatics, but something akin to how fellow former wrestler / actor Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson has done). Thus, Cena’s charm and likeable bravado in handling dialogue (he’s always good on his delivery of dialogue lines) has gained him credibility in his various film appearance. This, of course, probably why he was offered the role of Agent Burns in Bumblebee. Physically, Cena is a perfect fit for a stoic “no non-sense” enforcer like Burns and so does masterfully throughout the film. As a character, however, Burns is straightforward (uncomplicated) and a bit undeveloped, coming across as a one-dimensional villain-esque human. Still, Cena’s presence (both physically and in his dialogue delivery) get the job done and brings enough of his charisma to Burns in the process.

The other largely minor character worth discussing is the character of Memo, Charlie’s friendly teenager neighbor that gets swept up in everything that is going on, who is played by actor Jorge Lendeborg Jr. Known for his roles in The Land, Brigsby Bear, and Love, Simon, Lendeborg Jr. does a pretty good job as Memo, a shy and slightly awkward youth who takes a shine to Charlie, but gets more than what he bargains for when he too gets caught up in Bumblebee’s appearance. Although, the character of Memo just “padded” layer for Charlie to simply bounce off ideas and to build upon her characterization fully. Thus, it feels that Memo (as a character) is underdeveloped and is mostly there to bolster Charlie. Still, Lendeborg Jr. does a good enough job to overlook the minor criticism.

Other supporting “human” players in the movie, include actor John Ortiz (Steve Jobs and Silver Linings Playbook) as Sector 7 agent Dr. Powell, actress Pamela Adlon (Louie and Better Things) as Charlie’s mom Sally Watson, actor Jason Drucker (Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul and Every Witch Way) as Charlie’s younger brother Otis Watson, actor Stephen Schneider (Broad City and Save Me) as Charlie’s stepfather Ron, actor Glynn Turman (Gremlins and Super 8) as Burns’s superior at Sector 7 General Whalen, and young actor Nick Pilla who plays agent Seymour Simmons (actor John Turturro portrays the older iteration of the character in the previous Transformers movies). These few do their respective parts in the movie and, while mostly stock-like characters, each one proves enough context for these supporting players to make them pleasing and bolstering the story (be major or minor events) when called upon.

Of the Transformers cast, the character of Bumblebee (being the film’s namesake title) is the main focus of these “robots in disguise beings and certainly does showcase that in this film. While he was somewhat of a primary focus within some of the other Transformers films (i.e. Transformers, Revenge of the Fallen, and Dark of the Moon), he’s given much more screen-time to develop into his own character and personality, even though he doesn’t speak much throughout the film. His quizzical nature on learning objects on Earth and befriending Charlie is reminiscent to how the relationship E.T and Elliot in the film E.T and that particular narrative thread is the “backbone” of the feature. Plus, while he only voices the character for a short time, actor Dylan O’Brien (Maze Runner and Teen Wolf) does provide a voice for Bumblebee and it fits (would’ve been cool to see him voice the character latter on…who knows). The other two main Transformer characters are the film’s antagonist characters (i.e. Decepticon) Shatter, voiced by actress Angela Bassett (Black Panther and Mission Impossible: Fallout) and Dropkick, voiced by actor Justin Theroux (The Leftovers and The Girl on the Train). Both Bassett and Theroux are great in their respective villainous roles and fit perfect within the movie. Of course, the appearance of the Autobots leader Optimus Prime means the veteran voiceover actor for the character Peter Cullen returns to reprise his famous role in Bumblebee. Although he isn’t the main focus in this movie (unlike the rest of the Transformers films), his appearance in the movie is still a welcomed one and hints at his possible involvement in future installments once again. There are other Transformer characters that sparsely do appear in the movie, but I won’t spoil it for you guys…. just watch the movie and you’ll see them (and let a sense of nostalgia wash over you…if you’re like me).

FINAL THOUGHTS


Every hero (and saga) has a beginning and are sometime reborn again….such is the notion with the film Bumblebee. Director Travis Knight’s latest feature sees the return of the Transformers franchise, bringing a new spin on the series by providing a more simplistic story within its prequel / spin-off premise. While the movie does fully explore certain aspects and characters and is a big problematic in dismissing the series narrative continuity, the film still stands tall and proud in its own franchise, thanks to Knight’s direction, Hodson’s simplified and character-based script, a strong female lead in Steinfeld’s performance (and a fun charismatic one in Cena), and a classic 80’s nostalgia feeling throughout the feature. To me, I really liked the movie. Though there were some minor problems I had with it, the film itself was pretty good and really felt more like a better iteration of the Transformers “brand” (cinematically speaking).  Definitely better than almost all of the Transformers movies to date, especially after The Last Knight. Thus, my recommendation for this film is a solid “highly recommended” as it has something for all ages, especially those longtime fans of the Transformers franchise as well as those who are looking for a “change of pace” from the past entries in this particular movie saga. With the popular success and critical reception of Bumblebee, the possibility of what the future holds for the Transformers film series is one that has more promise than what’s ever been (since the release of the first film in 2007). Here’s to hoping that the franchise continues forward and under this new direction. In the end, Bumblebee does what it sought out to do….to revigorate the Transformers film franchise for moviegoers everywhere, ushering the more favorable return for these “robots in disguise” adventures in better handled cinematic endeavors.

4.2 Out of 5 (Highly Recommended)

 

Released On: December 21st, 2019
Reviewed On: January 22nd, 2019

Bumblebee  is 114 minutes long and is rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action violence

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