Certified critic on Rotten Tomatoes. Member of the Houston Film Critics Society. Also writes for Bounding Into Comics and GeeksHaveGame.
After Michael Bay spent a decade on four live-action films decimating and violating every metallic orifice of the robots in disguise, he finally took a back seat as a producer and let someone else take over as director. Bumblebee can be viewed as a prequel spinoff since it ties into the other films fairly effortlessly, but it’s also the live-action directing debut of Travis Knight; director of Kubo and the Two Strings and lead animator on most Laika films we’ve all come to admire over the years (Coraline, ParaNorman, and The Boxtrolls).
The film takes place in 1987 as Bumblebee (or B-127) is sent to Earth in search of sanctuary for the Autobots in their ongoing war against the Decepticons. Cybertron, their home planet, has become a wasteland for fallen comrades as Optimus Prime and the Autobots are looking for any possible way to get the upper hand on their enemy. Bumblebee loses his memory and the ability to talk in an explosive brawl with Starscream. He takes the form of a yellow Volkswagen Beetle where he’s discovered in the junkyard by a car-savvy loner who just turned 18 named Charlie Watson (Hailee Steinfeld).
Written by a fairly new screenwriter named Christina Hodson (she’s the sole credit for the upcoming Batgirl and Birds of Prey films), Bumblebee does manage to do a few things right that Michael Bay never seemed to comprehend. The sci-fi action film attempts to establish a deeper connection between Charlie and Bumblebee that Shia LaBeouf’s Sam Witwicky could never accomplish by simply shouting the yellow Autobot’s name repeatedly at the top of his lungs. Bumblebee melts whenever Charlie touches him like a pet being reunited with its owner who’s been away on a long business trip. Bumblebee slinks into a corner and retreats when he thinks he’s misbehaved like a dog who’s been scolded for something bad. The sweet and tender aspect they’re going for doesn’t always work, but it is incredibly charming for the few times that it does.
Most of the Transformer stuff outside of them interacting with humans is literally the coolest the franchise has been in live-action form. The war on Cybertron that opens the film is phenomenal. It has shades of the opening of Terminator 2 with camera work that actually allows the viewer to process the fight sequences. Even for a PG-13 film, Bumblebee is tame. Vulgarity is at an all-time low with individuals using the exclamation of excrement only a handful of times and most of the violence seems to cut away during the more hard hitting moments. The Decepticon named Dropkick has what can be referred to as watered down fatalities in the film that are some of the best moments overall. He cuts an Autobot in half and likes shooting humans with the blaster on his arm. The blast, “pops,” its victim into a puddle of what looks like Capri Sun.
Why is it that Hollywood insists on subjecting its audience to almost unbearable feats in order to just endure what they love about a particular franchise? In a flaw that also plagues the Alien vs Predator films, Bumblebee is more about the humans than it is the Transformers. The film is essentially, “Charlie’s 18th Birthday Featuring Bumblebee.” The teenage melodrama is so heavy and so exhausting to an overwhelming extent. You should not have to sit through Charlie being at odds with her annoyingly nice Stepdad, Charlie’s neighbor and co-worker Memo’s (Jorge Lendeborg Jr, Spider-Man: Homecoming) lame attempts at wooing Charlie, a premature diving contest topped off with an offensive dead dad joke, or the difficulties of working at a hot dog on a stick stand. And whoever decided that John Cena would make a riveting antagonist should probably be fired since he is awful and cringe worthy every time he’s on screen.
The $102 million blockbuster doesn’t have the wherewithal to pull back when it comes to being too mushy. The Charlie/Bumblebee relationship has the ability to be strong at times, but it is also massively top heavy by piling all of its sentiment and heart into the span of a few minutes. Imagine having to endure an entire made for TV Disney movie in the span of five minutes; that is what Bumblebee feels like at its core. There’s some solid 80s references in Bumblebee with the highlight being a throwback to the animated, Transformers: The Movie, and an ongoing gag that utilizes the ending to The Breakfast Club to a rather satisfying extent, but the humor is still brain-numbingly stupid. It’s not as offensive as anything in any of the Michael Bay directed films, but it will make you groan louder than when you overeat at Thanksgiving.
Visually, Bumblebee is exactly what Transformers fans have always wanted. Character designs are directly lifted from the first generation and that ugliness of not really knowing where their mouths begin or end is mostly gone. The action sequences are exhilarating with the cop chase through the tunnel being a personal favorite. But the writing is still so corny that it makes you question why you’d sit through two hours of cinematic garbage for ten minutes of worthwhile footage that will likely make its way into a Youtube video in a matter of months.
It’s disappointing that Bumblebee is mostly marketed as a do-over to the franchise when Bumblebee’s origin feels like a direct rip off of The Iron Giant that leads into the events of the first Transformers film. Don’t get your hopes up on Optimus Prime having much significance either. He has maybe five minutes of screen time with two of those minutes being an after credits sequence. Heavy-hearted with giant robots fighting over the fate of our world taking a back seat to turning 18 in a depressingly emo existence, Bumblebee proves that despite the best intentions the Transformers live-action franchise should remain in the scrap heap.
© 2018 Chris Sawin