The first live-action Transformers movie, released in 2007, was an unexpected triumph. Though criticised for its lowbrow humour, over-reliance on big, often incoherent battle sequences, and director Michael Bay’s voyeuristic tendencies towards Megan Fox, the film succeeded in anchoring the essence of the original cartoon series to a formative yarn involving a boy, a girl and a very special car. Transformers was an enjoyable experience, but the same cannot be said of any of the subsequent sequels. Whatever restraint Michael Bay initially displayed vanished like a fart in the wind, as the proud name of 'Transformers' drowned in a sea of narrative tosh, incomprehensible green screen hijinks, and near-depraved toilet humour. Nothing meant anything in these films; it was just noise piled upon wallop, making love to clatter. The law of diminishing returns kicked in with a thud, and the perfectly rotten Transformers: The Last Knight (2017), though still profitable, became the lowest grossing film in the franchise.
Thank god then, for Bumblebee (2018). Shorn at last of the witless Bay (who still receives a producer’s credit), Travis Knight - director of the underrated animated film Kubo and the Two Strings (2016), here directing his first live-action feature - provides a superior prequel-come-soft reboot of the franchise, which begins by taking inspiration from its own lineage. The 2007 film deliberately narrowed its own ambitions. At the centre of the story was a young man and his first car, which also happened to be a sentient, transforming robot. The remaining Transformers were few, and revealed gradually, and each possessed some semblance of an individual personality. Bumblebee takes this idea and refines it, crafting a taut narrative that effectively utilises the Transformers, whilst keeping the central relationship between human and machine at the epicentre of the story. What follows is a heartfelt, charming and enthralling film, blessed with a remarkable layer of humanity.
Charlie Watson is an emotionally damaged young girl, still struggling with the loss of her father, and drifting apart from the rest of her family. Her tomboyish demeanour is stereotypically at odds with societal expectations, and though the film dwells on this in a familiar way, it successfully walks the line between observational humour and cheap laughs. Charlie is a unique and believable person, whom we come to care for and appreciate in abundance. Hailee Steinfeld is a revelation in the lead role. She brings sincerity and a quirky, Ellen Page-esque deadpan sass to her performance, and she moulds Charlie into a multi-faceted hero-of-the-hour. When first we meet her she is emotionally fraught, yet there remains a fiery passion and hope for renewal. She begins to find this in the form of a battered Volkswagen Beetle AKA Bumblebee; himself lost, broken and desperately alone. Their interactions are beguiling and rife with feeling, as she tentatively seeks to earn the trust of the curious - yet obviously traumatised - robot. Shia LaBeouf is little more than a horny toad with a shiny toy, compared to Steinfeld and the convincing rapport she builds with her very own robot in disguise, and their relationship is the heart and soul of the film.
Designed as a prequel to the 2007 film, Bumblebee was automatically limited in its ability to use the more familiar Transformers, but Knight offsets this with some intelligent pressing of the ‘soft reboot’ button. The film begins on Cybertron, amidst the raging war between the Autobots and Decepticons. Fans of Generation One (G1), otherwise known as the original series, are likely to succumb to tears at this point, as the indistinct designs of previous films are blown away in a storm of primary colour. Familiar characters abound, each looking, sounding and acting identically to their classic forebears, and the film is all the better for this sudden commitment to authenticity. Each Transformer is distinct, with their voices and roles clear, and the battles between them are more controlled, and at last measurable by the human eye. Autobot scout B-127 (Bumblebee) is despatched to Earth in a last, desperate gambit by Optimus Prime (voiced as always by the redoubtable Peter Cullen), and upon arrival is ambushed by the Decepticon seeker Blitzwing. The resultant battle is spectacular yet brutally simple, and serves both as explanation for Bumblebee’s subsequent mute timidity, and as an introduction to John Cena’s gloriously hammy Sector 7 operative, Jack Burns.
Cena provides a silly performance, positively brimming with irony. He can’t emote, and aside from a genuine flair for comedic timing, offers nothing to vex the likes of McKellen or Stewart (or even Johnson). Nevertheless, Cena is perfectly cast as the stereotypically macho Cold War-era soldier: high on patriotism and relatively low on brains. Travis Knight expertly controls the limitations of his performance, channelling his stiffness into a winning spoof of the military action hero. He is a genre pastiche, gurning, quipping and saluting right on cue. This self-deprecating approach comes in support of, and never at the expense of, the emotional intent of the story. When the time comes, Burns drops the comedy and gets appropriately serious. Michael Bay - creator of various sexist, racist, self-defeating comic relief characters - take note. The one deliberately crass character in the film - an obnoxious Southern stereotype - is almost instantly vaporised by a Decepticon. One could even be tempted to interpret the summary execution of this raging cliché as a silver screen-shaped two fingers, to the tone of previous films…
The Transformers were born in the 1980s, and returning them to their natural era makes plenty of sense. A story involving warring factions of transforming robots - even a restrained example thereof - is perfectly placed within the decade of noise and excess. The film is suffused with nostalgic energy, with a crackling, perfectly chosen retro soundtrack, and at least two dozen amusing pop culture references. The Eighties dynamic serves as an effective backdrop to the introduction of Charlie’s platonic love interest, Memo, as played by Jorge Lendeborg Jr. His is a sweet performance, which only occasionally strays into the realms of annoyance. Memo’s romantic longing, coupled with his geeky, socially maladroit nature, offers another outlet for Charlie to explore her emotional re-emergence. Their relationship is never less than convincing, and can be accurately described as ‘cute’.
The film does an efficient job of establishing the threat of Decepticon hunters Shatter (voiced with conniving menace by Angela Bassett) and Dropkick (a convincingly thuggish performance by Justin Theroux). The film benefits from keeping things simple. Concentrating its primary villainy on Shatter and Dropkick alone is a good example of this intent. They are the most heavily featured antagonists; we learn about them and their motivations, and their displays of ambition, intelligence and force establish them as credible threats. Bumblebee takes a broad strokes attitude to many of its characters and scenarios, but this is a film designed to be accessible to a wide audience (obviously including children). It is necessarily vivid in its execution, and ironically this unsubtle yet attentive approach becomes part of the film’s overall charm. This can be summed up by a sight gag involving Charlie and Bumblebee, and the use of a certain legendary song by Stan Bush. It’s anything but subtle, but it’s clever, amusing and perfectly pitched. Like so many scenes in this film, it can’t help but make you smile.
Bumblebee harks back to the intention of the original Transformers (1984-1987) cartoon, and to the immortal Transformers: The Movie (1986). Generation One sought to capture, from the perspective of a child, the wonder of coming face-to-face with these magical machines and their world. This very simple, primal idea has always been at the heart of 'Transformers'. Though Michael Bay initially attempted to embrace this ethos, he could not resist the urge to denigrate the films he was paid to make, because after all, ‘more than meets the eye’/‘robots in disguise’ is a fundamentally daft idea. Why take it even remotely seriously? Travis Knight’s film is the answer to this question. It is almost moving in its earnest desire to tell a heartfelt story, about a disenchanted girl and a frightened robot, and their improbable friendship.
There is a genuine clarity to the story, and credit must go to writer Christina Hodgson. From script to performance, Bumblebee is exciting and silly, funny and dramatic. It lifts the heart of a cynical adult, and yet a young child can understand and be enthralled by it. Michael Bay’s first Transformers film is good, but Travis Knight’s Bumblebee is sublime. Charlie speaks the following line, towards the end of the film: ‘Thank you for giving me back… me’. This is a perfect summation of the last ten years of 'Transformers' films, and where Bumblebee stands amongst them. I have seen many fine motion pictures this year, but I have enjoyed none so much as Bumblebee.
| To be continued... |