Film Review: Can "Bumblebee" Pick Up The Pieces After Ten Years Of Michael Bay's Demolition?
Michael Bay’s 5 Transformer movies remain fascinating artefacts of American vulgarity; movies made by douchebags, for douchebags. An unkind thing to say? Yeah, but we’re talking about a series of supposed kiddie films stuffed to bursting with sexism, racism, and nihilism, and slavish Military-Industrial Complex boot-licking. Bay twisting Autobot Transformer Optimus Prime — the bland paragon of virtue and nobility — into a dishonourable bloodthirsty maniac comparable to Jason or Freddy is an act of pop cultural vandalism worthy of the sour European provocateur, Lars Von Trier. But for all the faults of his films, you could never call them bland or generic.
Which gets to what’s been bothering me about Bumblebee, the new Transformer prequel/reboot set in the 80s and focused on the titular yellow and black stripped good guy Transformer. It’s the first Transformer flick without Bay at the helm (Travis Knight has taken the reins here), so naturally it’s far less of an affront to taste. But it’s been replaced with uninspired storytelling beats ripped straight out of ET and The Iron Giant, action scenes that are comprehensible though unexciting, and admirable but desperate attempts to pull on the heartstrings.
In fairness, sometimes those attempts are occasionally successful. In Bumblebee, the titular alien Autobot, injured and far from home and the rest of his allies, finds a pal in 18 year old Charlie Watson (Hailee Steinfeld), who of course isn’t an alien but feels alienated all the same. They make for a charming pair. It’s to its credit that Bumblebee creates an ambience of gentle loveliness when it’s Hailee Steinfeld tearfully interacting with the excellently animated empathic robot in her garage. When it’s about dopey farcical comedy and milquetoast conflicts, it’s far less successful — even outright irritating.
Travis Knight mines anything worthwhile from Bay’s films with a fastidiousness that impresses. For example, Bumblebee’s simple appeal has always been that he doubled as a rambunctious puppy and a highly formidable warrior. And it’s the same here, only there’s more of it. It’s not terrible by any means, but the feeling of “been there, done that” dulls the lustre, fast.
Another improvement over Bay’s films is that the military sub-plots have been drastically reduced. Here there’s only one in the form of John Cena as a military guy, teaming up with the evil Decepticons to hunt down Bumblebee. This adds a sense of urgency to the proceedings and some delicious bits of sly and violent villainy from the twin Decepticons. It was tough to get a grasp on the tone of it all, though; I couldn’t tell whether they were going for straight-faced tension or if they were parodying the overwrought machismo inherent in John Cena’s screen presence — which is naturally only amplified to the power of 10 when he’s playing a military guy.
It’s the same with nearly every scene involving only the human characters. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but there was something extremely off about the dialogue scenes. The flow of time, which we usually take for granted when watching a movie, was uneven and uncomfortable, somehow. It contributed to the movie feeling much longer than it was.
Though the human elements here were often strangely awkward and poorly paced, the Transformer-y stuff was pretty good and confidently directed. It was a sincere and canny recreation of the cheesy ‘80s cartoons. Fans will be sure to dig that stuff. But I remember a particularly crazy story of an overly jittered Michael Bay conceiving of a massive action set-piece, one involving a giant tentacled Transformer drilling and squeezing a skyscraper to pieces as a desperate group of humans make a crazy attempt to escape the chaos. I’ll go ahead and say it’s just as jaw-dropping as any Nolan action setpiece in its seamless combination of practical stunts and CGI.
This sort of unhinged passion could’ve greatly benefited Bumblebee. It’s all just far too by the book and safe; a dull pledge from an uncertain committee of movie executives to do better with the Transformers’ mythos in future instalments.
2.5 Stars out of 5