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Sunday, December 9, 2018

Bumblebee

BUMBLEBEE

** SPOILERS **

Charlie Watson (Hailee Steinfeld) loves her car and that's the beating heart of Travis Knight's Bumblebee, the best live-action Transformers movie and the first to contain depth, sincerity, and is a palpable joy to watch. Like its titular Autobot, Bumblebee is smaller in scale than the other Transformers movies but is also more detailed and heartfelt. And (this is important), unlike Michael Bay's five previous clanking, chaotic cacophonies, watching Bumblebee doesn't feel like you're being punished by being repeatedly smacked in the face with a bag of hammers while rusty nails poke at your eye sockets. It only took 11 years and 6 Transformers movies to get this franchise to roll out in a positive direction, but let's never, ever go back.

Bumblebee succeeds in part by going back; it's a retro-1980s film (the era which was the heyday of Transformers Generation-1) and it's a reboot of Michael Bay's films (sort of). Borrowing heavily from E.T. and The Iron Giant - with reverential nods to and the pacing of a Spielberg, Zemeckis, and Joe Johnston film sprinkled with some John Hughes - Bumblebee is drenched in nostalgia for a simpler time. The film may be a bit too aggressively '80s, especially with its wall-to-wall soundtrack, but the songs are well-chosen ("You're listening to The Smiths!"), and there's a clever in-joke where it turns out we owe the Decepticons for the gift of the Internet.

This 6th Transformers movie also blows up the continuity of the previous 5 (though, to be fair, nearly every Michael Bay sequel rewrote the history of his previous films). The movie opens on Cybertron (looking just like a kid in the '80s dreamed it would look like and not like what Bay presented) where the Decepticons have conquered the planet (without Megatron, who is never mentioned). Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen) orders an evacuation and sends his favorite soldier B-127 (Dylan O'Brien) to Earth, a sanctuary he must protect until the rest of the Autobot Resistance can join him. Naturally, the Decepticons follow B to Earth, where they meet Sector-7 Agent Burns (John Cena, who is simply great in this role), a true-blue soldier who doesn't trust robot aliens and has a score to settle with them. However, Sector-7 is seduced by the technology and weaponry the Decepticons offer. Believing the evil robots' lies, the humans decide to work with them to find the "criminal" B-127, despite Burns accurately pointing out the name "Decepticons" should raise a red flag.

Meanwhile, the real story of Bumblebee begins when the damaged Autobot (missing his vocal software) meets Charlie, an 18-year-old girl mourning her dead father and desperately seeking a friend she can confide in. Not unlike John Connor in Terminator 2 finding his father figure in a T-800, Charlie finds her friend in a beat-up yellow Volkswagen Beetle that immediately transforms into a giant robot. Childlike and frightened thanks to his malfunctioning memory core, Bee is endearingly vulnerable and Charlie falls for her car right away. She names him "Bumblebee" and it's Charlie who inspires Bee to learn to use the radio to "talk", a trick he would use to communicate in all of Bay's films set 20+ years in the future (which may or may not happen now).

The bulk of Bumblebee is Charlie getting to know Bee, repairing him, and teaching him to assimilate on Earth while warning him that humans will try to dismantle and destroy him. There's a sequence where Bumblebee enters Charlie's house to explore it and accidentally wrecks everything and then a second where a failed attempt at toilet papering a mean girl's house sees Bee demolish her car that feels like a level up from when the Autobots were 'hiding' in the backyard of Sam Witwicky's house in Bay's 2007 Transformers. But the chemistry between Charlie and Bumblebee is palpable, made all the more remarkable by how immensely talented Hailee Steinfeld is; considering she's acting opposite CGI or a prop or nothing at all, Steinfeld makes you believe Bee is real. The movie adds a helpful third wheel in Memo (Jorge Lendeborg, Jr.), the boy next door who would very much like to date Charlie, and the three have fun adventures driving around the Northern California coast, with Bumblebee playing Stan Bush's "The Touch" from Transformers: The Movie on the radio to really work the feels for the 80's kids in the audience.

Inevitably, the war between the Autobots and Decepticons comes to Earth and, like E.T., Bumblebee is captured and tortured before Charlie and Memo can save him. Once he's rebooted, Bumblebee remembers he's really, really good at killing Decepticons, and his battles against Triple-Changers Blitzwing (David Sobolov), Shatter (Angela Bassett), and Dropkick (Justin Theroux) are exciting because the Generation-1 designs allow you to see them as robots and not just a collection of shards and gears, therefore, you can tell what's going on when they move and fight. Together, Charlie and Bumblebee save the world, while Agent Burns comes to understand the yellow Volkswagen is on our side. 

In the end, Charlie chooses to part with Bumblebee in a climax as emotionally touching as it is baffling. The film establishes how Bumblebee changes shape into a Camaro (to Charlie's chagrin), which seems to set up how he'll meet Shia LaBeouf in Bernie Mac's used car lot 20 years later - yet the continuity has been completely altered because Optimus Prime and the Autobots immediately join Bumblebee on Earth in 1987 when Transformers establishes they don't arrive until 2007. Regardless, while it's clunky in sections and seems made up of spare parts from previous 1980s classics, Bumblebee is a win for everyone involved and for the entire Transformers franchise, which now has an open road to make better movies like this going forward (hopefully with Steinfeld returning). 

The best thing about Transformers 2007 was the heart of it was a story about a boy and his car, but Bumblebee tops it with its 1987 story of a girl and her car - the film truly understands and reaffirms the mystical bond between woman and machine. Bumblebee is really the first Transformers movie aimed at girls, and dads, bring your daughters to see it. They may come out of Bumblebee wanting a car, but they'll also learn to love their car.


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