Finally, a Transformers movie that is free and away from Michael Bay’s grip. My apologies if I sounded like a historian, superficially quoting a survivor who had successfully fled a dictator’s reign. It was unintentional, though I started to realize that it is beginning to sound like a history lesson.
I purely believe that deep down the declining performance of the franchise, Bay’s initial intention was a noble one; to bring an explosive, action-packed alien robots movie to the masses. What’s even more meaningful to the fans and general audience alike is the fulfillment of their common dream to see a live-action film of Transformers on the big screen. A number of the movie-goers grew up watching boxy Transformers cartoon from their puny TV’s. And that’s the big deal.
As with most of the rulers in history, absolute power corrupts absolutely. The franchise started to take a hit from Bay’s obsession to shove in more and more mindless explosions without revisiting the story-board. Fans’ loyalty were taken for granted, up until the extent that brand-placement scenes like Victoria’s Secret’s slipped through the final cut and made its way into theaters. What do the Autobots and a lingerie brand have in common? I’ve yet to find the connection up until this day, but I suspect the only capable thing that can bring them together on a big screen is an equally enormous sponsorship cheque.
Unfortunately, Bumblebee has to bear this giant stigma on its back, and Travis Knight knew that he only has one chance to make the franchise relevant again to the masses. As such, he had to break away from the persistent formula which had made the franchise going backwards for so long. Which also means, the familiar faces have to go; Mark Wahlberg, Shia LaBeouf and Megan Fox. And in comes the fresh new faces; Hailee Steinfeld as Charlie Watson, the teenage girl version of Sam Witwicky and Cade Yeager, and John Cena as a grumpy agent from Sector 7. Of course, the only exception being Peter Cullen, who again provided the irreplaceable voice of Optimus Prime when the Autobots leader makes appearance during the into of the film.
Of course, logically, Knight didn’t attempt anything overly crazy with the design of the titular character. He still reminds you of Michael Bay’s Bumblebee, albeit with a physique that is less grown up this time. Yet, often times his immaturity still shows, which I’m willing to bet is the trait of the character that the audience always loved. The good news is, the rest of the alien robots crew got the same treatment as Bee, which cleverly shows the cues and contours of a more old-school Generation 1 Transformers. Yet, with further observation, they still hide the design complexities of Michael Bay’s Transformers here and there, especially at the facial and joint areas. Which made the designs capably evoking your nostalgic senses while staying relevant to the modern day at the same time. Remember the Decepticon that ejects out cassettes which transform into his minions? Yup, that’s the Generation 1 Soundwave, and he has a few moves (read: limited screen time) to show to you in Bumblebee.
Even with the fresh faces and slightly revamped Autobots and Decepticons design, will Bumblebee be able to woo back the masses to the franchise? The deciding factor lies within the plot, and the crew behind Bumblebee knows this. They gotta know that depicting our beloved planet earth as Unicron, or telling the audience that King Arthur had a collaboration or two with the Autobots just doesn’t work anymore. They have to revert back to the storyboard and remove the blatant attempts to exaggerate the plot. And I believe they did.
Bumblebee made the leap of faith back into good-old compelling story-telling, revolving around a relatively simple and no-nonsense plot that will surprise many. At its core, it paid more attention towards Charlie Watson’s life austerities, even more than the ever-present war that plagued Cybertron. This is the very distinction that sets Bumblebeeapart from its predecessors. In Bayformers, you can strongly feel as if the main event is the war between Autobots and Decepticons, and however manly Josh Duhamel or Mark Wahlberg could be, the humans are just pawns in the robots’ chest game. Well, no more mindless war between the two alien robot factions, at least for now. And it is a timely relief indeed.
Even Bee, in the latest (or is it past?) form of a cutesy old Volkswagen Beetle at that time, didn’t coincidentally befriend Charlie Watson out of sheer convenience to the plot. Maybe my mind had been relentlessly pre-programmed by Bayformers, I did actually expect her to drive it off a used car lot after paying some dollars like Sam Witwicky did. The interesting turn of hardship-filled events before the duo became friends gave an assuring sense that Travis Knight took-up the plot seriously, and not everything falls down into the protagonist’s lap anymore. Not this time. Perhaps, that just reflects his stand that he doesn’t take his directorship of the film lightly either.
Knight managed to fuse the story with some nasty teenage drama that effortlessly reminds you of some of your worst teenager days that you hated so much. What might seem like an irrelevant sub-plot at first, become much more obvious that it’s an integral part of the story-telling, as it is during such scenes that the friendship between Charlie and Bee shines. Surely, when it was done in just the right amount, the drama brings extra fun and ups-and-downs to the duo’s journey, without looking like its trying to take over the main focus of the plot.
With the timeline of Bumblebee set at 1987, you can be sure that there are certain things that will look vastly different than the previous installments. The first Transformers film featuring Sam Wikiky was set in like, 2007? That’s about a good 20 years apart. Which also means that the color spectrum of the film has to develop a different vibe than the strikingly orange-and-teal look of Bayformers. Fortunately, Bumblebee gave a proper, very Amblin-like depiction of the 80’s with a wonderful tone; vibrant colors and fashion pieces that were still very much in-style during that era. Most of Charlie and Memo’s (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.) outfits were clearly selected with that in mind. Top it off with heavy-hitting singles from the 80’s, and voila, a full and wholesome platter of cinematic cuisine with tastes and aromas that quickly reminds you of that era. Of course, for the audience that grew up during the 80’s, the scenes bring much more than meets the eye. It’s delightfully sentimental.
With the differences cast aside, still, a few of Bayformers recipe that works did migrate over to the new film. Like how clumsy robots tend to accidentally destroy things no matter how innocent they are, particularly household items. Or how kids skillfully fend off nosy parents from figuring out that they have a surprise visit from alien robots, each and every time. Still, there is a noticeable degree of participation of Charlie’s family in her robot-heavy journey, and that gave out a pleasant sensation akin to The Mummy or Indiana Jones. And above all, humans still have the bad habit to sneak in between giant fighting robots, very much like an ant. Don’t get me wrong, such scenes are still entertaining and amusing to watch, but somewhat for a person who had watched five Transformers movies before this (yes, that’s me), the trick does seem to age and feels old (and so did I).
With that said, Hailee Steinfeld was just amazing, period. Her performance worked to such extent, because, the girl believed that there is a giant yellow Autobot accompanying her throughout her acts, and when an actor or actress believes in the script, it really shows. Memo injects some serious humor into the film with his ineptitude, and it is pretty obvious that Jorge Lendeborg Jr. was having a fun time nailing it.
John Cena is clearly the answer to the audience’s need to find some familiar faces on-screen, and unfortunately, its means both ways for Cena, good and bad. While it’s plenty of fun to see Cena’s appearance in a Transformers prequel, it was not a multi-dimensional performance, and quite frankly, was rather bland. Above that, it’s quite apparent that Travis Knight didn’t want to gamble it and played it a little safe by not giving the man many lines or challenging scenes. Still, it worked to a certain degree, and perhaps the only other thing than can outshine his stardom in Bumblebee is the ever-gravitating voice of Optimus Prime.
In unison with the offering of fresh faces, Bumblebee did not rely on battalions of Autobots, Decepticons and armed forces to bring out entertainment value, and this is the quality of the movie which made it that much different from the Transformers franchise that we know. I hope that I don’t disappoint you too early by giving out a hint that there won’t be many robots in the film. In fact, I hope that you find it on the contrary. The film excelled with little line-up of casts, both humans and robots, and that is the very reason that you should give the film a shot, moreover if you have been a Transformers fan. Just stay on a little longer after the credits roll-in to check out the mid-credits scene.
Addict Verdict, AV:
Heavily armed with nostalgia invoking scenes, colors and styles, Bumblebee blasts past the hardened stigma that has been plaguing the franchise ever since words like Bayformers and Bayhem were created. Itself a great reintroduction to the Generation 1 Transformers that most of the fans loved during their childhood, Bumblebee further excelled by ditching the obsession for huge explosions and plot exaggeration which made the previous films a Cybertronian flop. Instead, the crew faithfully returned to the storyboard, and came up with a simple yet immersive story of the titular character, and it certainly delivered in giving a new breath to the franchise.–The Film Addict
*This review was originally published on The Film Addict