Are we sure this is a Transformers movie?
As Bumblebee unfolded before our eyes, I had to keep asking myself if my son and I were really watching a Transformers movie. There were no racist versions of transformers. The movie was not exploding every twelve seconds. There were no robots or dogs trying to hump people or other dogs. There were no baby dinosaur transformers. There were no gratuitous (read: creepy) shots of scantily clad, sweaty, teenaged girls. At no time did a transformer ride a dinosaur transformer. Did Michael Bay die and nobody noticed?
To the chagrin of many a film critic (present company excluded), Bay is alive and well and still making movies. But, for the first time in the Transformers franchise, Michael Bay did not direct. Bumblebee was directed by Travis Knight, though Bay was still heavily involved as a producer (and it shows at times). It does not take long to notice that Bumblebee feels very different from the other five films in the franchise.
(SPOILERS, but – and I cannot believe I am saying this – very minor because Bumblebee does not deserve to be spoiled).
Bumblebee is a prequel to the first Transformers, set twenty years prior in 1987. The film kicks off with the war on Cybertron between the Autobots and Decepticons. A Cybertron movie is the movie I really want to see, but like Man of Steel, this movie is too stubborn to give us the destruction of an alien planet. As the war nears its end, Optimus Prime sends Bumblebee to Earth to establish a secret base for the Autobots. His exact instructions were “protect Earth from the Decepticons. If they find it, the war will truly be lost.” Ohhhhh, there you are Mr. Bay. So, Optimus is sending his smallest soldier (a scout) to protect a random planet that is so important he does not send any of his other remaining soldiers (instead, shooting them off in seemingly random directions). Fine. Fuck. Whatever. Go sit back down in the corner, Michael.
Obviously, it does not take long for the Decepticons to find Bumblebee, they attack him, and leave him for dead. Some years later (1987), eighteen year-old Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld) discovers a beat-up, yellow Volkswagen beetle in a junkyard, gets it running, then takes it home (as a gift from her uncle). As seen in the trailers, while looking under the undercarriage, she sees a face, the face lights up, Bumblebee transforms into his robot self and the two become fast friends. Charlie also accidentally turns on a beacon that the Decepticons pick up and the film’s main plot – chase Bumblebee to find out Optimus’ plans and whereabouts – takes off. No mystical pyramid-machine keys, no magical cubes, no space-portals used to transport an entire planet to eat another planet. There is a nearly 100% chance Michael Bay was duct-taped to his producer’s chair during writing and filming.
What I really liked about Bumblebee is something I have been saying for years – keep it small. The entire world or universe does not have to be at stake (even though Optimus says it is). Really, the thing at stake is Bumblebee, and to a lesser extent, the remnants of the Autobot rebels. The movie also features just three transformers for the vast majority of the film. Bumblebee and the two Decepticons hunting him, Dropkick (Justin Theroux) and Shatter (Angela Bassett). Yes, that is a female transformer that is not a god-like floating witch with tentacles. I know it is strange to think, but many women do actually like transforming robots (toys and movie characters) and have more to offer a film than just dewy skin.
On the flip side, the film has a couple of glaring weaknesses. One is the inclusion of a cartoonish element that feels far too infantile, even for a movie based on toys. This element rears its head in the form of humans exploding like bags of mucus when shot by Dropkick and the idiocy in which the members of the military/scientific group (Sector 7) is portrayed. Even as comic relief, it fails spectacularly, much like when Bumblebee peed on John Turturro in the original Transformers.
The other weakness is the misuse of John Cena as a special operations soldier. In the first scene Cena is in, he is relaxed, delivering some funny lines in a casual and delightful way, giving a glimpse of a character we can really get behind. This Cena is never seen again, as Cena’s character becomes a caricature of a soldier, shrieking many of his lines and trying to kill everything. Bay must have found a way to slip his bonds one day when Knight was taking his morning constitution.
Overall, the film is more good than bad and occasionally self-aware. One example of this is when the Sector 7 clowns are debating whether or not to trust the Decepticons, Cena’s character shouts “they literally have decept in their names.” If we can get a lot more of this in subsequent films, this franchise may actually redeem itself. As long as the duct tape for Michael Bay doesn’t run out, that is.
Rating: Ask for three dollars back, which is weird to say for a Transformers film.