Review: Bumblebee

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Dialling everything back to basics, Bumblebee is simple yet charming, a straightforward action adventure with none of the previous films’ dementia.

Before Sam Witwicky has his fateful encounter with Autobot Bumblebee, the robotic warrior had another friend. Together, the two had to battle the odds and prevent the evil Decepticons from locating Earth.

As an apologist for the recent Transformers movies, watching the new film is a bittersweet experience, but ultimately a very rewarding and satisfying one. That said, one of the most popular articles on this site is the one listing everything wrong with those previous films.

The first thing that should be made very clear to audiences around the world, who were driven mad by Michael Bay’s… descent into madness, is that Bumblebee is not like those other movies. It isn’t directed by Michael Bay. It is better.
Some of you probably remember (but not admitting to), back in 2007, enjoying Transformers and quite specifically enjoying Bumblebee as a character. It would seem that toy company Hasbro, director Travis Knight (director and animator working for Laika animation), and writer Christina Hodson, remember this as well. The premise of that film originally, was “boy’s first car”. Bumblebee‘s premise is “girl’s first car, and the desire to escape to a new life”.

Set in 1987, the film follows Charlie Watson (played by Hailee Steinfeld), a girl who just turned eighteen and is feeling the heavy burden of losing her father. Her mother has moved on with another man, and her younger brother is the focus of attention. Feeling alienated and alone, Charlie defies them at every turn, only to run into a yellow Volkswagen Beetle… which is an alien lifeform from space.
Hi-jinx ensue as Charlie befriends this misfit and attempts to shield him from human secret military organization Sector 7. But when two Decepticons arrive on Earth, Charlie has to find inner strength to help.

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Straight off the bat, this film is giving every Transformer fan exactly what they wanted since before 2007’s movie. As a prequel, we see Bumblebee’s exit from his war ravaged homeworld of Cybertron, as a vanguard for the Autobots. We have a glorious fully-CG sequence, albeit brief, showing many famous characters from the cartoon, rendered with original designs, colours, and accurate voices.
We then have Bumblebee arrive on Earth to a very hostile welcome, including a Decepticon who destroys his “vocal emitters”. That’s right, this film  introduces BB’s radio voice.
There is a very definite sense of distancing from the Michael Bay films, and a clear message to the fans that this will be better. We don’t have “Mojo’s pain pills”, we have Transformers with original designs. We don’t have John Turturro in a thong, we have The Touch by Stan Bush playing from Bumblebee’s radio! We don’t even have kitten calendars, we have actual, readable action sequences!
For the film fans, we have a story that actually has some heart. Charlie and Bumblebee have great chemistry in that they both feel like outcasts, and we get to see them bond; both play and fight together. The comedy is neat, and not aggressively absurd like the Michael Bay movies.

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All in all, it was pretty good! We even have a female Transformer who is on the screen for longer than mere seconds.

Of course, it is a straightforward movie, and it has the inevitable shadow of the Michael Bay films hovering over it. This is a prequel, but it is probably the first prequel were you find yourself begging it not to drive down the road it is heading for. The other issue is that the film’s means of escalating the stakes, is to have Bumblebee act like an idiot, allowing their enemies to locate them. This is somewhat explained with him literally suffering amnesia, but it feels a little convenient.
Continuity-wise (if anyone cares, but it this is the sixth movie) it is delightfully stripped back to simplicity, so there’s little wrong. It does completely ignore The Last Knight‘s ridiculous proclamation that Bumblebee helped assassinate Adolf Hitler, what with Bumblebee arriving on Earth in the 1980s. No word of Earth being a god-Transformer either. Also good.

The actions sequences are similar to the 2007 film, but the robots are actually colour-coded in their designs. No more grey metal masses twisting and ramming into each other. The Transformers also transform, we see it, on screen, as well as during combat in cool ways. Hard to believe that this is actually something we need to acknowledge, but here we are!
The performances are decent too. Hailee Steinfeld does well delivering some tough emotional scenes to little more than thin air. Most of her time is spent with Bumblebee, who doesn’t even talk back. Her family consists of humans, unlike the Witwickys, and they are used to relentlessly torment Charlie early on and give her motivations. The military are led by an actor, but I couldn’t see him.

What is most refreshing, is watching a Transformers film that isn’t directed by Michael Bay. Charlie is not objectified, she is a human character with talents, and flaws and dreams. There isn’t relentless slow-mo or low camera angles.

It is nice to finally see something different with the franchise, and it is a little sad that this isn’t the first film. If you are a fan of the Transformers, at all, I implore you to see it. Don’t let Bay’s saga be more “popular” than a genuinely good movie.

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Additional Marshmallows: Okay, okay, John Cena played the military leader. He wasn’t all that bad either; for playing an archetypal character. He was better than Tyrese Gibson at least.

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