IN CINEMAS NOW
RUNNING TIME: 114 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
On Cybertron, the Autobots are on the verge of losing the war with the Decepticons, and Optimus Prime sends B-127 to Earth in order to set up a base of operations where the Autobots can regroup. B-127 crash-lands in California in 1987 disrupting a training exercise by a secret government agency called Sector 7 that monitors extraterrestrial activity on Earth, then is attacked by the Decepticon Blitzwing who tears out his voice box and damages his memory core. Before collapsing from his injuries, B-127 scans various nearby vehicles. A yellow Volkswagen Beetle is found in a scrapyard by Charlie, a teenage girl traumatised by the death of her father and resentful of her mother Sally for remarrying. Charlie unknowingly activates a homing signal that is detected by Decepticons Shatter and Dropkick.…
While I haven’t read any of the reviews it’s had in detail, I gather that Bumblebee has received considerably more good than bad write-ups – but then again this is something that I could have predicted before the thing had even come out. For a start it isn’t directed by Michael Bay, who bizarrely still remains something of a whipping boy despite there being an infinite number of worse filmmakers about, and despite his Transformers films being nowhere near as bad as general opinion probably suggests. It’s set in the 1980’s, the nostalgic revisiting of which still seems to please so many who grew up in that era even though I can’t be the only one who’s tiring of this. It’s more about the bond between an 18-year old girl and a robot than robots beating the crap out of each other, and critics are loath to criticise such a film with a female lead even though the fact that the main character is indeed female may strike those of us who still believe that big shape-changing robots appeal far more to young boys than young girls as rather odd – well, until we remember that today’s Hollywood is obsessed with shoving feminism down the throats of even the people who’d watch something like The Incredibles 2 – though thankfully Bumblebee doesn’t really try to do that.Something I did notice about it were the highly gratuitous moments when young male characters have to remove their tops. I doubt many have complained about this, yet I’m sure many would if it was female characters doing this. I guess this can be seen as a kind of answer to the way some female characters are objectified and sexualised in the Bay films, but we live in strange times nonetheless, a time where reverse sexism is fine.
In any case, let’s do our best to put that kind of thing aside and ask if Bumblebee is still a good film? I guess if you’re satisfied with huge plot holes, people who hardly ever behave believably, endless warmed over cliches and the relegation of most of what somebody going to see a Transformers film wants to see most [Autobots fighting Decepticons] to the beginning and the end then it may not seem too bad. But it rarely worked for me, nor was it involving enough to make the countless stupid things in the film forgivable. How stupid is it? Well there’s a major howler in the opening sequence set on Cybetron where it shows all these robots already having their Earth-vehicle camouflage forms even though none of them, as far as we’ve been told, have even gone to Earth yet! I mean – honestly? Then there’s a seemingly magic chain which, if tied round a Transformer, will cause him/her to explode into pieces. And a military facility that has no guards and can be gotten in and out of by cutting open a piece of a fence. It probably goes without saying that, despite repeated references to the first Transformers movie which chronologically supposedly follows this one, a hell of a lot of discrepancies are thrown up, one of them involving good old Optimus Prime himself. I’m not going to bore you with timelines and stuff, but I’m not even a huge Transformers fan and yet I noticed so much that just doesn’t tie in, as if screenwriter Christina Hodson only vaguely remembered watching the earlier movie when it came out and certainly didn’t bother doing any research.
So anyway, we begin with the war on Cybertron, than switch to some action on Earth, and you’d better savour it, as that’s all you’re get for about an hour or so. B-127 is almost killed by Blitzwing, after which he’s found by young Charlie in a typically stupid moment where Charlie shows no fear and not even much surprise at the discovery of a giant robot who can disguise himself as a car – while the giant robot is the one who’s afraid in a film where for much of the time he’s a dog-like shell of himself rather than the fierce warrior which would have made the central relationship more interesting. Instead, we get lots of scenes of Bumblebee goofing around, such as playing hide and seek with Charlie and accidentally destroying somebody’s home. The younger kids at the showing obviously enjoyed some of these scenes, and I will say that it’s great that we now have a Transformers film which is much more of a family movie, pitched more at small kids who will play with Transformer toys rather than teenagers who find things like humping dogs funny [though apparently four seconds have been cut by the BBFC to get a ‘PG’ certificate]. But there are too many of these scenes, and there’s little of the charm and genuinely earned sentiment of The Iron Giant which is clearly being evoked here. We’re shown how Charlie isn’t happy with her life. We may be unhappy at the way her mum seems to dote on her younger brother Otis, and may even chuckle when her stepfather cheekily gives her, as an 18th birthday present, a book on how to smile, while her mother gives her a pink crash helmet so she can ride more safely on her scooter, something which we’re intended to find insulting. But – let’s face it – do Transformers fans really want to sit through lots of this kind of stuff?
Meanwhile Decepticons Shatter and Dropkick come to Earth and, in another dumb moment, convince the military in a couple of minutes that Bee is a criminal and that they need to use American satellites to find him, even though agent Jack Burns says “How we can trust them, they even call themselves Decepticons”? John Cena’s performance as Burns is strange, he looks like he’s trying not to crack up every moment he’s on camera. This is just one or several reasons that the army rarely feels like a major threat, nor indeed Shatter and Dropkick who often seem content to just stand around and do nothing. This in turn means that there’s little urgency or edge. There’s just lots of plodding around interspersed with increasingly laboured ‘funny’ moments and a couple of car chases with only one really cool moment [Bee briefly changing into a robot to jump over and get ahead of another car] until Bee finally regains his old power [you just know that he will so I hardly class this as a a spoiler] and the explosions begin a bit more in earnest along with, as long last, some more robot fighting. And then there’s the expected supposedly tearful conclusion, which I guess will work for you if you hadn’t been continually thinking about the many better movies that informed so many of the beats and plot elements of this one, or why the usually excellent Hailee Steinfeld seemed to misjudge so many of her character’s pivotal moments.
The visual effects involving Bee are excellent, though are more erratic where other robots are concerned, probably a reflection of the smaller budget for this entry, but I’m not sure that’s a good enough excuse for why the fight scenes feature so many shots when the combatants are blurry. The action isn’t as quick cut as Bay would have done it so we can enjoy more of the moves enacted by the Transformers, but there are still too many close-ups and in the end it’s not substantially different from what we’ve seen before while not really giving us anything that’s memorable either. The decision was made to hold back on such things and not give us the overload of thrills that Bay felt obliged to give us, but I can’t help but feel that they took things a bit too far in the other direction. The director is Travis Knight, president of Laika and somebody who has either animated, produced or directed all Laika’s films, so why Bumblebee is so visually uninteresting is a mystery. Meanwhile the ‘80s setting also doesn’t really come off. Despite hearing endless pop songs including some less familiar ones, plus things like Charlie’s neighbour who fancies her Memo having a poster from The Thing on his bedroom wall to show how cool he really is, it never really feels like one is in 1987.
Bumblebee is not terrible, and for once we have a Transformers film with a decent music score even if composer Dario Marinelli seems to be holding back, probably for fear of being replaced by one of the Remote Control drones. But it’s often lazy and careless and never achieves the emotional weight it wants to. I did really like certain things such as Bee’s playing of a song several times as his way of communicating with Charlie, and yes, despite the myriad of issues it is nice to have a change from Bayhem, but the result is a film which seems too loath to give us what we want to see to be a notable Transformers film in its own right. And the final [well, not quite final] scene did make me chuckle though may also serve as a worrying pointer to the future. If this film had been made in 1987, it would have probably ended with a kiss. However, in these days of #MeToo, it seems that even the hero trying to hold the heroine’s hand at the end requires a rebuff. Does this mean that the days of the final clinch are numbered? Yikes.