Michael Bay lost it somewhere along the way. Sure, he was always grandiose and absurd, but his action held together and his movies were fun. Look back at any of his classics and they are still exactly that. At one point, he was a good action director. Then he started making Transformers films, and it all went terribly wrong. The last Transformers movie was easily one of the worst films of the decade.
After watching Bumblebee I now realize just how much potential Michael Bay has wasted since launching the franchise. I’m a fan of the first Bay Transformers film, but I now realize even that was a waste of potential. From the get-go, Michael Bay has done this franchise wrong. All of the potential it had was wasted. Every last drop of Autobot oil. Bumblebee restores it masterfully.
Director: Travis Knight
Release Date: December 21, 2018
Back in the day when I reviewed Transformers: Age of Extinction one of my biggest complaints, and one that was present from the beginning, was that the humans kept being the biggest part of the film. The Autobots and Decepticons were there for the action and to spout idiotic lines, but the plot revolved around the humans every damn time. Did any of us actually care about Sam Witwicky or his quest to be the most annoying human on earth? Bumblebee finally brings the story back to where it always should have been: the transformers themselves.
Flashback to the 80s, where the hair was bigger and the Transformers were blockier. Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld) is an angsty teen working on her dead father’s Corvette when she finds an old VW Bug in her uncle’s junkyard. Turns out it happens to be a giant robotic alien from the planet Cybertron sent to earth by Optimus Prime to establish a new base and protect the planet from the evil Decepticons. Things didn’t go as planned so now Bumblebee, which Charlie names him, can’t speak and has lost his memory. The two start up an unlikely friendship as the U.S. government, led by the bombastic Agent Burns (Jon Cena), attempt to capture Bumblebee, and accidentally join forces with the Decepticons.
There is action in this movie, but unlike the previous Transformers films, it isn’t the main goal. Instead, we’re treated to a coming of age story that just happens to involve a transforming car. And it isn’t just Charlie’s growth, but Bumblebee’s too. The yellow Autobot is a fully fleshed out character, attempting to fit into a world that seems to fear him while struggling with not knowing who he is. The film finally turns an Autobot into something more than just a bunch of over-designed, metallic parts. Think of the movie as the better halves of Stephen Spielberg and Michael Bay, both of whom have producer credits, joining together. It’s full of the ridiculous action it should have, but grounded in a heart that will remind you of childhood classics like E.T..
The film is also totally 80s, dude. Yes, it is literally set in the 80s, and has fun with that all over the place, but that setting also lets the film function as a sort of throwback to a bygone genre. Everything about this movie feels like those wonderful 80s movies where a group of kids goes off on an adventure into the bigger world (e.g. Goonies, Flight of the Navigator, Stranger Things). Yes, plenty of the plot points don’t make sense or are contrived, but it’s all in the name of telling a fun and exciting story that works. Yes, the military is a bunch of bumbling buffoons and Jon Cena’s character is cut straight from 80s military trope book, but these are the things that make the film work as a larger-than-life adventure. It’s the simplicity, grounded in a character-driven story, that makes the film feel like those classic 80s movies where anything could happen to a bunch of kids with minimal parental supervision.
For adults, it also works because of nostalgia. The opening sequence of the film takes place on Cybertron and any kid from the 80s is going to be sucked right back into their childhood thanks to this. It not only signals a commitment to focussing on the Transformer’s themselves but also shoves the redesigned bots right in your face in all their blocky, old-school glory. Evidently, Michael Bay has been lying to us for years claiming that the old-school design wouldn’t work because here it is in stunning CGI and it looks better than anything he ever did. Optimus Prime’s blocky shoulders and windshield chest looked so good they nearly brought me to tears and Bumblebee is simply a masterpiece. That’s not just because he looks good, but his new design allows him to actually emote. At times Bumblebee is the best performance on screen.
That all being said, there’s still plenty of action to sample in Bumblebee. However, instead of ridiculous, poorly-edited, overly-shot, messes of world-ending action director Travis Knight scales everything back. Action and guns don’t dominate every frame, and Knight is more concerned with telling a story than getting a cool shot. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t get plenty of cool shots, though. When the action does happen it’s crisp, clear, incredibly well edited and shot with pacing and story in mind. For a guy who has worked completely in stop-motion for his career, he sure knows how to make things fluid.
I’m not actually sure where the franchise goes from here. Bumblebee is such a nostalgic character study and is so focused on so few characters that it’s hard to imagine pulling in a host of other Transformers into the next film. The key will be to keep the focus on the actual characters, not the overblown battles. There’s a wealth of wonderful stories to tell here as long as the filmmakers remember that the Transformers aren’t just more than meets the eye because they can turn into cars, but because they are characters in and of themselves.