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Movie Review: Bumblebee

Paramount and I have walked a similar path.

Have you ever found yourself in a relationship where it stopped being satisfying a long time ago, but you held on anyway because you were convinced that this was the best you could do? Then, at some point, you finally get triggered, one way or another, to finally break things off and go it alone…fearful of what you’re leaving behind and how lonely the future looks…only to find everything you’ve ever wanted just a short time later?

For Paramount, as you’ll refer to my various Transformer film reviews, the break-up with Michael Bay (not entirely, as he remains on as a producer…so maybe this is Hollywood’s way of staying ‘just friends’) and the choice of Travis Knight as director of the Bumblebee spin-off film, for me as a film reviewer, is that very scenario.

Coming into Bumblebee, I was very skeptical. It wasn’t about the new director…hell, that was one of the few things that excited me about the film. Instead, Bumblebee is getting to the same place that I regard over-used pop culture figures like Batman, Harley Quinn, Wolverine and the like…I don’t hate the characters per se…but I’m HORRIBLY sick of seeing them EVERYWHERE. I mean, sure, I’m a Transformers fan…big time…but I’ve always been an Optimus sort of guy…not this little yellow schmuck. I know how I’m gonna sound…because every statement like this ends up negating itself after the “but…”…but…I’m all for characters growing and evolving over time, taking new roles and being redefined, but Bumblebee stealing the spotlight, or, even worse as displayed in the horrendous (in my opinion) recent Robots in Disguise animated series that recently ended in 2017 (or maybe early 2018?) Bee as actual leader? Ugh. No. Yeah, the IDW comics succumbed to this for a bit as well, even making Bee the leader of Cybertron for a brief moment…before, you know, killing him…it just always felt really hollow to me…kind of unearned.

So…did I REALLY want to sit through a movie focusing on a bot I was getting pretty sick of?

Having seen the movie: Yes. And you should too.

The opening moments of the film instantly scream that this movie is going to be different…especially if you’re a G1 fan like me. This is not the first Transformers movie to ever open on Cybertron...but this IS the first movie to show the headlining bots much closer to their G1 selves. Now, it’s a fair question to ask how people, both adults and children, will adapt going from the highly detailed (and expensive) models of the Bay-Formers…with all their exposed and turning gears and what have you…to the more paneled (and cheaper) and slightly cartoon looking (and certainly more cartoon accurate) bots here? Honestly, I don’t think it’ll be a problem. In fact, I’d highly praise the designers of these bots for finding just the right middle ground between Bay’s “walking scrapheaps” and the G1 cartoon: the renders here show active working gears and such in the nooks, crannies and joints, but the paneling allows for more color…and as such it is much easier to tell who is who…even in the fights and action sequences.

As a side note, these Cybertronian sequences (the main one opens the film but there are flashbacks scattered throughout) are very reminiscent of the cutscenes of the War For Cybertron and Fall of Cybertron video games…and that is NOT a bad thing at all! Although I’m not sure whether or not general audiences will support a full-length feature film focusing solely on the Transformers themselves with nary a human in sight, given this little glimpse, I can safely say that the prospect will fuel my (sometimes wet) dreams at night. [Sharing too much…EW! – Ed.]

That ‘different’ feeling continues throughout the movie as Bumblebee has a radically different tone. Gone are the juvenile jokes, racial stereotypes, excessively spastic characters/moments and just utter nonsense of the Michael Bay films. Here, we’re presented with a film that has ACTUAL CHARACTERS. Even ones that can react and respond to the situations around them in complete sentences. Without shouting every line even. Hailey Stienfeld does a good job as our main character, Charlie Watson, a soon to be 18 year old girl who has just recently lost her father and is having a hard time adapting to life now that he’s gone. She comes across Bumblebee who is in a similar place: he has no voice, no memory and in his prior experience with humans, has been hunted, shot at…so on and so forth. Oh, and thank the Matrix for the distinct lack of military-porn in this movie. Still, they do end up falling into a different stereotype, so we’ll talk about that in a bit. Not to sound too sappy, but these are two characters that in finding each other, learn to find the strength they need in order to become who they were meant to be: for Charlie, a young woman that not only fits in her family again but also into the larger world around her and for Bee a part of an increasing number of Autobots dedicated to defending Earth. As is evident in his prior feature, Kubo and the Two Strings, Travis Knight’s ability to build a movie around his characters is such a welcome departure from Michael Bay’s plot-driven affairs. There is no MacGuffin here…no ancient Cybertronian artifact that everyone hunts for. There’s no convoluted way that Transformers are somehow incorporated throughout the span of human history…and thank heavens for that. Transformers have their own history, humans theirs…and the only MacGuffin that everyone is racing for is…well…Bee himself: Charlie wants him as a friend/pet, the military wants to study him and the Decepticons want to torture/kill him.

Unfortunately, the one thing here that’s not terribly different is the plot: alien falls to Earth, befriends a young human, is chased by the military then finally returns home. Sound familiar? Whether you know this brief plot as E.T: The Extra-Terrestrial or as The Iron Giant, you’re not going to find much in the way of surprises as to how events unfold…right down to the ‘stop-the-transmission’ ticking-clock device used for the film’s climax. This doesn’t instantly damn the film…after all, how’s the old saying go…there are only a set few stories, everything else is just variations on those themes. And that’s just it, even though the plot is fairly ‘tried and true’ it’s the strength of the characterizations and the sheer juxtaposition when compared to the previous entries in the series that makes what would normally be a killing blow in some reviewers eyes that Bumblebee gets a pass on. One other thing that might get annoying is how much this movie wants to remind you that it takes place in the 80s…specifically 1987. Look, as a child of the 80s, hell, I love the era…but toward the end of the movie, even I was kinda like “I get it already, GEEZ!” I’m still totally buying the soundtrack when it comes out…it’ll make a damn good 80s compilation.

Now, lastly, let’s go into the big question: Prequel or Reboot? Um…yes? In order to answer this, we really need to see where Paramount takes the next movie. Given that this takes place in ’87, we’ve got 20 years to cover before we reach the 2007 where the original film takes place so this may start a film series akin to what Fox did with X-Men after First Class…that film was in the 70s and the following films each representing a decade between that and the first film (2000). [Maybe even with a time-travel adventure that wipes out the Bay films? – Ed.] In addition, there are PLENTY of easter egg nods that could totally tie this film in with the Bay series…including a look at young Agent Simmonds. Ugh. The thing is though…will Paramount want to make another Transformers movie that doesn’t have Megatron as the main Decepticon antagonist? Sure, any TF nerd knows that there are MANY Decepticon warlords, despots and such that can fill that leadership role…but with Optimus Prime being present in this film (in ALL his G1 glory…SQEEEEEEEE!) it’s hard to believe that Megatron isn’t that far behind…and that would scream reboot. No matter what they choose to do, it’s my hope that the producers, including Michael Bay, see how this new character-driven approach appeals to the critics and to the test audiences…and hopefully to the general audiences too!

While it’s still in the trappings of ‘a girl and her car’ and the standard ‘friendly alien’ plot, Bumblebee shows promise that filmmakers are finally acknowledging a fact that Transformers fans have held dear since the line’s inception in 1984…that the robots are just as much characters in the story…usually even moreso…than the humans. And once they realize that fact, maybe that War for Cybertron movie won’t be so far-fetched after all.

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