Weird, but true: turns out you can make a TRANSFORMERS movie that’s sweet and funny, with sensible, reasonably concise storytelling that never feels like it’s whacking you in the face with a frying pan, and has characters you can care about. Even a human female one! All you gotta do is get the director of KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS and a script by Christina Hodson (SHUT IN, BIRDS OF PREY).
Michael Bay and Steven Spielberg are both listed as executive producers, but BUMBLEBEE definitely feels more like the latter, taking heaps of inspiration from E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL but none that I noticed from ARMAGEDDON. Set in 1987, it does work as a prequel to Bay’s TRANSFORMERS (2007), telling the story of a soldier robot who flees the war on his home planet of Cybertron to hide out in California disguised as a car and wait for the others while evading the secret government agency Sector 7 and two evil Decepticon robots voiced by Angela Bassett (STRANGE DAYS) and Justin Theroux (MIAMI VICE).
But that’s all going on in the midst of a teen movie centering on Charlie Watson (Hailee Steinfeld, 3 DAYS TO KILL), who has just turned 18 and has been going through some shit ever since her dad (Tim Martin Gleason) died suddenly an unspecified few years ago. She resents that her mom (Pamela Adlon, THE ADVENTURES OF FORD FAIRLANE) has a dorky new husband (Stephen Schneider, 2012: SUPERNOVA), she fights with her little brother Otis (Jason Drucker, BARELY LETHAL) and gets into it with mean girls like Tina (Gracie Dzienny) and hunky asshole Tripp Summers (Ricardo Hoyos, Degrassi: The Next Generation) who embarrass her while she’s working at Hot Dog on a Stick. Not necessarily unrelated, her favorite band is The Smiths.
And then she brings home this Volkswagen Bug she wants to fix up because it’ll be better than the Eddie Furlong dirt bike she drives around on, but the fuckin car turns out to be a robot in disguise. So we have an E.T. or IRON GIANT type situation where she keeps him a secret and they have an unusual intergalactic friendship.
Charlie is the one who gives Bumblebee his name and helps him learn to communicate after his vocal cords are pulled out by an evil jet fighter robot. She repairs him and protects him from the military and he tries to help her with her emotional troubles. It’s legitimately cute, especially when the whole strained but loving family come together to help when she gets mixed up in the whole robot war and all that.
John Cena (12 ROUNDS) plays the Sector 7 agent who witnesses Bumblebee crash land on earth and becomes his Tommy-Lee-Jones-in-THE-FUGITIVE. This time he’s not able to use his humor enough to liven a fairly generic character, but he does end up having a nice little arc, and if they ever make another present day TRANSFORMERS I hope they have him in old man makeup.
I just read that one of the other agents is supposed to be John Turturro’s character, famous for getting peed on by Bumblebee in the Bay movie. Also TV’s Hunter himself, Fred Dryer, plays the sheriff.
BUMBLEBEE did get more laughs out of me than the entire rest of the series – intentional ones, at least. The jokes are mostly silly, but without Bay’s edge of cruelty. When they try to avenge a mean girl by t.p.ing her house and Bumblebee completely destroys her BMW, the joke is “oh shit Bumblebee, you have gone way too far,” as opposed to the scene in REVENGE OF THE FALLEN where he sprays anti-freeze in a girl’s face before we know she’s an evil robot and the joke is “give me five bro, you burned that bitch’s face!”
Unsurprisingly considering the background of director Travis Knight, this is more of a showcase of character animation than the other movies – acting through movements and gestures, as well as cool moves and poses during the battles. Although I’m a little unsure how the soldier robot we saw voiced by Dylan O’Brien (AMERICAN ASSASSIN) at the beginning became this goofball stumbling through life on Earth, they really made him the funny, lovable character we were supposed to take him as before.
These robots are much easier to make out than in the previous movies, and for my tastes they just look cooler. They left Bay’s hyper-detailed machinery in the joints and innards, but with enough solid car body shell to create an appealing shape that looks like a character instead of just a bunch of crap piled up on a bunch of crap wrapped in layers of a bunch more crap. In this one I stare at the robots because I like looking at them, not because I’m trying to figure out what it is I’m looking at.
The previous movies seem like dozens of unrelated ideas thrown into the air and then scooped up in a dustpan and crumpled together in whatever order they landed in, so it’s weird to have a TRANSFORMERS that feels like they spent time thinking about the emotions and the meanings of everything.
Watching movies during the first holiday season since my mom died really stirred up the ol’ emotions. All the sudden I realized how many movies have characters grieving the loss of parents. MARY POPPINS RETURNS got me real bad, but even this fuckin Hasbro production may or may not have gotten a couple tears out of me with its dead dad story. The sentiments probly won’t hit you like they did me, but I think they really did a good job fitting together Charlie’s befriending of a robot car and trying to find herself after losing a father she was very close with.
Charlie is some kind of auto-mechanic prodigy. She hangs out at her grumpy uncle (Len Cariou, PRISONERS)’s scrapyard trying to find parts for the ’59 Corvette convertible she’s been struggling to restore back at home. We learn that this is important to her because it’s the unfinished project she spent hours in the garage helping her dad with. She sees the car as her father’s legacy and probly doesn’t realize that all her car repair skills fulfill that role already.
So when she finds this Beetle, gets it running, then finds out the fuckin thing is alive, it’s pretty loaded. It’s the adult independence of vehicle ownership, the continuation of the hobby she shared with her dad, and a new male figure in her life, all wrapped into one living being. Bumblebee’s not a surrogate father – he acts more like a bumbling kid – but after seeing a video of Dad supporting her diving, something she recently quit, he takes up the role of encouraging her.
Her dad’s record collection is still in the garage. From what Charlie says, sounds like his Sam Cooke record spoke to his emotions the way The Smiths speak to hers. She says he joked about playing the song to make the cars they were repairing feel better. So he taught her to anthropomorphize vehicles.
Dad modeled the importance of music to Charlie, and Charlie passes it on to Bumblebee. She puts different cassette tapes in his deck, trying to find music that he can connect with. After she fixes his radio he literally speaks through music, tuning to different stations to find the lyrics he needs. I love that this movie finds something kind of moving in a gimmick I simply found annoying and hard to follow in the other movies.
There’s also a TV and VCR in the garage, and Bumblebee takes a liking to THE BREAKFAST CLUB. There are a couple other tapes, I think I missed what at least one of them was, but there was definitely a copy of THE BIG CHILL. I like that because it’s not a cool ’80s reference, instead it’s a suggestion that they would play movies while working together – teen drama for daughter, Boomer nostalgia for dad.
And oh shit – Gen X nostalgia is so much more juvenile than that yuppie stuff. There are definitely some cherry-picked ’80s pop culture references here – the family eats Mr. T Cereal, for example. I’m sure there are tons of anachronisms (“It Takes Two” by Rob Base & DJ E-Z Rock came out in the summer of ’88, you monsters!), and just as in Stranger Things I have a hard time believing that her neighbor Memo (Jorge Lendeborg Jr., star of THE LAND) would own a pristine one sheet of John Carpenter’s THE THING. But at least the reference has further meaning, being a story about an alien hiding among us. Same goes for the inclusion of ALF as a family bonding ritual that broody Charlie doesn’t participate in.
The soundtrack goes full on ’80s, but not curated cool ’80s like ATOMIC BLONDE. They got Bon Jovi, Duran Duran, Steve Winwood, Simple Minds, A-Ha, Tears For Fears and yes, part of “The Touch” by master of montage rock Stan Bush, originally composed for COBRA, but used in TRANSFORMERS: THE MOVIE and covered in BOOGIE NIGHTS. Since getting an Academy Award nomination for her role in TRUE GRIT, Steinfeld has also become a successful pop singer, and she has a song on the end credits. Good for her, but man, this would’ve been a uniquely perfect movie for a new Stan Bush inspiration-rock anthem. A motivational ode to Charlie, maybe with lyrics about “diving in” to a challenge, something kinda along these lines:
Knight clearly grew up in the ’80s and has a love for the period – and for Transformers – that Bay did not. That is not to say such a thing was required, but it is striking to at this late date see the first TRANSFORMERS movie to evoke nostalgia by showing robot characters that are recognizable as their cartoon and toy counterparts. Kind of a genius move to burn the whole series into the ground before giving people what they came looking for in the first place.
Bay’s first TRANSFORMERS was in 2007. Kinda seems like longer ago. I reviewed it for The Ain’t It Cool News, raging against its groundbreakingly indecipherable action and robot designs, a stance that made me kind of a pariah to many of the readers there. When I reviewed REVENGE OF THE FALLEN in 2009 I compared it to BATMAN AND ROBIN and that did not go over well either. Although I have never gone back to rewatch any of them my feelings toward the series have softened overtime. I still watched DARK OF THE MOON (2011), AGE OF EXTINCTION (2014) and THE LAST KNIGHT (2017) and although I couldn’t tell you without reference material which one is which or what order they came in, I can tell you that at some point the action clarity was greatly improved and I began to better appreciate their brain damaged excess.
Then Paramount started looking at Marvel and Star Wars and getting big ideas. In June of 2015 they officially convened a “Transformers story room.” According to this Forbes article from the time, that meant “a team of writers and sometimes producers brought together with the singular purpose to create interconnected product within the guidelines of an intellectual property’s fictional world.” The team included Zak Penn (LAST ACTION HERO, X-MEN 2-3), Art Marcum & Matt Holloway (PUNISHER: WAR ZONE, IRON MAN), Robert Kirkman (creator of The Walking Dead comic book), Andrew Barrer & Gabriel Ferrari (ANT-MAN AND THE WASP), Lindsey Beer (SIERRA BURGESS IS A LOSER), Ken Nolan (BLACK HAWK DOWN), Geneva Robertson-Dworet (TOMB RAIDER, CAPTAIN MARVEL) and Hodson, with Akiva Goldsman (the aforementioned BATMAN AND ROBIN) in charge. They studied the history of the Transformers products to create a Transformers Universe timeline introduced in THE LAST KNIGHT’s convoluted new backstory that seemed to set the table for the up-to-fourteen potential spin-offs the group had planned. It tied Autobots and Decepticons to everything from King Arthur to Harriet Tubman, and showed Bumblebee fighting Nazis in World War II.
But THE LAST KNIGHT was the lowest grossing of the series, Goldsman left, and I imagine the future of the expansion plans is uncertain at best. It amuses me that what might be the only film to come out of all that ambition contradicts their timeline, making this clearly the robots’ first visit to our humble planet. Sorry everybody, Bumblebee didn’t really kill any Nazis. I propose making up for that with a BUMBLEBEE 2 that’s a loose remake of BEST OF THE BEST 3.
But the wavering franchise plans are good for the story. In the end (THAT MEANS ENDING SPOILER) BUMBLEBEE stays true to the E.T. template. Charlie knows that for the safety of her friend and for her own personal growth she has to say goodbye and send him on his way. Especially after that awkward attempt at the Transformers Cinematic Universe, it’s almost shocking to get to the end of the movie and realize that they intend this to be the whole story, that we won’t have another movie about Charlie. I actually felt a little sad about it before thinking “Oh yeah, that’s what movies used to be.” And if Charlie can learn to go on living after her father and after Bumblebee, then surely we can accept a world with only the one good TRANSFORMERS movie.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.