Dan's Review: "Bumblebee" surprisingly enjoyable
Dec 21, 2018 08:39PM
By Dan Metcalf
Hailee Steinfeld in Bumblebee - © 2018 Paramount.
Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action violence.
Starring Hailee Steinfeld, John Cena, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., John Ortiz, Jason Drucker, Pamela Adlon, Rory Markham, Rachel Crow, Abby Quinn, Gracie Dzienny, Ricardo Hoyos, Kenneth Choi, Stephen Schneider, Len Cariou, (voices of) Dylan O'Brien, Peter Cullen, Grey Griffin, Steve Blum, Andrew Morgado, Kirk Baily, Angela Bassett, Justin Theroux, David Sobolov, and Jon Bailey.
Written by Christina Hodson, based on Hasbro's Transformers.
Directed by Travis Knight.
I know it’s a “first world” problem, but one of my biggest complaints about being a film critic is the occupational hazard of being obliged to watch any more directed by the worst filmmaker I know of (Michael Bay). When I found out there was a Transformers prequel coming, I cringed (understandably) but was somewhat relieved when I discovered that Mr. Bay would not be directing, but would still be producing Bumblebee, an origin story about one of the more popular Autobots in the franchise. Then I found out that the movie would be directed by Travis Knight, who also helmed Kubo and the Two Strings, one of my favorite movies from 2016. Okay, Bumblebee, you have my attention, but you’re still a Transformers movie, so I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt.
The film is set in 1987, as the planet of Cybertron is about to fall to the evil Decepticons. To save their kind, Autobot leader Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen) dispatches his team to other planets, including B-127 (Dylan O’Brien), who travels to Earth where he is assigned to set up a rendezvous point. B-127 crash-lands in a forest where a “Sector 7” paramilitary team led by Jack Burns (John Cena) is training. B-127 is followed by Blitzwing, a flying Decepticon that rips out his vocal processor in a big fight that injures Burns and kills some of his team. B-127 kills the Decepticon, but his memory core and vocal processor are damaged beyond repair. Just before shutting down, he transforms into the nearest vehicle he sees, an older model yellow VW Bug. Meanwhile, Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld) is having a tough time being a teenager, having lost her dad to a heart attack in the past year. She copes with her loss by trying to fix up an old Corvette in her family’s garage. She also has trouble connecting with her mom (Pamela Adlon), little brother Otis (Jason Drucker) and new stepdad (Stephen Schneider). All she wants is a car for her birthday, and she gets her wish when the owner of a salvage yard gives her a beat-up old VW Bug. When she tries to start the car, B-127’s homing signal is activated, alerting Decepticons “Shatter” (Angela Bassett) and “Dropkick” (Justin Theroux) to Earth. When Charlie gets her new car back home, B-127 transforms into a robot and the pair becomes quick friends She also renames him “Bumblebee.” Things get complicated when Shatter and Dropkick show up and commandeer Sector 7’s Earth tech to track Bumblebee, even though Burns doesn’t trust them. When the Decepticons find “Bee” they make plans to kill their prey and signal their army to destroy Earth and wait for the other Autobots show up. Bee, Charlie, and Charlie’s next-door neighbor Memo (Jorge Lendeborg, Jr.) must do all they can to protect Bee and save the Earth from the Decepticons.
Bumblebee is a lot of fun and a fairly good (but not perfect) movie. Its greatest advantage is the absence of Michael Bay’s signature moves, which usually consist of endless slow-motion CGI battle scenes between giant robots, lots of explosions, several preachy/expositional speeches, and a whole lot of heroic posturing. By stripping away all that superficial stuff, Travis Knight and screenwriter Christina Hodson are able to tell a simple story about a girl and her robot car trying to save the Earth and help each other deal with loss.
Yes, there are a few dumb conveniences and absurd twists you’d expect from a movie about talking robots that transform into cars and planes, but it’s much less conspicuous than the cinematic cruelties inflicted on the world by Michael Bay. I believe Bumblebee’s biggest advantage over the other Transformers films is not what’s added, but what’s left out. You won’t find any racial stereotypes, giant robot testicles, giant robot dinosaurs, or any “hot babes” stretched out over muscle cars with lots of skin glistening. Less is more, for sure.
Another advantage for Bumblebee over other Transformers movies is the inclusion of Hailee Steinfeld in the leading role, who brings some heart and humor to a spot usually reserved for a witless placeholder for the CGI centerpieces.
So, I’m glad to say I enjoyed a Transformers movie (for once), and that you don’t have to worry about Michael Bay sucking any of your brain cells or two more hours of your life away. Even better, Bumblebee might finally prove that any movie can improve by simply removing Michael Bay from the director’s seat.