Wednesday, December 26, 2018

"Bumblebee": two-paragraph review

I saw the very first Transformers movie when it had originally come out in 2007. I've seen none of the Michael Bay films since that first one, mainly because the preview trailers and ensuing movie reviews convinced me that each successive movie was bigger, louder, and stupider, often with incoherent storylines. With 2018's "Bumblebee," the scope and scale of this robotic action-adventure series have been pared down to a simple story along the lines of "E.T." or "The Iron Giant," the two movies with which "Bumblebee" is being most frequently compared. Directed by Travis Knight (of the fantastic and deeply moving "Kubo and the Two Strings"), "Bumblebee" is the story of Autobot B-127, a fighter in the civil war against the evil Decepticons. The war on planet Cybertron has tilted in favor of the Decepticons, and Autobot leader Optimus Prime, aware of the need to abandon Cybertron, sends B-127 to Earth to prep the planet as a staging area for the next step in the robots' civil war. The one problem is that the Decepticons must not learn that any Autobots are coming to Earth: such information would mean the end of the Autobots and, very likely, the end of all human life. But some Decepticons are already in the area; one of them—Blitzwing—ambushes B-127 on Earth, ripping out his voice modulator and crashing his memory core before B-127 manages to destroy Blitzwing. Damaged and in need of self-repair, B-127 transforms into a VW Beetle and ends up in a junk shop run by the uncle of teenager Charlie Watson (Hailee Steinfeld). Charlie's father died of a heart attack some time ago, and she's still suffering the aftereffects of that death. Meanwhile, Charlie's mother and little brother Otis seem to have moved on, and Charlie's neighbor Memo (Jorge David Lendborg, Jr.) is quietly pining for Charlie. Uncle Hank eventually gives the VW Bug to Charlie as a birthday gift, and it's not long after that that Charlie discovers her new car is actually a Transformer. Meanwhile, a military team called Sector 7, led by Colonel Jack Burns (John Cena), has picked up signs of extraterrestrial activity and is now pursuing Bumblebee—Charlie's nickname for B-127—with the help of two Decepticons who have come to Earth in response to Bumblebee's inadvertent broadcast of a homing beacon. The object of the game thus becomes threefold: (1) get Bumblebee to a safe rendezvous with fellow Autobots, (2) convince the US military that the Decepticons are the true enemy, and (3) prevent the local Decepticons from broadcasting the message to Cybertron that the Autobots are planning to mass on Earth.

"Bumblebee" takes place in 1987, which is the year I graduated from high school. For lovers of 80s nostalgia, especially when it comes to music, this movie is a treasure trove. Without his voice modulator, Bumblebee must find other ways to communicate with Charlie, and he uses a built-in car radio to broadcast songs whose lyrics express his sentiments. Even though I'd generally rather forget the 80s, which I consider a largely embarrassing decade in terms of music and fashion, that's the decade of my most formative years, so I couldn't help but be transported back in time while listening to this movie's soundtrack. The movie skips along at a steady pace and keeps its focus narrowed to just a few human characters, B-127, and the two surviving Decepticons who serve as the story's antagonists. Viewed through a political lens, the movie is brave enough to take the stance that, yeah, every once in a while, the military guy is right about there being an outside threat, and the leftie science geek who serves as the film's "useful idiot" gets what he deserves because he fails to recognize a threat when it's right in front of him. I give "Bumblebee" full props for its overall storytelling, but there were some moments of sloppy screenwriting that could have been resolved with an extra line or two of dialogue. Two examples: (1) Charlie's mom, not knowing that Charlie's VW Beetle is actually a Transformer, takes the family dog and drives the car toward the vet until Charlie catches up on her moped and demands that her mother pull the VW over. The mom does this and scoots over; Charlie then climbs into Bumblebee and drives everyone to the vet... but what becomes of Charlie's moped, which was left stranded on the roadside? (2) There's a moment when the military guys from Sector 7 have Charlie, Memo, and Bumblebee surrounded. Perceiving the threat to Charlie, Bumblebee protectively scoops her up like a robot King Kong and springs away from the cordon, running through the woods in an effort to keep Charlie from harm. But what about poor Memo? It doesn't help matters, in terms of racial politics, that Memo is black. Save the white girl and abandon the black guy, eh, B-127? Charlie could have shouted something to Bumblebee like, "Wait! We can't leave without Memo! We have to go back!" But, no—not a peep from Charlie, who basks in her white privilege as Bumblebee whisks her to safety. Heh. Seriously, I don't often try to read things through a racial lens, but this scriptwriting gaffe was a bit of irresistibly low-hanging fruit. Those problems aside, I found "Bumblebee" to be a movie with feeling. It brought the nostalgia, even for an 80s-hating hardcase like me, and it told its story with the sort of streamlined efficiency that's largely absent from most of Michael Bay's oeuvre. Bay is listed as an executive producer on this film; that's about as close as he should be allowed to get to the Transformers franchise, which now has a new lease on life thanks to what I assume is an attempt at a reboot.

ADDENDUM: I never explained what a Transformer actually is. It's basically a living, sentient robot that's able to change itself into another sort of machine—usually a car, plane, helicopter, or truck. Here's a classic example:

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