Bumblebee opens with an extended action sequence on Cybertron, home of the Transformers, as the Autobots battle the Decepticons for supremacy of the planet. As fans already know, the Autobots will lose and call for a retreat, sending our titular hero, B-127 (Dylan O’Brien), to Earth. The purpose of the scene is largely narrative context, but it also serves as a striking letter of intent. Familiar characters like Arcee are briefly glimpsed while Optimus Prime runs around and grapples with Decepticons, and the film’s use of G1 designs—that is, the designs my generation grew up with in the 80s—is a shock to the system after five live-action films directed by Michael Bay. From the look of Cybertron, to the colors and sound design, to the way the action moves, Bumblebee is a noticeably different franchise outing, immediately setting itself apart by feeling like the live-action adaptation of the original Hasbro cartoon, The Transformers, fans have been craving.
But the film also occupies a strange place between a prequel and a reboot, partly owing to changes during the production and reshoots. Bumblebee is hamstrung by connections to Bay’s films; it awkwardly and unnecessarily sets up details that will lead directly into Transformers (2007), and despite the influence of G1 aesthetics, the Transformers also maintain some consistency with their previous iterations. This is most noticeable in the highly expressive, emotive faces of characters like Shatter (Angela Basset) and Dropkick (Justin Theroux), replete with individually detailed teeth, recalling the busy, over-designed mechanical mess of Bay’s franchise. There are even moments that directly recall scenes from the previous films, and in particular, brief moments of violence that echo Bay’s bloodthirst, moments that are tonally at odds with Bumblebee’s more sincere Saturday morning cartoon sensibilities.
As such, this is not quite the Transformers film fans may have wanted, even if it gets part way there. Bumblebee would have been a stronger film had it been allowed to stand more firmly on its own as a reboot (alas, Bay remains as a producer on Bumblebee, alongside Steven Spielberg, who has produced every live-action Transformers film to date). But screenwriter Christina Hodson and director Travis Knight have brought their own creative vision to the franchise, centering the action around Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld), effectively re-purposing the story of the 2007 film and filtering the franchise’s themes through a female protagonist. They also bring a nostalgic reverence for the original Hasbro toys, cartoons and comics, imbuing their film with the same cartoon simplicity.
Bumblebee has heart, even if it’s still a formulaic blockbuster. It has just enough character work to justify the robot action, and just enough robot action to satisfy the genre. Quiet, tender character moments eventually give way to a rock ‘em sock ‘em third act in which the safety of the entire planet is predictably at stake. There’s a subplot involving Charlie’s past as a champion diver that figures into the action in all the most obvious ways. The drama is often more functional than genuinely emotional, but again, it’s enough to satisfy the genre. It works because of Steinfeld’s committed performance, and the wonderful animation that brings B-127 to life. It works because Hodson and Knight maintain just enough focus on Charlie’s emotional well-being that it drives the action, instead of getting lost amidst the sprawling battle for Earth and Cybertron. It works, surprisingly, because of the film’s nostalgia, of its love and fondness for the Transformers property.
Pandering to nostalgia is par for the course in Hollywood, but doing so to course correct a misguided film franchise makes Bumblebee an interesting case study. Make no mistake, many of the film’s 80s pop culture references are obnoxious. Some of them are better integrated into the story than others, but no matter how well they work—and a dramatic moment near the end of the film that sees Bumblebee appropriating The Breakfast Club, like he does radio stations to communicate via song samples, got a huge laugh from my audience—the film’s narrative beats still feel more calculated than organic. It’s the nostalgia for Transformers specifically, however, that provides the film an avenue to rebuke Bay’s efforts. Hodson and Knight understand the Transformers franchise, understand what fans like about it, and effectively pander to reconstruct the franchise in opposition to Bay’s legacy.
This is not a question of finding the franchise’s heart again, but recognizing that, as a corporate property designed to sell toys to kids, it never had one; the heart comes from individual artists who bring passion to their work, from the kids who grow up loving the toys and cartoons. Over the years, Transformers became a part of our childhoods, our culture, our identities. Hodson and Knight gamble, cleverly and perceptively, that for a franchise like Transformers, nostalgia is the heart. And they wield it like a weapon, honing the material down to its basics (Charlie and Bumblebee, kids and their toys; the power of fantasy), removing all excess traces of, well, Bay’s excess—the relentless cacophony of cruelty, carnage, jingoism, sexism, racism, and so forth.
But this only works because Hodson’s script smartly centers the action around Charlie. Pandering to nostalgia could just as easily succumb to similar political traps, but a female protagonist provides the franchise with a corrective to the unchecked impulses of Bay’s juvenile and phallocentric art. Previous Transformers films have actually pandered to notions of “girl power,” most clearly in the marketing material for Transformers: The Last Knight, but that film nevertheless remains a vehicle for Mark Wahlberg and the male ego, an ungainly story of manifest destiny that, like every other entry, forces heteronormative romances at every turn. From Autobots playing Homeland Security and committing extrajudicial executions during the opening segments of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, to Stanley Tucci thirsting after Li Bingbing throughout the entirety of Transformers: Age of Extinction, Bay’s films are always desperately looking for something to fuck. Hodson’s script is a direct criticism of the politics of Bay’s art.
I don’t want to get into too many specific details here—that is to say, I will avoid spoilers, since a lot of this hinges on key moments at the end of the film—but the success of Bumblebee is in keeping Charlie’s emotional journey in clear focus. Not simply an object for the camera or a prize for the male protagonist, Charlie is a character with an inner life who makes her own decisions, dealing with problems in her own way and on her own time. Pointedly, there’s a scene involving Bumblebee goading her into doing something, and she decides she is uncomfortable and walks away. And the film acknowledges that this is okay. And even when the film introduces the requisite (heteronormative) romantic love interest, the story subverts expectations. Charlie’s journey is a refutation of assumptions about romance in blockbuster stories. Charlie sets her own terms. The film respects her autonomy and agency.
As a blockbuster, Bumblebee ranks alongside Ant-Man and the Wasp as one of the nicest, kindest films of the year. It’s charming, heart-warming and full of empathy. It’s hardly the best film of the year, but as one of the last big releases this holiday season, it’s a surprisingly welcome and positive note on which to end 2018. And if you, like me, are a Transformers fan who weathered the overwhelming and exhausting storm that was Bay’s quintet of chaos, buying a ticket to Bumblebee constitutes a form of self-care.
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