By Chris Campo
In Cinemas December 20th
I am under legal obligation under the committee of good taste to reiterate just how much I am irritated by the Michael Bay Transformers series. Collectively, they are probably my most disliked films ever. Just the thought of Age of Extinction makes me want to gouge my eyes out with a rolled up paper towel. They are a lifeless, artless collection of nonsensical storytelling, lazy clichés and stereotypes, unbearable characters and, most famously, incomprehensible action set pieces.
I am also infuriated that audiences still pay bucket loads of money to see this trash, although, to be fair, a giant robot blockbuster does sound irresistible. After the last train wreck that was The Last Knight (I assume, I mustered up the willpower to skip it), Paramount axed Bayformers 6 and instead opted to give us this soft reboot/loose prequel hitting cinemas this holiday season. Maybe they realised if people pay for this, might as well try to make something at least halfway watchable. What we get with the new film, Bumblebee, is more than watchable... it is actually almost remarkable.
Now, I was born in the home stretch of the 1990's, so I missed the Transformers boat by a long shot. I am not sure how this film adapts the classic 80's television show, but as someone who doesn't know anything about the series history (or any plot point from the original five films) I found it easy to jump into this iteration of Autobots and Deceptacons, sometimes quite literally, as we open on Cybertron, their home planet. Here we see our (presumably?) young hero, Bumblebee (Dylan O’Brien), who had orders to visit earth and await the rest of the Autobots in an attempt to hide from the malicious Deceptacons.
Upon arriving, Bumblebee has a run in with Military leader Agent Burns (John Cena), who mistakes Bumblebee as a threat and seeks to destroy him. Bumblebee disguises himself as a Yellow Volkswagen Beetle and flees off to a junkyard just outside San Fransisco to peacefully wait for the rest of his kind to arrive. However, young teen Charlie Watson (Hailee Steinfeld) is gifted the robot in disguise for her 18th birthday. Bumblebee eventually reveals his true form to Charlie and a friendship is born, one so strong that Charlie will risk her life to protect Bumblebee from any threat, be it a giant evil robot, or a giant evil John Cena.
Even from the trailer you could tell this film would be better than its predecessors, but that is not a difficult task and would not be giving this film enough credit. Not without its flaws, some bigger than others, Bumblebee is a fun, crowd-pleasing blockbuster that never puts spectacle before its characters. It’s a film filled to the brim with hope, humour and wonder. It feels ripped straight out of the 80's. It’s part Spielberg and part Hughes, with a dash of modern elements you'd typically expect. Bumblebee is a winning, though familiar, formula. You can find films (and certain Netflix original series) with very similar premises, but you would be hard pressed trying to find a giant-robot-based summer blockbuster with this much emotion and heart.
Most of, if not all, of that heart comes from the bond formed between Bumblebee and Charlie. Hailee Steinfeld gives a layered and rather tragic performance and her chemistry with a mostly mute CGI character is so charming, you feel as if you are watching Elliot bond with E.T. all over again. The humour stemmed from their antics are enjoyable and are sure to have you chuckling, but it's their surprisingly human and heartwarming relationship that fuels the most enjoyable aspects of the movie. Memo (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.) is the only other human character who interacts with Bumblebee, and while the performance is charming, and he brings a few laughs, his placement in this story is pretty predictable and not all that necessary, serving as only a faint romantic interest for Charlie.
Another human character who doesn't fair that well is John Cena's Burns. It's believable enough why Burns hates Transformers, but every time we cut back to his scenes, in which he teams with Deceptacons to destroy Bumblebee, the movie grinds to a halt. Cena is obviously having a blast, but the serious nature of his character’s scenes just don't flow well, and they’re made even worse when they try to inject comic relief into these scenes. All of the villain stuff here is generic and forgettable, but as it drives more attention to the main characters arcs, I can slightly forgive it. Part of me can’t forgive that the 6th Transformers film still has the military needlessly shoved into it, however.
Director Steven Knight has done the impossible - he made me like, if not love, a Transformers film. Sure, Bumblebee a story we have seen countless times, but it’s an effective one, filled with heartfelt writing and fun action. Yes, we finally can see what's going on in one of these damn things, no more shaky-cam CGI clusterfucks. It's a product of the time in which its source material was at its peak, and the filmmakers really pulled it off. It's refreshing both for its franchise and its genre. In a year almost devoid of genuinely engaging blockbuster films, I am shocked we got one in the form of a Transformers film.
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