Bumblebee (2018)

It is exceedingly rare for me to ever abandon a movie-watching project. I will occasionally drag my feet on some of my more daunting endeavors (for instance, it’s been five months since my last entry in my eternally ongoing Roger Ebert Film School series), but fully abandoning something once I’ve started is against my character as a self-flagellating completist. There is one major exception I can think of that contradicts this personal ethos, however: Michael Bay’s Transformers series. After catching a brief glimpse of a giant robot fighting a robo-dinosaur with an enormous sword (or some such exciting frivolity) in the trailer for a late-franchise sequel to Michael Bay’s Transformers, I decided to run through all five films in the series to see what I had been “missing out” on. I abandoned the project after just one movie, genuinely unable to continue. Between the soul-deadening CGI action, Shia LaBeouf’s “Ain’t I a stinker?” mugging, and the endless shots of Michael Bay drooling over Megan Fox’s exposed midriff, the 2007 film Transformers defeated me like no other cinematic monstrosity I can recall. I’m recounting this here to explain why the spin-off Bumblebee is such an unfathomably effective rehabilitation for the Transformers series. I can’t think of a big-budget franchise with a more drastic tonal turnaround that this wholesome, adorable spin-off to a series previously defined by broad, obnoxious machismo & cynical commercialism. I went into Bumblebee defeated by & disgusted with the Transformers; I left wanting to adopt one as a pet & a bestie.

A major factor of this turnaround is the change in creative voices in front of & behind the camera. Michael Bay is still writing (and cashing) checks as a producer on Bumblebee, but directing duties have been passed off to Laika mastermind Travis Knight, whose previous film Kubo and the Two Strings was one of Swampflix’s favorite movies of 2016. Knight’s expertise in animated storytelling is extremely useful in the CGI action sequences of the Transformers brand. The complexity of a sentient robot unfolding & rearranging its various parts to reassemble as a common automobile in these movies is usually sidestepped by making the visual display so bewildering that it’s impossible to coherently nitpick (or even observe) what’s on display. Not only does Knight clear up this visual clutter (once described as a “Cubist” use of CGI by an overzealous critic) with a clarity & simplicity in Bumblebee‘s action sequences; he also enhances them with the heartfelt emotional core that informs Laika’s consistently endearing output. That shift from horny leering & macho fist-pumping to genuine emotional investment in the film’s characters is likely also somewhat due to something never before seen in the Transformers franchise: a female screenwriter, Christina Hodson. Between Hodson’s writing & Knight’s emotive eye, Bumblebee doesn’t even take the time to salivate over the young, exposed body of its main female character (a teenage loner played by The Edge of Seventeen‘s Hailee Steinfeld). That’s a depressingly low bar to clear, but given Transformers‘s track record it’s remarkable all the same. Bumblebee even goes a step further by making that female character the POV-commanding protagonist, so that we care about her thoughts, her emotions, and her personal growth. Go figure.

Steinfeld stars in Bumblebee as an amateur car mechanic in 1980s California whose hobbies include working on a half-finished sports car her father left behind when he passed away & brooding alone to The Smiths instead of engaging with her surviving family. This teenage-brooding crisis turns around when she discovers and fixes up a VW Beetle abandoned in her uncle’s junkyard. What she doesn’t know (but the audience does) is that the Beetle in question is actually an alien transforming robo-species from a distant planet who is damaged & scared. This mismatched pair, the alien robot & the teenage mechanic who adopts it, teach each other strength, confidence, and familial love in a relatively small, contained story that happens to also include a bloodthirsty Cold War American government & a warring alien robo-species who want nothing but to tear them apart & destroy them. The story that unfolds from there is heavily informed by 80s & 90s kids’ movies clichés: resentment over a single-parent’s ability to move on; the big bad government’s stubborn insistence on destroying an adorable creature it doesn’t understand; the same-old 80s high school bully archetypes we’ve seen echoed & parodied into oblivion over the decades, etc. It’s a nostalgic 80s lens that naturally derives from the film’s Spielbergian schmaltz in its story about an E.T.-esque naive creature who needs help from an Earth child to find strength & find a path home. It’s a template that’s been repeated in titles as beloved as The Iron Giant & as lowly as Monster Trucks because, on a basic level, it just works. Even without this franchise’s origins as an adaptation of 80s Hasbro action figures, Bumblebee’s indulgence in 1980s Spielbergian nostalgia (along with tossed-off references to pop culture touchstones like Alf & The Breakfast Club) would still be more than justified, as it’s reinforced with a surprisingly genuine emotional core.

There are plenty of smaller details to praise about Bumblebee: John Cena’s turn as the broad The Marine-esque villain, the endearingly playful 80s pop soundtrack, the oversized emotions conveyed by the titular robot’s gigantic anime eyes, etc. Mostly, though, this film is remarkable for finding such an adorable & heartfelt angle on something that was initially so obnoxiously nasty it appeared fundamentally flawed & irredeemable. When Bumblebee crash-lands into this wholesome 80s kids’ adventure movie from his home planet, it feels like he’s fleeing the intergalactic clutches of Michael Bay’s libido & garishly rendered CGI. We’re as lucky to have him as the teenage loner who discovers him & fixes him up. It’s just too bad we can’t also hug him through the screen ourselves to show proper thanks.

-Brandon Ledet

Transformers (2007)


Two cataclysmic events in my life have lead me to this desperate hour, where I’m considering watching the entirety of the live action Transformers franchise for the very first time. First, I found myself intrigued by the convoluted mythology and grave, self-obsessed tone of the trailer for the upcoming fifth entry, The Last Knight, which is being reported as the final directorial contribution to the series from explosion fetishist Michael Bay. Secondly, I recently fell in love with Bay’s 1998 disaster pic Armageddon as the beautifully constructed, spiritually corrupt Conservative fantasy piece that it truly is. These freaky, reality-shattering occurrences have lead me astray, tempted me into a den of sin. I knew it was wrong to watch Transformers, a transgression I’ve avoided for an entire decade until now, but I did so anyway. I was rightly punished for crossing that line.

matches Armageddon‘s massive runtime and occasionally approaches its attention to heightened visual craft, but it is in no way in the same league as that morally deficient masterwork. At one point a single-scene character shouts, I kid you not, “This is a hundred times better than Armageddon, I swear to God!” They are the worst of liars. The reason that one-liner is worth mentioning is that Transformers is in many ways not an action fantasy piece, but instead the absolute worst designation any film can achieve: a failed comedy. After kicking things off with a little jingoistic Army worship, the film gleefully launches into its true bread & butter: a torrent of shitty, often offensively unfunny “jokes.” Bernie Mac plays a sleazy car salesman who repeatedly yells “Mammy!” in the broadest delivery possible. Characters are made fun of merely for speaking Spanish or Hindi as their first language. Half of the bloated runtime is dedicated to the hilarious idea that the film’s protagonist is interested in fucking Megan Fox, a pursuit the leering camera very apparently identifies with. Once the titular transforming robots show up, they join right in with both the racial caricature and the Megan Fox Is A Total Babe lines of humor. They even add a little scatilogical flavor to the painfully unfunny comedy by pissing on one of the antagonistic G-men who slow down the plot. I’d like to claim that the jokes in Transformers would only appeal to ten year old boys who don’t know any better, but the film pulled in $700 million at the box office, so I guess the joke is ultimately on me for not laughing along.

As someone who regularly enjoys and promotes the sillier, campier end of genre cinema, it goes against everything I believe to say this, but I think Transformers would have been a much better film if it actually took its own ridiculous premise seriously. As a film built around a series of Hasboro toys (shape-shifting robots from a war-ridden planet that hide among us as common automobiles), the film is already wildly goofy enough in its basic DNA that there’s no need to lighten the material with constant, insensitive bro humor. By turning every single narrative beat in the first two hours of the film into a stale joke (Heh, heh. I like it when the black robot says, “This looks like a cool place to kick it.” Heh, heh.) and opting to center its story on the human characters who encounter the robots instead of the titular alien beings everyone paid a ticket to see in the first place, it’s as if Transformers is constantly apologizing for its own existence. Assuming the audience couldn’t possibly want to actually watch the talking robots film advertised on its poster, Transformers dedicates about two thirds of its runtime to watching Shia LaBeouf feebly try to charm the (short) pants off Megan Fox. LaBeouf is convincing as a high school con man here (just as he’s convincing as an adult con man drifter in American Honey), but for some reason we’re asked to identify with his sleazy, insincere ways and laugh at his slimy, immature humor. Megan Fox is . . . less convincing as a small town high school student, but it’s not really her fault that she was cast merely to look supermodel beautiful so Michael Bay could drool at her consistently exposed midriff. Did I mention that she’s hot and a gear head? It doesn’t matter, because she’s not a talking robot alien, which is what most people paid to see.

Full disclosure: I did attempt to watch this Transformers franchise-starter when it was first released about a decade ago, but I couldn’t make it all the way through. The first 50min of the film bored me to tears and when the robots started talking I just found it too goofy and had to abandon ship. I now see how wrong I was. The first hour of Transformers is indeed still a boring humor vacuum, but the talking robots honestly aren’t all that bad. A straightforward sci-fi action film about two Cybertronic races (the Autobots and the Deceptions) fighting for possession of an intergalactic MacGuffin known simply as The Cube and debating in grave, heavy-handed speeches about whether humanity is worth saving (“Humans don’t deserve to live,” “They deserve to choose for themselves!”) doesn’t exactly sound like anything new or unique. In fact, after the Marvel takeover that’s unfolded in the years since this film’s release, it sounds like par for the course for the modern, bloated blockbuster. However, when Transformers leaves LaBeouf & Fox’s “hilarious” nonstarter romance behind for its concluding half hour of nonstop robot battles, it starts to feel like a passable slice of Hollywood entertainment. Careless destruction of property & faceless casualties pile up while Bay matches his robo explosions with a soaring, almost religious orchestral score. I’ve heard the robots’ ever-shifting, impossible transformations in these films described as a form of Cubist art before, which is a little lofty of a critical claim, but actually starts to make sense once the battle gets out of hand. Then, when it’s all over, LaBeouf & Fox make out on the hood of a robot car (which, it’s with noting, is a sentient being), reminding the audience that the film wasn’t always entertaining. In fact, most of it focused on these two dweebs for no discernible reason.

I’d be a liar if I said I didn’t enjoy any of Transformers before that concluding robo-battle. The film’s 80s-obsessed music cues were often pretty funny, especially in comparison to the jokes in the dialogue. The actress who played Shia LaBeouf’s mother, Julie White, was a total charmer in her all-too-brief performance, especially when she joins in in oggling Megan Fox’s hot bod. I even got a laugh out of two (!) Shia LaBeouf one-liners: one where he describes the Autobots as “robots, but like super advanced robots,” and another where he answers his parents’ question, “Why are you so dirty and sweaty?” with “I’m a child.” My biggest laugh in the film, though, was when a cop abruptly tells LaBeouf to shut up, since it’s exactly what I had been thinking for at least the first hour of the runtime. If all the humans of Transformers had just shut up and let the robots do the talking/battling, the film might have actually been entertaining, or at least less painfully embarrassing (it’s especially difficult not to feel bad for Jon Tuturo & Tyrese Gibson here). It’s in the climactic battle when Michael Bay really lets loose. Hundreds of human lives are squashed within minutes without a stray, momentary thought given to their loss. A steering wheel comes to life and eats a Stuck Up Rich Brat’s face. Everything explodes and is ground to dust in a lovingly shot cacophony. It’s too bad that the two hours preceding that cathartic release is embarrassed of its own nature as a Transformers film and buries its talking robots under an insurmountable mountain of ill-considered “comedy.” I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I hope future entries in the franchise take their robo-alien folklore a lot more seriously.

-Brandon Ledet