BUMBLEBEE. (As Optimus would say.) Set in the late 80's this is the origin story of the best Transformer character, and how the group of Transformers established their base on Earth. The main character is 18-year-old Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld) and the movie is essentially what you might imagine if someone attempted to combine Michael Bay with John Hughes.
|Directed by Travis Knight. He brings genuine sweetness to this bizarre friendship. Better writing and this could've been a top film.
From moment one I was wowed by two things: First how unmistakably EIGHTIES it looks. The first shot is of a city on the Transformer home planet of Cybertron, and that's not something that's necessarily 80's, so how loudly it screamed 80's made me extremely happy as a fan of the era. The only thing that really fails the 80's tone is the characters, but I'll get to that. I was pleased as punch by the song choices and the fashion, and even the plot took some cues from fare of the era. Yes, they played Tears for Fears' most known song, but they played Tears for Fears. And The Smiths. And Take On Me by Aha. I was all for it.
The second thing to wow me was the design of the Transformers. They are much simpler and more clearly visible than the shiny mess they are in the Bay films. They're distinct, recognizable, and still fit in with the other movies. When they transform it gives you the impression that you can almost tell how the mechanics work, and when they fight each other you can tell who's who. The next best choice the movie made is to have the main conflict of the story be only between Bee and two Decepticons. No huge mishmash or trying vainly to figure out what "that one's" name is (though there's plenty cameos for the fans). I also appreciated how Bumblebee himself was the MacGuffin. He's the thing everyone's looking for, AND an actual character at the same time.
|Haha I just saw that Dylan O'Brien voices Bee (for the brief time he has a voice) I KNEW he sounded familiar!
From there, things spiral down a bit. I get the appeal of the Bay films; nothing looks like them, and certainly not this, as nice as it looks. But while this flick finds satisfactory replacements for "the Bay" in the look by setting it in the 80's, it also seeks to be a coming-of-age teen flick in the style of John Hughes -- most obviously, specifically Sixteen Candles -- and in that, it seems oddly misguided and distracted by what it must perceive to be modern boxes to tick. The tirade that is to proceed may seem a bit like nit-picking, but it really does bring the movie down a notch or two with its sadly degrading persistence.
Charlie is quite a good character and her tom-boyishness makes her fit into the world of fighting-robots-that-can-turn-into-cars excellently. She's likable and easy to cheer for but has a nice, frustrated edge. Literally every character that surrounds her is a degradation. Her oblivious mom, her idiot of a step-father, a brat brother, and worst of all, a neighbor who has crush: Memo (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.) Today, a geek is the coolest thing you can be, but you'd never know it watching this pathetic excuse for a character. Beta-male, stumbling over himself, completely accepting of his position on the absolute bottom of the food chain. Think Anthony Michael Hall in Sixteen Candles but with no self-confidence and never tries.
|She's so effortlessly The Best™.
It was as if they had a good side-kick character written, but because GIRLS can't lead movie or something, they had to destroy him, to be sure he never overshadows her. Dumb, because Hailee Steinfeld won't even let the likes of Jeff Bridges overshadow her. I honestly can't remember anything helpful this kid does. Several times they make it a joke how useless he is. It isn't funny, and he drags Hailee down with him. Weirdly, there's a "hot dude" that she interacts with a couple times (think Jake of Sixteen Candles) but I could never figure if we were supposed to like him or not. He hangs out with the Mean Girls, but seems a friendly guy when he talks to Charlie.
Instead of the story pursuing this guy as romantic interest on the side (as cliche as it might be, it matches the 80's theme perfectly) it stubbornly shoehorns in Memo at every opportunity, only to sideline him for a laugh. The actor seemed perfectly capable of playing a fun, cool geek in the same vein, but the script goes out of its way to emasculate him and turn him into a useless, irritating punchline. And while he's clearly interested in Charlie, she friendzones him brutally. I'm all for a good friendship, but they set up romance here; only to swat it away when payoff time came.
|Looking at him you wouldn't think it, right? He looks cool. They should've cast a more waify actor, OR let this guy be normal! (Or cut him completely!)
Speaking of payoff, both Charlie and Bee have these moments where things built up in their characters come to fruition. Normal character arc stuff, you know? Bee's is a cute running joke that pays off into a surprisingly sweet moment; and Charlie's is an issue she struggles with the whole film, that lends her a lot of character depth and feels very unique in itself and I was compelled easily by it -- until the payoff moment, when it becomes completely irrelevant to the plot and feels weirdly anti-climactic. I still appreciate its inclusion, but it was disappointing that they couldn't find a better way to bring it back around.
Action was pretty good. The opening sequences were super engaging, but I did find myself zoning out during some of the later fights. Still they were staged sensibly and don't forget to bring emotional weight to the battle. Overall an excellent time at the theater, but I was surprised how hard the awful side characters hit the bottom line. They distracted me from the good, and there's a lot of good. Hailee Steinfeld has real chemistry with a CGI robot and it's genuinely sweet. The movie has a lot of fun with its 80's setting, and the plot holds together to the end, despite boring side scenes featuring villains and John Cena (who's actually the third best character to Charlie and Bee).
|Because of them the movie shines.
I wish they'd given the side characters a bit more TLC and ultimate likability, or else just cut them altogether and focused more on Charlie and Bee's wonderful dynamic. When they're together the movie clicks, and in those moments, the Michael Bay and John Hughes amalgamation works unexpectedly well. Bumblebee, even at the disadvantage of occasional misguided writing, is still easily the best of the Transformer franchise. So far; the door is now open wide for better things to follow.