BUMBLEBEE (2018)

Bumblebee Poster

A sweet, fun, cute movie that sometimes overdoes it on the “awww” factor, Bumblebee really cranks up the nostalgia. The film Bumblebee, directed by Travis Knight and written by Christina Hodson, features tons of explosions and Transformers turning into different planes, trains, and automobiles on the sunny Californian coast. When it’s not busy trying to be a formulaic sci-fi action film, it’s a great film about bonding and friendship.

Set on the coast of sunny California, Bumblebee is a prequel to the other Transformers movies. The film takes us all the way back to 1987 where Bumblebee’s story first began. Our beloved yellow-and-black Autobot hero, known here as B-127, aids Optimus Prime in their defense of planet Cybertron against the Decepticons in a bitter civil war. When the battle starts to look bleak, Optimus Prime sends B-127 to Earth to scout for resources. Optimus Prime himself falls prey to a couple of especially wily Decepticons: Shatter and her sidekick Dropkick.

B-127 being sent to Earth would allow the Autobots to regroup and set up a base for the regrowth of their Autobot forces. Unfortunately, they don’t get that chance. Upon landing on Earth, B-127 is noticed by Jack Burns (John Cena, Daddy’s Home, The Marine) of Sector 7, a secret government military group dedicated to preserving the secrecy of study of all alien life forms on Earth. John Cena is not in the movie a great deal, and his performance is fairly average.

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This is perhaps one of the few drawbacks in Bumblebee. Even though Cena doesn’t get an incredible amount of room to play a more varied performance, he does fine enough with what he has. Performances I especially liked were those of Shatter (Angela Bassett, London Has Fallen, Supernova) and Dropkick (Justin Theroux, American Psycho, Maniac), the two Decepticons who track B-127 to Earth.

As Burns and his team are training in the Californian forest, Burns notices B-127, disguised as a scan of a yellow Willys MB Jeep. B-127 tries to flee, but Blitzwing, a Decepticon, lies in wait for him. As Blitzwing (David Sobolov, Justice League Action Animated series) and B-127 battle it out, with a young B-127 elegantly voiced by Dylan O’Brien (The Maze Runner), B-127 loses his voice and most of his memory core.

Before B-127 blacks out in his fight against Blitzwing, he scans a rusty old VW Volkswagen Beetle for his next transformation and goes into hiding at an old junkyard.

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Charlie Watson (Hailee Steinfeld, True Grit, Pitch Perfect 2), a teen obsessed with working on cars, stops in at the junkyard to scrounge for parts for her parents’ convertible. She is elated to happen upon the unassuming yellow Bug. It is her eighteenth birthday, after all, and all she wants is a car of her own.

Unfortunately, when she discovers the car and arranges to take it from the owner of the junkyard, Hank, she turns on the car and the radio, only to have it emit a signal that the Decepticons hear. The Decepticons, who are torturing Optimus Prime and hear the signal, realize it is coming from Earth and plan to follow it.

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Being somewhat of a regular moody teen, Charlie is distant from her family of her mom, step-dad, and little brother Otis. We soon learn she believes her mom moved on too soon after the death of her father getting engaged to future stepdad Ron. But with Hailee Steinfeld’s tomboyish charm, she proves Charlie to be more multifacted and resourceful than your average whiny, sulky kid. It’s fair to say that Steinfeld has much more acting chops to pull off a fantastic performance than most young actors, given her grace and great presence.

Moreover, Bumblebee is a real trip down memory lane. Featuring a lot of great music (namely, The Smiths are front and center) that I listened to in my youth, it has a lot of laughs, and even a few heartfelt moments.

Hailee Steinfeld was wonderful in True Grit, her performance there garnering her an Oscar nomination, and she certainly has no less game here. This becomes evident when Charlie discovers her new yellow Bug is not what it seems at first glance. The bonding moments between Charlie and her new large yellow friend she dubs Bumblebee is key and oh-so-sweet, even if they might appear a bit corny to some. For me, this movie never overdid it on the sweetness factor. A too-large-for-the-room Bumblebee drifting over to look at Charlie’s record collection full of great 80’s music tugged at my heartstrings a bit. My dad passed away before I turned 18 too, and he too had an epic record collection.

Part of me thinks that having the boyfriend angle was perhaps hopelessly dorky and should have been reworked a bit. But, I thought the relationship between Charlie and her neighbor down the street Guillermo (‘Memo’ for short) was a progressive subject to witness. Her friend Memo is not a white guy. He’s not cracking gross jokes, and their budding relationship was a tasteful friendship blossoming into romance. Given some of the 80’s movies I’ve seen where consensual romance is not a thing, like Sixteen Candles and Pretty in Pink, I’d say Bumblebee did pretty darn good in areas where other teen movies have been problematic.

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In a movie that really gets a chance to keep the conflict a little bit more slow-paced and small-scale, there is a real chance to get to know the characters in a more detailed way than some other movies. This is where I felt the other Transformers movies suffered, and tended to try to make up for it with special effects, in typical Michael Bay fashion. What is the smallest Transformers movie ends up being the one with the most heart, as I never ever remembered there being anything entertaining past a surface level in the other Transformers movies.

Even in the latest with Anthony Hopkins and Mark Wahlberg, there was a shiny veneer of ‘slick action flick’, hoping that they could cover up the lack of a decent plot with two and a half, close to three hours worth of grueling CGI work. Bumblebee gets away with excellence in everything, with really cleanly shot fight scenes between Transformers to boot. This also includes a whole host of the best characters, even though Steinfeld threatens to steal every scene she’s in. Antagonized by the pretty girls and guys at her school, Charlie decides to exact revenge. And the revenge that Bumblebee helps Charlie get on the “mean girl” at her school is, arguably, the funniest scene in the movie.

A little movie with a really big robot with a big heart, Bumblebee reminded me of movies like The Iron Giant and Real Steel: robots making friends with people.

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