BumbleBee (aka Brighton Falls) review by Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
We can’t judge BumbleBee in the same vein as Michael Bay’s previous Transformers movies, despite being a prequel spin-off. Sure, it shares the same timeline and characters but outside of that, it’s a completely different film. To say it’s better than Bay-formers is an easy victory. Now the film must compete in the new realm of films where teenage kids make friends with an alien from space. And in this genre, the film turns up rather lukewarm.
But, yes, let’s give thanks to director Travis Knight for not making his film as muddy, convoluted, cynical, and aggressive with product placement. He has stripped away all of this needless junk to make way for a simpler story with simpler robot designs that look more like the G1 cartoon and less like mechanical vomit in motion. He has trimmed the cast, relegating the Autobots to one and Decepticons to two when it comes to the main story. He makes the human characters more relatable and less hatable, despite still being a bit cartoonish. In terms of the construction, yes, it’s a better film.
Now, setting all that retooling aside, let’s talk about its finer points. We learn that the heroic Autobot of BumbleBee crash-landed on Earth in 1987 with no memory and no voice, making it difficult to prepare for the coming of the evil Decepticons. He finds a human friend in the teenage automotive prodigy Charlie, played with charming pluck and frustration by Hailee Steinfeld. She’s not popular at school and her family ignores her so she naturally gravitates towards the scared and accidental BumbleBee. Though BumbleBee has lost his memory, he apparently remembers that Autobots are very specific about their 1980s music; they love Stan Bush and hate Rick Astley.
The central conflict of the story is not that interesting and unfortunately falls back into the same bad habits of the saga, despite being relatively trimmed. Visiting Decepticons of Shatter (Angela Bassett) and Dropkick (Justin Theroux) have convinced the American military that they’re the good guys hunting down the evil BumbleBee and gain access to their tech. Their mission is simple: kill BumbleBee and take over Earth, zapping humans along the way. Standard bad robot protocol but with fewer subplots. But it’s going to take more than simplification to be won over by this adventure, especially if it wants us to care a lot about BumbleBee possibly biting the dust.
I gotta give the film points for trying. It wants to be sweet and gentle with the relationship of Charlie and BumbleBee but it feels so underdeveloped the whole cuteness comes off as mechanical, sweeter by design than genuine chemistry. I suppose I should be feeling something when BumbleBee tussles Charlie’s hair or Charlie teaches the robot the fine art of not being seen. But there seem to be a few scenes missing to make that emotion real, where the caress of metal carries a heart with it. It doesn’t help that the supporting players fall into the familiar Bay stereotypes as well, John Cena acting like the meat-headed soldier and Jorge Lendeborg Jr. as the meek nerd who’d really like to ask Charlie out on a date.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m thankful director Travis Knight has steered away from most of the messy Michael Bay model of filmmaking and has constructed something more concrete for a film. Now he just needs to refine this stripped-down model of the Transformers so that the gentle and silly nature for kids carries more effort and not come off like a watered-down Iron Giant.