Bumblebee did not blow me away.
That’s an inside joke. Richard Propes told me he liked to publish his annual Year in Review around the start of the following year, in case something surprised him in the final hours. Journalistically, this is the right idea and one I usually follow. This year, I published mine on December 19. I was in the mood. Kidding around, I said maybe I’d regret it, that Bumblebee would blow me away.
The joke was that the live-action Transformers franchise has been almost uniformly terrible since its inception in 2007. Turns out the joke was on me: Bumblebee didn’t blow me away, and it’s nowhere near my Top 10, but it’s a pretty good time at the movies and the first time the Spielberg-produced series of action-adventures actually feels like one of his 1980s coming-of-age classics.
Hailee Steinfeld stars as Charlie, a 17-year old living in California during the late 1980s. She’s the prototypical teen movie outcast. She loves the Smiths, argues with her mom, has trouble fitting in because of her family’s low income. She’s also a gearhead. If the movie had been made three decades ago, she’d have been the idealized love interest. Hell, when this movie was made one decade ago Megan Fox played the same basic character and was legendarily mistreated by Michael Bay and his camera. But in 2018, Charlie gets to be the hero, and she’s a big step above Shia LaBeouf.
Charlie falls into the war between Autobots (the Good Transformers) and the Decepticons (the Bad Transformers) when the heroic Optimus Prime sends one of his deputies, B-127, to scout out a hideout on Earth. B-127 is followed by a Decepticon and his vocal module is ripped out in the ensuing battle, resulting in him becoming mute and incapacitated. It’s not until Charlie discovers him in VW Bug form at a scrapyard that their adventure together begins. Soon the movie turns into a slightly less thoughtful version of The Iron Giant.
Whereas Transformers (2007) was a boy-and-his car story by way of Bay mayhem, Bumblebee leans fully into the genre, focusing more on Charlie and her relationship with Bumblebee. The series that started in 2007 was effectively killed by the poor box office of the heinous Transformers: The Last Knight last year, but it’s apparent Bumblebee was in development well before that happened. Elements of the movie act as direct prequel to the series started a decade ago, but creative editing and post-production CGI sequences make it clear that Paramount and Allspark Productions intend on taking the series in a new direction. Good.
It helps that the producers finally hired two people with some self-control to handle their film. Screenwriter Christina Hodson produces characters who don’t feel like fools, murderers or pin-ups, and director Travis Knight (of Laika, the studio behind Kubo and the Two Strings) is patient enough with his camera that he finds subtle humor and coherent action. Knight also brings a lot of physical humor to the movie. At first it feels disorientingly low-key after five movies of explosions and vulgarity, but Knight’s smart enough to find pleasure in, say, Bumblebee being trapped in a suburban home, doing his best not to break anything. Or Bumblebee and Charlie standing on a beach, talking about how to effectively hide. When the action does expand in scope, Knight never loses track of his characters. There’s a lot of sweetness here.
With actual characters and the patience to follow them, why didn’t Bumblebee blow me away? I’ll be honest: most of the Amblin movies don’t do it for me, and it’s probably a generational thing. I’m curious to see how fans of Spielberg’s classic work feel about it. Those who have been waiting decades to see the classic Transformers characters on screen will likely be pleased by sequences set on Cybertron, and with glimpses of classic Transformers visual cues. Whether the rest of this lands with audiences is something I can’t quite track. I hope so.
It’s notable that that without Star Wars, Christmas in 2018 is split between four major releases: Bumblebee, which caters to ‘80s nostalgia; Mary Poppins Returns, which caters to ‘60s nostalgia; Aquaman, which feels embedded in a ‘90s aesthetic of excess; and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, a movie that captures our present decade’s relationship with pop icons like nothing before. Last year’s The Last Jedi was so averse to catering purely to nostalgia that it’s created an entire subculture online of young men who just bitch about it all the time. This year there is something for everyone, no matter what decade of entertainment they’re determined to visit on Christmas. Nothing that will make my Top 10, but mostly suitable entertainment nonetheless.