Hailee Steinfeld in Bumblebee (Photo: Paramount)
** (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Travis Knight
STARS Hailee Steinfeld, John Cena
I suppose after a steady diet of moldy-green, one-month-old bread, even a bite of slightly stale, one-week-old bread would taste delicious.
After beating the world into catatonic submission with one acceptable Transformers flick in 2007 and four atrocious sequels in the decade that followed, Michael Bay has relinquished the director’s chair for Bumblebee, opting instead to only remain on board as one of the myriad producers. To state that the switch provides the series with a breath of fresh air is an understatement, but to state that the picture is in any way a remarkable achievement is absurd. And yet here Bumblebee sits on Rotten Tomatoes with a 93% Fresh score — that’s only one percentage point less than The Favourite and RBG, the same score as First Reformed and Blindspotting, and several points above A Star Is Born and Widows. Say what?
Admittedly, this might say more about the fallibility of RT’s winner-take-all system than anything else, but be that as it may, there is little about Bumblebee that’s worthy of exalted hosannas. Travis Knight, whose major credit to date is the imaginative animated yarn Kubo and the Two Strings, and Christina Hodson, whose major credit to date is the awful Katherine Heigl thriller Unforgettable, have clearly done their homework, not only in walking back Bay’s fascistic tendencies in this franchise but also in adding the sorts of ‘80s sops that automatically cater to a viewer’s nostalgic impulses. Alas, it’s not enough to recommend this to anyone but the diehard fans who are still trying to erase memories of Skids and Mudflap.
The claim that Bumblebee is the first Transformers entry to display any heart is incorrect — indeed, the reason the 2007 film was watchable was because, under the auspices of hands-on executive producer Steven Spielberg, there was a measure of emotion to be found in the relationship between Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) and his pet Transformer, the lovable and bumbling Bumblebee. This ‘80s-set prequel siphons that exact central dynamic. After an opening in which chief Autobot Optimus Snore — excuse me, Optimus Prime (voiced by Peter Cullen) — sends B-127, aka Bumblebee (Dylan O’Brien), to Earth following a disastrous battle against the Decepticons, the focus shifts to Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld), a teenager still reeling from the death of her beloved father. Charlie comes across Bumblebee in his VW Beetle guise, and they quickly become besties. Unbeknownst to Charlie, though, her heavy metal friend is being hunted not only by the Decepticons Shatter and Dropkick (Angela Bassett and Justin Theroux) but also by gung-ho government guy Jack Burns (John Cena).
Bay’s approach to his female characters was best exemplified in 2011’s Transformers: Dark of the Moon, when the helmer elected to establish Rosie Huntington-Whiteley’s character by first zooming in on her 3D-enhanced ass. Knight and Hodson opt to bolt in the other direction, with tremendous respect paid to Charlie and her plight. She’s a winning character, and Steinfeld’s performance nails the right mix of surliness and sensitivity.
Aside from Steinfeld, though, there’s not much here to generate ample enthusiasm — particularly not the sweaty efforts to muster that misty ‘80s ambience. Anytime a new film is set in that decade, out come the filmmaker quotes about how they worked hard to duplicate the magic of Spielberg and his Amblin efforts. But it’s usually a lost cause, since capturing the look and feel of the films from that era is particularly tricky (I suppose J.J. Abrams’ 2011 Super 8 came closest). Bumblebee does a fine job of breaking out the period songs, moving beyond the usual Madonna and Cyndi Lauper (props for employing Duran Duran’s “Save a Prayer” instead of the more expected likes of “Rio” or “Hungry Like the Wolf”), and, oh, look, there’s the obligatory shout-out to John Hughes (in this case, The Breakfast Club). But despite these additions (to say nothing of the large lifts from E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial), the film remains firmly rooted in 2018, from its visual palate to its dialogue (there’s a little brother, but nary a mention of a “duck’s dork”). Even Steinfeld, for all her excellence in the role, never convinces that she’s from anywhere but the here and now.
The action scenes aren’t particularly distinguished, although they do display some sense of coherency that was often missing from Bay’s mashups. In fact, there’s little in this picture that doesn’t represent a step or 12 up from the sorry sequels that followed the original 2007 Transformers. But in this case, “new and improved” isn’t the same thing as “new and worth catching.”