Lukewarm Takes #22 Bumblebee (2018)
Welcome to the first entry in Lukewarm Takes in a long, long time. It’s a column devoted to me catching up with some of the biggest and most important pictures of the past year or two. It was a fixture of the first year of the column, as I caught up with motion pictures like The Force Awakens and Deadpool. In the past year or so, however it’s run less frequently, particularly since Wednesday and Thursdays became the exclusive domain of My World of Flops and Control Nathan Rabin 4.0. My World of Flops is the big focus this year of course and Control Nathan Rabin 4.0 brings in the big bucks and keeps the patrons happy.
Yet I decided Lukewarm Takes was worth bringing back for my longtime perverse fascination with the Transformers movies, which are all three hours of frenzied nonsense, all terrible and all movies I’ve chosen to consume despite not being professionally obligated to do so. I suppose these movies hit my nostalgia sweet spot.
I was a kid during the first wave of Transformers mania. I watched the cartoon and fantasized about buying and playing with the toys and watched the movie in the theater and geeked out that arguably American pop parodist “Weird Al” Yankovic’s best song, “Dare to Be Stupid” was on the soundtrack.
So when I saw that Transformers was coming back under Michael Bay’s direction, I, and the rest of the world, sighed collectively and thought, “Wow, that’s probably gonna suck.” Then we saw that Steven Spielberg was onboard as Executive Producer and thought, “Yeah, it’s probably still gonna suck.”
And you know what what? It did fucking suck. As did all of the Transformers sequels that followed, even the ones that were flamboyantly dumb enough to be enjoyably mediocre, like the one that destroyed Chicago (something that appealed to both my love for movies set in my old hometown and my complicated feelings about Chicago and subconscious desire to see it massacred in a Decepticon bloodbath) and the one that revealed that Harriet Tubman was down with the Transformers, or was a Transformer, or used the Underground Railroad to Transport Optimus Prime or some such offensive nonsense. I’ve seen all these movies. I can’t say I remember them particularly well.
These movies are terrible in ways that I enjoy: loud and excessive in a way that speaks to something vulgar and stupid and pure about the American spirit. These movies are America. That does not speak well of them or us.
For all of their banality and idiocy, these movies provide me enough guilty pleasure to keep me coming back for more: Dreamworks’ deep pockets allowed them to cast some of the best and most beloved character actors and voice actors in the world. John Turturro, Bernie Mac, Robert Foxworth, Tony Todd, Frank Welker, Tom Kenny, John Malkovich, Frances McDormand, Stanley Tucci, Thomas Lennon, John Goodman, John DiMaggio, Steve Buscemi and Ken Watanbe have all lent their talents and time to the Transformers franchise in exchange for money.
If nothing else, the Transformers movies have giant car-robot-monsters from outer space fighting other giant car-robots from outer space. If that’s not the essence of cinema, I don’t know what is.
I am half-assedly committed to watching the Transformers movies no matter how terrible are they are. So you can imagine how excited I was to learn of a Transformers movie that, in a sharp break with tradition, was actually supposed to be good.
A good Transformers movie? What is the world coming to? What’s next, a whole movie based on those Lego building toys for children?
2018’s shockingly non-terrible Transformers spin-off Bumbebee is dedicated to a radical notion: what if a Transformer movie didn’t have to suck? What if it didn’t have to be incredibly stupid? What if it chose not to objectify young women in a leering, obnoxious, dehumanizing way? What if, and this is a REALLY revolutionary conceit, they made a Transformers movie with a Transformer worth caring worth, whose emotional journey is worth no small amount of emotional investment? What if a Transformers movie actually felt like a Steven Spielberg movie, not just a movie Executive Producer Spielberg slaps him name on because they’ve made billions upon billions for Dreamworks?
What if they made a Transformers movie that made you feel all the feels, that was, in its own way, far more emotionally powerful and authentic than the entire oeuvre of John Green, whose work is cheekily referenced here, because this is the kind of Transformers movie that isn’t afraid to reference Green despise taking place in 1987?
Bumblebee re-conceives the Transformers as both a movie very ostentatiously set in the 1980s, AKA the time of my childhood and consequently the best period to set any movie, ever, particularly a movie whose appeal is as nostalgia-based as this, and a movie conceived along the lines of 1980s Steven Spielberg-produced or Spielberg-inspired cult classics about wide-eyed American suburban kids, often children of divorce, having fantastical adventures with fantastical creatures like Explorers, Short Circuit, E.T, Batteries Not Included and the like.
It’s an intentional and affectionate throwback to the creature features of the Reagan era that benefits tremendously from the non-presence of Michael Bay in the director chair. For the first time Michael Bay isn’t the director of a Transformers movie. In a very related development, for the first time a Transformers movie is actually good.
Bumblebee makes a lot of the right decisions, beginning with casting Hailee Steinfeld as Charlie Watson, its plucky protagonist. The True Grit star brings a punky, New Wave, Joan Jett, young Winona Ryder energy to the role of a tomboy with the requisite dead father/daddy issues who becomes the unlikely best friend/protector/ally of Bumblebee, a battle-scarred warrior and soldier whose memory and voice are taken from him when he is nearly killed.
Is it possible for a sassy talking robot car to have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder? If so, then Bumblebee might just have a case of robo-PTSD. Incidentally, Do Sassy Talking Robot-Cars Get PTSD? was supposed to be Philip K. Dick’s follow-up to Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
Bumblebee plays up the war movie element of the Transformers mythology, the idea that these robot car monsters from outer space are proud soldiers immersed in a never-ending war with an unrelenting foe obsessed with their destruction or subjugation. Everything that Optimus Prime says is going to be cheesy because of the character’s stentorian cadences but he’s going to sound least ridiculous in battle or inspirational mode.
Bumblebee kicks off with a melee on Cybertron that introduces Bumblebee as a young, devoted soldier on a brutal, unforgiving battlefield, not the pop-culture dispensing sentient sampler he would later become. Optimus Prime sends Bumblebee to earth to establish a base where he meets Charlie.
In an early indication that Bumblebee will be a very different kind of Transformers movie, our plucky, Goth heroine plays Bumblebee a Smiths song that finally brings the music of Morrissey and Marr into the world of big-budget science fiction blockbusters based on children’s fighting toys.
As a teenaged Smiths fanatic, I was geeked at this glitch in the matrix. I was even more excited to discover that Charlie trying to get Bumblebee, a robot-car monster from outer space, into the music of the Smiths is a running joke that lasts nearly the length of the film.
A Transformers movie obsessed with the Smiths! What a strange and beautiful world we live in! I like to imagine that ALL of the Transformers, Autobots, Decepticons and Dinobots alike are super-huge fans of the Smiths and Morrissey as a solo artist but it only comes up in Bumblebee. I really want a deleted scene where Decepticons Shatter and Dropkick discuss Morrissey’s memoir and whether his racism and Islamophobia should lead him to being cancelled. True, Shatter and Dropkick are both evil robot monsters from outer space but that doesn’t mean they can’t be a little “woke” as well.
Shatter (voiced by Angela Bassett) and Dropkick (Justin Theroux) come to Earth to find Bumblebee and destroy him with the help of the puny man-animals who inhabit the planet. Bassett and Theroux bring an element of real danger to their bad guys: these are evil motherfuckers who think nothing of killing humans and Autobots. But these supremely over-qualified voice actors also bring a dark, malevolent wit to their roles. They look down on humans as an inferior race. They’re not wrong.
The humans in Bumblebee are so stupid, and so ignorant, that it falls upon the film’s most muscle-bound cast-mate, John Cena, to point out that perhaps it would be wise to be suspicious of malevolent robot monsters from outer space known as “Decepticons.” When an alien race’s name comes from “deceit” and “deception” maybe they’re not the most honest or trustworthy robot-monsters around.
Bumblebee is robbed of his voice and his memories and left for dead on planet Earth until he finds his other half in Charlie. In Bumblebee, the title character is a cross between a teenager’s first car, a guileless puppy, a sassy sentient robot with a mind and a soul and a will all his own and an alien a long way from home. He’s vulnerable and child-like, mischievous and loyal. In other words, Bumblebee has more personality, humor and heart in his sole stand-alone spin-off than all of the other Transformers in the five Transformers movies combined. That’s no small feat considering that Bumblebee is a huge part of all of those other movies, which now feel like a sputtering, place-setting warm-up for the first Transformers movie that isn’t a colossal waste of everyone’s time, money and energy.
It took over a decade but they finally made a Transformers movie someone other than idiots can enjoy. Thanks to Bumblebee, “What if a Transformers movie was good?” is no longer a far-fetched thought experiment but rather a glorious reality.
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