Saturday, December 8, 2018

Downshifting: BUMBLEBEE

I can't blame Paramount for wanting to scale back and rethink their fading Transformers franchise. After five films from Michael Bay, the movies were inextricable from his auteur personality, for better and worse. Since his agreeably bombastic boy-and-his-car 2007 kickoff, they reliably served up colossal mountains of Bayhem, some of the most spectacular and sensational (quite literally) Hollywood can concoct, but in the service of a tangled nonsense mythology that got harder to parse by the minute. (Not to mention the whiplash plotting, tone-deaf gags, and self-conscious leering that oozed into the worst entries.) In fact, Bay's films became so convoluted in their world-building that I can't honestly tell you if the newest entry, a 1980s-set feature entirely focused on the scrappy yellow Bumblebee, is a prequel, retcon, or (in the immortal words of one David S. Pumpkins) its own thang. Regardless, the robots are part of it, and the opening warfare on planet Cybertron makes clear you're going to have to care about it in order to care about the narrative thrust of the movie that sends a wounded Bumblebee to hide from Decepticons on planet Earth while waiting for his Autobot pals to rescue him. It's familiar territory, but done in a smaller and (slightly) quieter style with director Travis Knight (Laika founder and Kubo and the Two Strings helmer) and screenwriter Christina Hodson out to make it a blatant character-based throwback. That the bulk of the movie is taken up by the cute yellow Transformer voiceless and hiding as a VW bug in the garage of a sad teen mechanic (Hailee Steinfeld) is just evidence this brand of Transformers movie is softer and cuddlier than the clattering junkpiles Bay enjoyed so much. Sure, one or two humans may get liquified and a couple robots are speared and dismembered, but this is trying its hardest to be consistently human-scale, even as its pro-forma plot devices and emotional tricks have only synthetic heart. 

It's not just tone and scale that've been brought down to size for Bumblebee. The design of the robot is rounded and playful, more toy-like in its conception, and with a crisp-lines, simple-movements appeal of a Saturday morning cartoon. He's discovered by the teen as she's dealing with a big emotional trauma -- the sudden death of her beloved father in the recent past, and now her mother (Pamela Adlon) has been seeing a dopey, well-meaning new boyfriend (Stephen Schneider). Now, wouldn't you know it, the young woman and the little Transformer who could just might bond and help each other heal and grow. They might even save the world while they're at it. That's the idea, anyway, as this movie, borrowing heavily from E.T. and The Iron Giant, albeit without the convincing alien character work, creates an agonizingly predictable hiding-the-robot and learning-his-secrets teen dramedy cross-cut with a soldier (John Cena) and a scientist (John Ortiz) hot on the space invader's trail. It's anchored by Steinfeld, as winning as ever, whose charming screen presence can only sell so much of this nonsense. She's as good as in True Grit or Edge of Seventeen, but the material lets her down. It's as technically slick as anything the studios can pay for -- the craftspeople are doing their best -- but there's no there there stylistically. The comedy is flat, the drama is underwritten cliche, and the incessant oldies soundtrack tries its best to gin up nostalgic goodwill (the Guardians of the Galaxy trick for injecting personality in scenes that otherwise wouldn't play as well). It's full of likable character actors allowed a modicum of enjoyable moments -- I particularly liked Cena questioning his commander's trust in an evil robot by pointing out that they call themselves the Decepticons -- but the movie so obviously clunks its way through obvious beats and schematic development, ending at the same fireworks factory these things always do with half the resources and even less to impress. Say what you will about the Bays, but at least they were, at their worst, interestingly bad.

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