Film Review: Bumblebee Rules!
By Jay Armstrong
The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Masters of the Universe are the two closest ink to film adaptions comparative to the experience of Bumblebee. Anyone whose wide-eyed adventurous heart has yet to turn black beneath the wheels of capitalistic costive burdened time bearing existence NEEDS immediately see this in theater.
I am no different from you on Bumblebee. I saw the poster and without exaggeration felt nauseous wondering how many more of these Transformers films would be spewed out before Paramount Pictures would show us mercy. Then the trailer hit and, though not quite optimism, enough nostalgic intrigue stirred up moving me to check it out in theater. Choosing to go in as blind as possible on details of the film, when the lights went down all I could remember seeing in the trailer was John Cena and some hide-and-seek moment on a beach– I second guessed myself once more sitting in front of this film by choice. Bracing myself for the worst, I ignored the opening text determined to know nothing of actors or director of the project with one philosophy in mind; if a film aimed at the Peter Pan spirit within us all is to reach its goal it cannot be diagnosed beforehand by the pieces forming the whole, it must be held like a grilled cheese sandwich on a cartoon Saturday through the eyes of a child caring not that it drips and oozes over both hands needed to hold it to our mouths as tiny bite after tiny bite its happiness of youthful perfection fills our spirit in those seconds where all is right with the world. A philosophy one can only hope would be the gold standard for films with the young as their target audience, no other ambition should be considered. Bumblebee is delicious.
There are only two directors I will never watch another film from; Michael Bay is one of them. With a proud heart I get to write of us now having the optimal chance to compare the difference in choosing a director with passion and understanding source content compared to crunching profit numbers with only the aim of financial returns as happens whenever Bay gets the green light. Look, I realize why studios choose to work with him; taking two unwatchable films and grossing over a billion on each speaks for itself as to why they let the guy shit all over the remaining few totems of our parents youth which have not yet been kicked into mushy submission. For Travis Knight (Kubo and the Two Strings) to make the move on a reboot in the wake of Bay’s unskilled yet expected consistent glossy popcorn hands is the first glimpse at the brilliant confident risks Knight appears to be willing to take for the rest of his career. Both films under his direction are timeless firm grasps of defeating youth and the persevering strength we learn to find within ourselves through it. Both as well are visual perfection in the imaginative craft of Jim Henson sort. There are a strong batch of directors taking shape recently–Yorgos Lothomos, Panos Cosmatos, Luca Guadagnino, Jordan Peele– through whom the cinematic growth torch appears to have successfully been passed on once more. The next ten years looking bold with promise, a hope of which has remained grossly absent for over a decade now. This ship had a lot of damage to shore up before ever being seaworthy again; Travis Knight looks to properly be the one we can count on to fill the hole left in cinema since Tim Burton forgot how to create anything even remotely interesting. Finally a film aimed at kids who still think pirates and magic are cool affecting the imagination in tangible ways of which a thousand Shrek and Frozens never could.
Finally! At last! Here here! let us rejoice briefly in the warm glow of the unspoken hero of the film– John Cena. Just kidding the only bright side of his role in Bumblebee is at least it is nowhere near as excruciating to sit through as Dolph Lundgren in Aquaman. No I’m talking about the soundtrack taking itself serious in only a way a film focused on being a teenager in the eighties ever could. Let us not misunderstand each other; I personally would have done the soundtrack completely different, I imagine anyone with a deep love for music of the period would say the same. Nothing about Bumblebee is meant for cinema snobs or condescending judgemental “only what I like is what matters” types. The film refuses to place any concern on our praise. What Bumblebee does instead, and this is at the heart of what makes it a beautiful film rather than a failure, is shape itself in a way leaning on the experience of our lead character Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld). What would an eighteen year old be listening to in 1987 who stilled lives at home, is dealing with the loss of their father, is dealing with their marginalized place in the world in all its alienation and weight? The answers form themselves; The Smiths, Van Halen, Bon Jovi, A-Ha, Tears For Fears. The only necessity excluded from the film is Metallica, we can only imagine Lars and the boys probably tried suing Paramount for even considering them in the first place.
The undercurrent of this film is Back to the Future in sound and E.T. in spirit without ever being aware in the experience of either to the point of distraction. Christina Hodson penned a script with respect towards a genre long felt mined to complete depletion yet for the viewer it feels fresh, the predictability not burdensome or worn, like finding a dream fitting leather jacket at some five and dime thrift store our two paths seem having been destined for each other from the very beginning.
On a personal level I connected to the film in remembrance of my wanting year after year the yellow sports Walkman we see during character development of our hero while only getting time and again those cheap Panasonic ever-breaking ones instead. For twelve dollars (my life savings) in 1992 I bought a broken Tomos moped at a yard sale a block over from my grandparents house in Franklin,IN which looked to the untrained eye nearly identical to the Puch Charlie rides before fate puts a stuck in auto-transformation Bumblebee in her path. Being maybe nine, pre-internet, I spent two weeks in the summer sweating heat pulling every part on the engine off and returning it back into place. I’d run into the house to ask my grandfather what it was and how to clean it. Looking back I have my doubts that his advice of “spray it with WD40 and then soak it in oil” came from a knowledgeable place yet he did buy me some spark plugs to replace the old ones with and I managed to fix a broken clutch cable with the front brake from my uncles unused bicycle (without permission). With only luck on my side under the blinding summer heat of July in small town midwest America, I managed with my very own hands to have a semi-functional moped. Even then it was an archaic dinosaur hearkening to a bygone era. Ten years old breaking down through traffic and unable to get up hill without pushing I was left with free reign in all directions. If you think that sounds bad keep in mind this was two years after my father bought me a Honda 250 3-wheeler I could drive without helmet, with my younger sister on the back without helmet as well, around the neighborhood or make paths of my own through steep hills and lost direction forests while we camped in the middle of nowhere. At the same time I was learning to ride a bicycle without training wheels I could pop the clutch and ride a wheelie on what is probably the most dangerous all-terrain vehicle ever made. It was a different time. I think back while writing of that moped, sometimes having to pedal the thing half the distance of wherever I was going to get it to start, blowing black smoke for the first half mile anytime I took off, sounding like three angry raccoons battling to the death in a metal drum. I loved it. I easily put five hundred miles on it that summer.
When the film was over I couldn’t help but wonder if the personal attachment I felt was blinding me as to whether the film was actually good or not. Could I really be this stoked about getting a glimpse at the Cybertron war? Could no longer having that everything is wet CGI gleam make this much of a difference? Were the fighting sequences really that realistic between two computer animated images? After all, despite what we like to make ourselves believe, we really can’t trust our own opinions sometimes. Walking out of the theater there were four people who seemed as though they might have opposing takes from mine so I asked what they thought. Usually when engaging strangers you get short responses, all four of them immediately started talking over themselves excited about how great a time was had watching it. One summed it up in the best way possible, “I wish I would have had this movie when I was growing up.” Exactly!
This is a film meant for the prepubescent in the truest most positive sense, seen through the eyes at an age where knowing nothing about the future beyond the “someday” optimism of leaving the cocoon to become the greatest you waiting on the other side of your small town and your parents small lives; Bumblebee to the preteen heart should stand brightly boldly beside The Karate Kid, Thrashin’, The Never Ending Story, Iron Eagle, etc,. The spirit of tough blind unstoppable confidence felt without doubt, the purpose rising up through your waking soul of something bigger than yourself, calling you with such a force your feet guide you down the path even when the self-awareness that you have nothing to offer the world but your own confusion whispers defeat in your ears. Think of that time before politics and propaganda and the demonizing of some foreign other ever crossed your mind and think of how those “few, the proud, the marines” commercials made you want to sign up and ship off right then and there. If you have ever related to that call to the fight, to the call of forging strength unseen by others rising boiling out of your very being, then from minute one to credits Bumblebee is the movie you will appreciate in knowing how much you would have loved it then.
As a kid I never had to be told to go outside and play. My parents could never just turn on Barney or whatever and toss snacks my way every couple of hours to keep me pacified. Muddy hands and grass-stained jeans from playing in the yard with my imagination was my way of life. I’d forget meals and forget everything around me as the space between a shed and a tree were obstacles only a ninja could navigate without setting off an alarm or how an overgrown bush could be sat under to become a fort for drawing up strategic plans and hiding supplies. Bumblebee is the sort of film for similar others who relatedly stand on this intensive involved sparked imagination line. Of course the effects help; we get incredible fight sequences, robots which bare the marks and scars of war rather than following down the generic Marvel path, the fights are brutally realistic yet through robots retain the distance we hope for when children view violence. This is the film we had hoped the reboot of Power Rangers could be when first hearing Bryan Cranston would be part of it. This is the film we had hoped would happen when the first Transformers live action came out. Ultimately Bumblebee is a movie long awaited for thirty years. Although most who are of age to appreciate finally having it have long been beaten into curmudgeonous submission, those refusing to let their imagination go gently into that dark night see this film for the greatness it is. Don’t ask a film rooted in time stamped nostalgia to entertain you, ask it to transport you back once more into the Neverland of your heart. Bumblebee does precisely that.
As far as the acting goes, John Cena is a distraction to the film yet there are two scenes where he needs to carry the screen for a few brief moments and does it rather well. In comparison to other eighties films he is stronger than both Hulk Hogan and Roddy Piper ever were and both those guys have been in some highly enjoyable (Suburban Commando) gems as well as having carried one of the lefts greatest films ever made (They Live). In context for what wrestlers represented for the eighties– the self-aware humility of the tough guy role worn without pretension– John Cena at the very least does a solid job playing a likeable John Cena which in itself is decent enough to keep from being distracting. The academy might not be calling Hailee Steinfeld with nominations anytime soon but she is cast ideally for her role as relatable outsider Charlie hitting things perfect in the Daniel Larusso/Doug Masters sense. Bumblebee reminds us briefly of how stupid yet popular karate was for nerd culture before mixed martial arts came along and ruined their facade. I use the term “nerd culture” lightly here. Having been both socially uncool and immensely into karate before getting beat up a couple of times, I cast this judgement towards my former self solely. Bumblebee reminds us as well of cold war paranoia having its lifeless corpse propped up film after film after film, our unapologetic love for all things John Hughes, and minimum wage teenagers behind every counter looking for gas money rather than parents with a masters degree working their third part time job to keep up with healthcare costs as is the norm today; it was a different time, a whimsical time, we would be foolish to ever forget.
Is anyone else tired of hearing anything looking back warmly on the eighties compared to Stranger Things? Lets get one thing straight now and forever; the eighties were nostalgic for the eighties while the eighties were going on. Carve that thought firmly in the stone of your heart. No generation has before or since remotely been as self-aware yet at the same time boldly able to rise up culturally to match their own ego. This is why you know who Morrissey is. This is why you know what new-wave music is in general. Most importantly though, this is why the nineties failed so hard at EVERYTHING; having had no sense of soul, no sense of suburban disparity, no sense of being defined culturally forever by the mere mundane nothingness. The nineties had real palpable issues which were merely undercurrents in the decade before yet instead of forging through it with their own defined steadfast facing they chose to stick firmly by Reagan era complacency using only cynicism rather than actual effort to fight it off. The nineties hit autopilot and we’ve been paying the price dearly in every facet of our lives since. “Here we are now entertain us” is not a coat of arms, so now we have auto-tune and quantized rhythms as respected mediums, we have tracks being lip singed counted as great live performances, we have a reality television hack running our government, we have films such as Aquaman out performing the craft of Mary Poppins. Placing blame on the nineties doesn’t change anything about the hole we are are in or the work it will take to climb our way out of it. I’m still not letting it slide completely without accountability though. Neither should you.
At least the eighties zeitgeist reflects an awareness of their uselessness. The nineties and early two thousands couldn’t even be honest about their own bloated lack of substance. Lucky for us heading into the twenties the entire world is burning crumbling failing before us so we have no choice but to be proactive. Hell we don’t even have a legitimate enemy to go to war with, now we must look in the mirror and face the fact we are the root of our own problems not them, not the other, which is why I won’t be surprised if we see lenses such as Bumblebee looked through with appreciative fervor by those coming of age for the next ten years. There were times when a film such as this could make the world a better place, I believe Travis Knight has beautifully attempted to do so and succeeded. Call up your nieces and nephews, drag them out to the theater, the spirit of the eighties is being summoned back out of necessity. We need to find our blind strength once more. We need the spirit to move us towards change despite the feeling of worthless ineffectual smallness. I appreciate this film for being exactly what it needed to be, what we needed it to be, we can only hope it stirs the hearts of those not driven by financial greed to create with similar passion. At least for two hours I believed it could and that in itself is nothing short of perfect.