What is definitely lacking in all of the previous films in the Transformers franchise was the human touch. And I’m not discounting the importance of putting the Shia LaBeouf and Mark Wahlberg portrayed characters in the previous films. They obviously did this for the audience to connect to except the film’s centerpiece really is the Transformers. It’s the title of the movie. And no matter how much narrative elements you put into Shia LaBeouf or Mark Wahlberg, and even Josh Duhamel and Megan Fox, it’s Optimus Prime, Bumblebee, and Megatron are the ones that are taking focus.
And they were so one-dimensional in their portrayals that it was so hard to really connect to these movies. Or maybe that was just me?
But where ‘Transformers’ and all its sequels failed to elicit any real emotion, ‘Bumblebee’ succeeds because that’s what the film revolves around. More than the save-the-Earth and save-the-Autobots storyline that puts Bumblebee together with the scrappy 18-year old Charlie, what elevates the film from all its predecessors is that the Transformer finally has a true character arc that audience can empathize with.
As a Transformers movie, ‘Bumblebee’ has its fair share of big explosions, big robot fight scenes, drama, and comedy. It’s got all the trappings of your typical big budget, sci-fi blockbuster hit. But it’s also got a lot of heart.
In fact, its best moments are — and this has been said by many reviewers and critics before me — when the story revolves around the robot and the young girl who is really just looking for a friend to help her let go of her grief.
Because Bumblebee crashes into Earth in 1987 during a civil war in Cybertron and he is sent on a mission to Earth by Optimus Prime to find a safe refuge for the Autobot resistance, who are losing the war. On his arrival, he is attacked and loses his memory and his ability to speak.
Charlie, just about to turn 18, is looking for a car as one of the many means she has to try and reconnect with her deceased father. She’s a genius with machinery and it is implied that this is something that she takes after her father. She happens on Bumblebee, disguised as a Volkswagen Bug (his original form from the 1984 cartoon), and when she fixes him, he reveals his true nature. And this begins the friendship that is sometimes pet, sometimes confidant, and later on, assuredly like a friend.
As Charlie and Bumblebee have adventures cementing their bond and dealing with rather mundane and uninteresting teenage narrative parts, including a very poorly and completely unnecessary love interest, two Decepticons are hot on the Autobots tail and are on Earth trying to find him.
‘Bumblebee,’ like any Transformers movie, is not beholden to any real-world logic. One of the most frustrating aspects of the film for me is how human the Autobots and the Decepticons are. They don’t seem alien at all. They understand and speak English and, despite being robots, when they are stabbed, they clutch their damaged parts very much like humans. There is even a scene where Bumblebee is struck with taser-like weapons and he reacts exactly like a human would. Which is funny because electricity is also what powers him up and what brings back his memories.
But it is this humanity that makes the movie much better than any other Transformer film prior to this because even if it doesn’t make any sense whatsoever, there is a character there that you can follow. This is where Hailee Steinfeld, as Charlie, really shines because she makes this relationship so believable. She is so earnest in her portrayal of the broken 18-year old that you feel something for her and her new found friend.
But I’m going to be honest: it’s still not for me. There are many moments when the film still panders to its audience, It goes for the easy laughs and it has a very basic portrayal of Charlie’s family life. It’s too simplistic for me in this day and age when these relationships should be dealt with more nuance.
But this is a film for kids and teens and I can see how it works and it has what has been missing from all the original Transformer films — the human touch. The battle between the Autobots and the Decepticons have always been a one-dimensional good versus evil dynamic that never really made any sense.
What grounds this film is a bond between human and sentient machine. It’s something we understand and something we can feel. And this is the right direction for them to take.
Because let’s face it. This is not the last film about the Transformers that they’re going to make. They might as well make it better.
'Bumblebee' opens in Philippine cinemas nationwide on Tuesday, January 8, 2019.