Film Review: Bumblebee (2018)


In an effort to watch more movies this year (no, this isn’t some resolution that will die off in six weeks, this is just a general quest to catch up on what’s hot at the local picturehouse), it’s time to reinvigorate the Barry Norman section of this blog with the first film write-up of 2019, Bumblebee.

First, let’s travel back to 1987. Aretha Franklin has just become the first woman to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. The Simpsons airs for the first time and Luis Suarez chews his way out of his mother’s womb. Meanwhile, an eight year-old me is playing with his figures of Optimus Prime, Beachcomber and Cosmos, fighting the ongoing battle against the evil Decepticons right here on Earth. As it turns out, also in 1987, a young mechanically-minded girl called Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld), mourning the death of her father, encounters a rusty yellow Volkswagen Beetle at a junkyard and is swept into a similar robotic war.

After five live action films of increasing ridiculousness, the Transformers movie franchise is rebooting, and with Bumblebee, it’s taking us back to the very start in more ways than one. War is raging on the robots’ home planet of Cybertron and in a desperate attempt to regroup, a scout named B-127 is sent by Autobot leader Optimus Prime (voiced once more by the legendary Peter Cullen) to the planet Earth. Crash landing straight into a training exercise by specialist military unit Sector 7, B-127 is left dazed, confused and in hiding. After being taken in by Charlie, the newly-monikered Bumblebee finds himself battling to avoid detection by Decepticons Shatter and Dropkick who are intent on destroying the Autobot resurgence before it even begins, all the while being hampered by the additional threat of Sector 7 led by former US Army Ranger Jack Burns (John Cena).

Making his live action directorial debut, former musician and animator Travis Knight has been given the green light to deliver a Transformers spin-off that works through a lightness of touch and a focus on what made the toy and cartoon franchise so popular in the first place; heart. In the main, the robots here are all distinguishable in look rather than just being different shades of steel (see anything that Michael Bay directed previously) and personalities also shine through. There’s a warming sense of humour here as well, with Charlie’s family offering some good comic relief and Jorge Lendeborg Jr’s Memo character full of charm rather than being another generic sidekick to act as a plot device. Even the use of incidental characters such as policemen, neighbours and college acquaintances seem to be plucked straight from other 80s classics like The Breakfast Club or Smokey & The Bandit, expertly helping to paint a rich period picture.

Special mention also has to go to Bumblebee’s soundtrack. With the film being set in the late 80s, Knight is given a vastly diverse array of music to work with from The Smiths to Bon Jovi to Duran Duran, and each time a song is used it enhances the story perfectly. It almost feels like repeat viewing of the movie is needed to pick out all the little flourishes and nods buried throughout, whether it’s the music, the minute detail in the Cybertron scenes (where even the weapons perfectly match those we placed in the hands of our favourite robots 30 years ago) or the links to the rest of the movies in the series; Bumblebee really is reboot, origin story and the missing link between toys, cartoons and films all in one.

Yes there are a few moments you can telegraph a mile off and some of the sentiment may veer towards the mawkish, but Bumblebee is still an exciting, action-packed love letter to a more innocent time. By bringing together what the fans have always wanted from a Transformers film, Knight has nailed what the original cartoon taught us; good can and will triumph over evil and it’ll have a crazy, yet fun time in doing so.

Transformers: Dark of the Moon – A Critique

There’s a lot to be said for the ingenuity of turning a simple toy line into a cartoon and comic book, an animated movie, a series of live action movies and back into a successful toy line again. In the 80s, Transformers and their twisty turny limbs and sometimes lethal choking hazard weaponry were all the rage, and why not? Kids loved them because they were big giant robots with massive laser guns. Parents didn’t mind them because they hoped it would teach their children patience and how to read instructions for fear of snapping off Megatron’s head with an incorrect rotation in the transformation process.

But trends don’t last forever. Despite creating new Transformers in the comics in order to set up back stories which expanded the toy range, Power Rangers took over at the top of letters to Santa Claus in the mid-90s, and it looked like another childhood memory had gone into obscurity. That is until Michael Bay and his penchant for blowing things up got involved.

When the franchise-rebooting Transformers live action film was released in 2007, it was pretty much everything a fan could want. The robots and transformations were convincing and largely faithful to the Generation One comics (although some vehicle modernisation had to, and did happen). There was humour. There was a great turn from Shia LaBeouf. There was even a not dissimilar Transformers backstory, beefed up by a Government conspiracy subplot which didn’t feel out of place. Oh, and there was Megan Fox, the hottest mechanic since Mike Rutherford spent too long in his sunbed.

In 2009, Revenge of the Fallen continued the saga, adding a bit more character depth, loads more giant robots beating all shades of hell out of each other, and an even more ridiculous plot around some long lost Cybertronian wanting to destroy the sun in order to provide a new energy source for the Transformers’ home planet.

So, as we reached 2011, a new Transformers film appeared on the horizon, Dark of the Moon. Early teaser trailers showed links to the original moon landings, along with that trademark clank-clunk transformy noise. Excitement levels raised, we all waited patiently for the summer to arrive.

The story of Dark of the Moon is pretty much a combination of the first two films. Long lost Cybertronian in a bit of a coma? Check. Over the top plot to restore Cybertron to its former glory by destroying the human race? Check. Government cover up around 60s space experiments now coming back to haunt us? Check. Humans continuing to fire pop guns at giant robots despite having experienced their ineffectiveness in the previous two films? Check.

In summary, it’s revealed that the Apollo 11 mission in 1969 was actually instigated in order to investigate a crashed alien space ship (the Ark), with Neil Armstrong and the gang taking a quick detour to the other side of la luna to see what was inside.

Cut to modern day, and Optimus Prime and the Autobots have an alliance with US military forces and help out across the globe to try and keep the Earth nice and peaceful. On investigating a potential Decepticon sighting at Chernobyl, Prime realises that he should probably go and recover some cutting-edge Cybertronian technology that was on the Ark before it falls into the wrong hands. Sure enough, the “Pillars” on board the ship are part of a plan to return Cybertron to its former glory whether the rest of the Universe survives or not.

It’s a decent plot that doesn’t try to overcomplicate things, adds the G1 “Ark” story (admittedly with some differences) and also offers an excuse to get most of the original cast back together (Sam is trying to get a job, his parents come to visit, later he needs the help of Lennox and the rest of the old NEST team to save the day).

It’s also nice to see Bay continue to gradually introduce classic Transformers, (Shockwave! Laserbeak!) and some that have only had fleeting appearances get some more screentime this time out (Soundwave, although sadly not in classic 80s boom-box form).

Throughout the film though, you can’t help but feel that something is missing. In the previous movies, Prime, Megatron, Jazz, Bumblebee and others have all had limbs and more forcibly amputated in their battles with each other, and yet they always seem to come back for more punishment, so you never really feel that there is any danger of anyone getting permanently sent to the great rust bucket in the sky. This doesn’t stop Bay killing off a fair few classic characters, but you can 99% guarantee they’ll be back for the next installment.

The film also seems to miss Megan Fox. I know what you’re thinking, that it only misses her due to her previous form with regards slow motion chest-related action, but in all honesty, Sam’s new love interest Carly Spencer (played by Brit model Rosie Huntington-Whiteley) is far too weak to give some of her lines the kudos they need.

There also seems to be some inconsistency with the effort put into how the Transformers look and act. As with the previous two films, the Autobots tend to be more colourful and distinctive whilst the Decepticons can easily be confused in hectic battle sequences as they all seem to be relatively generic grey metal shapes and pointy teeth.

The relationships between the robot characters don’t seem to have changed much either, and in fact the original cartoon gives more character to some of them. The films seem to continue to rely on the mutual hatred between Megatron and Starscream rather than exploring Soundwave’s unswerving loyalty or the Autobot’s different opinions on the worth of humans which used to throw up some morality in the original series.

But for all the niggles and nit-picking, what do people really go to a Transformers movie to see? That’s right, giant robots ripping each other’s limbs off in a series of car-to-robot-to-helicopter-to-robot scraps the likes of which haven’t been seen since this kid’s bedroom circa 1987.

Dark of the Moon certainly takes the franchise to the next logical level whilst also providing some closure to key plot arcs that have spanned the past five years, presumably setting up a reboot in three or four years with some new cast and crew onboard.

Overlong? Probably. Best taken with a pinch of salt? Completely. Most importantly, great fun for all the family? Definitely. An intelligent enough blockbuster that showcases classic, simple storytelling alongside big dumb fun, with enough nods to nostalgia to keep new and old fans happy throughout.

3D – The New Betamax?

If you’ve read more than one or two posts on this blog, you’ll be aware that I’m rather partial to a bit of technology and a nice new shiny gadget. Whether it’s the latest videogaming platform or a new electronic abacus, I like to keep abreast of what’s going on and I hate to miss out. This week though, I’ve found myself taking a bit of a step back to think about what exactly is the ‘next big thing’ in a world of ever expanding technological boundaries.

Having seen two 3D films in two days (Green Lantern and Transformers: Dark of the Moon), and with the imminent release of the world’s first 3D mobile, the LG Optimus 3D I’m really starting to wonder if this is one technology too far. Yes, the world in which we live is not as flat as the screens we are constantly watching and in movies, the 3D effect can sometimes add an extra layer of immersion, but 3D has already proven to have its drawbacks.

1) You end up looking like a bit of an idiot. Yes, that’s right, apart from the Nintendo 3DS and the aforementioned new LG handset, 3D is generally viewed using a pair of 3D specs, the likes of which wouldn’t have looked out of place in late 80s Star Trek. Sitting in your living room wearing these is always going to make you feel a little silly, especially when you forget to take them off to answer the door to the Avon lady.

2) Autostereoscopic 3D (the 3DS etc) has to be viewed from a very specific direction to actually work, and has been reported to cause a few headaches after prolonged exposure. I’m not one to support a scaremongering ‘technology’s bad’ story such as this usually, but surely this one can’t be good for our kids.

3) The 3D effect of movies, sports and TV is largely pointless. Having watched football in 3D, the general result was a headache, albeit with a few good camera shots of the crowd which added real depth. But who watches football to look at the crowd? Similarly, whenever a film tries to put extra effort into very obviously ‘directed for 3D’ scenes, the result often feels forced. The Final Destination, I’m looking at you.

4) It’s pricey. Not only do additional pairs of 3D glasses for home use cost in the region of £100, buying films in 3D and the TVs and Blu-ray players to view them on can soon put a major dent in the bank balance of us normal folk.

3D televisions will obviously come down in price and be more affordable to the average family in the next couple of years, and the PS3 offers a cut-price 3D media player, but is 3D the game-changer that people are predicting or could it go the way of Betmax and HD-DVD before it? It’s gotten to a stage now where roughly 60% of new film releases are also watchable in 3D, however appetite of the cinema-going public isn’t necessarily matching this growth, with box office takings for the 3D version of the latest Pirates of the Caribbean film accounting for only 38% of its total revenue in the US.

Don’t get me wrong, our viewing pleasure can be improved and HD was a revelation. The difference to anyone with even half decent eyesight was staggering, but 3D promises things will jump out at you to add even more to your optical experience and it isn’t always the case.

The clue to the success or failure of 3D could lie in its origins. Let’s not forget this is far from new technology, and indeed the first 3D film process was patented in the late 1890s. A 3D image of Queen Victoria was even on display at the Great Exhibition in 1851. So why haven’t things moved on that much in over 150 years?

One of the reasons could be the perception of 3D being a gimmick. I loved seeing comics and photos in red/green anaglyph 3D in the 80s but it didn’t mean I wanted to watch all of Jaws 3D bathed in a mysterious multicoloured glow. Similarly, I haven’t bought a 3D TV due to not wanting to give my cat something else to chew on.

The crux of the matter is this; 3D is only possible by in some way making our viewing less comfortable. Watching TV or a film is, and should always be effortless. You sit there passively watching a screen and things happen in front of you. Having to charge up your special specs beforehand just adds a level of complexity, and I’d argue it’s one that we don’t necessarily need. Here’s to the wireless.