Friday 28 December 2018

Beetle drive: "BumbleBee"

As has been reported, what we're watching with BumbleBee is a franchise in the process of making a much-needed, sorely overdue three-point turn. Under the direction of Michael Bay, the Transformers movies became bywords for the long, loud and leery, deploying a set of boys' toys as prime opportunity for a form of cinematic willywaggling. These films came at us every other summer with talk of the biggest budgets and explosions, and the most extravagant waste of talent, and still people kept signing up for them; the rationale was apparently that so long as there was money in it, there was no reason not to keep going big. That trend may have exhausted itself with 2017's The Last Knight, the first entry in the series to recoup less than its mammoth budget on home soil, and so - by way of a Christmas miracle, and with a hint certain social-media hashtags have penetrated Bay HQ - the series has now been turned over to the fairer sex. BumbleBee finds screenwriter Christina Hodson coming up with a pared-down (sub-two hour) prequel, in which a solitary indie chick (Hailee Steinfeld) gains a new friend and adventures besides after taking possession of a battered mustard-yellow Beetle - the resting appearance, devotees will already know, of the heroic Autobot sent to Earth to establish a base in the fight against the Decepticons.

What follows is a very canny throwback to what our family movies were in the days before giganticism became the dominant aesthetic, and a reminder that one of the series' executive producers - and a silent partner until now - has been one Mr. S. Spielberg. Hodson sets the film in 1987 (around the time of the Transformers cartoons) and sets out a copperbottomed plot (plucky kid meets otherworldly creature) which did for everything from E.T. to Mac and Me in this decade, then chromes it with period detail. Having been restored to his former glory, a sentient BumbleBee watches The Breakfast Club in the Steinfeld family garage; that repairs montage is set to no less a tune than Steve Winwood's "Higher Love". We've been through so much with this franchise that you could easily accuse BumbleBee of a certain cynicism: hey, the film asks, would like a Transformers movie if it featured Pop Tarts and had the Smiths on the soundtrack? Somewhere in that question, you spy a certain level of pandering towards a demographic that has long grown out of these films and these toys - or who never gravitated towards the phenomenon in the first place. There may, in fact, be no evading the fact BumbleBee is still a Transformers movie, reliant for its success on an audience investing in the fate of nuts and bolts that aren't even nuts and bolts, rather an ever-shifting conglomeration of pixels. The funny thing is: this time, we do.

It's clear that director Travis Knight - making an assured transition to live-action after 2016's glorious yet underseen animation Kubo and the Two Strings - has thought longer and harder than Bay as to how to make the clanking around dynamic, and how best to integrate these robots with his flesh-and-blood performers. Sometimes it's conceptual (he has fun with the idea of a Transformer inside a small suburban home); sometimes the cartoonist in him holds sway (when the Decepticons blast their human hosts, the poor sods explode like water balloons, a neat fix to a potential certification issue: there's peril without a drop of blood). Either way, BumbleBee presents as far more characterful than its predecessors. Think of all the high-grade thespian talent (from John Turturro through Frances McDormand to Jack Reynor) Bay tempted in with big paydays but otherwise failed to give a single shit about, and then warm to the zestily affectionate bond Hodson sketches between Steinfeld and mom Pamela Adlon. It makes for a funnier film, too: you instantly chuckle upon learning the Army turning their Cold War paranoia on the robots is headed up by a never more squarejawed John Cena, timing sharpened by his work on Trainwreck and Blockers. (An aptly small, connoisseurial pleasure: Cena's delivery of "oh shit" as BumbleBee squares up to him, recognition he's not the biggest thing on screen for once.)

How would Bay have filmed this story? For one thing, you suspect Steinfeld's short shorts would have been a full quarter-buttock shorter, and the camera would have toggled down to register this; there would almost certainly have been less Wang Chung and more Mötley Crüe. (In asking the above question, I realise I was asking you to imagine what Michael Bay must have been like in the 1980s, and I can only apologise for putting those images in your head.) Crucially, key story beats would have been drowned out by vast eruptions of sound and fury; Knight, by contrast, makes the pay-off to the revelation of our heroine's diving capabilities as stirring and properly mythic as anything in Kubo. Sure, you could say, it's all tinkering, like a personnel change at a branch of KwikFit: if you felt no previous need to fork out for a Transformers movie, you're unlikely to do so for this one. (The fear is that this series has turned so many folk off that BumbleBee's fate was sealed long before it pulled into an ultra-competitive Xmas marketplace.) And it wouldn't surprise me if some vulgar auteurist lurking out there argued that making a Transformers film without Bay's trumpeted frame-fucking - pushing instead for a sunny, PG-rated centreground - is to miss the point of a series founded on the crass commercialism of a Hasbro toy range. Yet give Hodson and Knight credit for going beyond the line of thought that insists audiences get what they deserve, or whatever they're willing to queue up for. What BumbleBee demonstrates above all else is how even these staggeringly corporate mega-productions can shift in new, more efficient and pleasing directions; all it takes is a change of oil and water.

BumbleBee is now showing in cinemas nationwide.

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