Bumblebee (2018)

2019 #83
Travis Knight | 114 mins | Blu-ray (UHD) | 16:9 | USA & China / English | PG / PG-13

Bumblebee

The live-action Transformers movies, eh? Seemingly hated by everyone, critics and fans alike, and yet combined the first five grossed almost $4.4 billion at the global box office. Nonetheless, with the fifth one being the lowest grossing so far, and Michael Bay finally making good on his oft-repeated desire to leave the series’ director’s chair, someone clearly felt it was time for a change. That brings us to Bumblebee, a spin-off (it’s focused around the de facto second-in-command Transformer) cum prequel (it’s set in the ’80s, explaining some events that occurred before the 2007 movie) cum soft reboot (with redesigned characters and nothing that explicitly ties it to the Bay films, this could be the start of a whole new continuity). Did fans finally get what they want? Well, maybe, but it obviously didn’t work for the wider audience: the film took $468 million worldwide, which is good in itself but still represents almost a $140 million drop from the previous film. And it didn’t work for me, either: Bumblebee isn’t necessarily any better than the best of the Bay-era films, it’s just middling in different ways.

The film begins much like Man of Steel: launching us into a conflict between aliens on a distant planet. I criticised that film for throwing us into the deep end with a bunch of hard-sci-fi mumbo-jumbo, and I find similar fault here. I guess the point is to get an Epic Action Sequence up front (unlike Man of Steel, where it’s political arguing, here it’s a full-blown battle) and to show off the new-look old-style Transformers, which have been modelled more on their appearance in the ’80s cartoon series. But it does nothing to dispel the notion that this is nothing like the Bay films — it’s just another frenzy of metal-on-metal and garbled mythology. Then Bumblebee, who’s mainly identifiable as “the yellow Transformer”, gets sent off to Earth, where he accidentally winds up in a scrap with some military types. More action, but with a slight change of pace.

Bayhem never dies

Only after all this has gone down do we finally get to the supposed point of the movie. We’re introduced to Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld), a teenager in 1980s California who likes listening to 1980s music and wearing 1980s clothes and doing other 1980s things because this is set in the 1980s. She’s down on her luck for various reasons, but what she really wants is a car. She finds one in a boat scrapyard (totally logical), but that turns out to be Bumblebee in disguise, and suddenly she has a giant robot for a best friend. But Captain Military Man (John Cena — I have no idea what his character name was. I could look it up, but this was more amusing), who Bumblebee fought with in that second action sequence, is on the hunt for our big yellow friend, and so are some Decepticons (the bad robots).

The “a girl and her robot” angle is what the film was sold on, combined with the ’80s setting to suggest a throwback to movies of that era, like E.T. and so on. I quite like it as a concept — it’s certainly a change of pace from the increasingly overblown city-destroying world-saving antics of the earlier films — but it’s the execution that disappointed me. It takes too long to get it up and running. Even after the palaver I’ve already described, it spins its wheels on Charlie getting Bumblebee started, on comedic interludes with her family, on establishing a wannabe-love-interest for her (a guy who both works opposite her at a fairground and is her next door neighbour, yet apparently she’s never even noticed. Incidentally, I can’t remember his name either). There’s altogether too much time spent on the military and Decepticons hunting ‘Bee, too, especially considering it amounts to little that’s meaningful. I mean, specifically two Decepticons turn up on Earth, and they’re therefore the film’s primary villains, but I can’t remember their names either. Their personalities amount to “the one who plans” and “the one who just wants to shoot everything”.

A girl and her robot... which is disguised as a car

But after nearly an hour of this faff, the film gets good, with Charlie and Neighbour Boy getting up to some enjoyable ’80s kids’ movie-style antics with their friendly giant robot. But oh, then it’s time for the climax, so it’s back to explosions and indistinguishable chunks of metal hitting each other.

This is why it’s frustrating to me, because for a brief bit of time in the middle you see what I think this movie really wanted to be, and what I really wanted it to be, before it descends back into Bayhem-with-calmer-editing. Incoming director Travis Knight (whose only previous credit is the exceptional Kubo and the Two Strings) handles individual sequences well, suggesting he was a canny hire, but the film’s problem is bigger than that. The wonky pace and structure devotes time in the wrong places, leading to underdeveloped character beats (the big payoff for Charlie’s emotional subplot actually made me laugh out loud, which was not the intended effect) and taking too long to get to where it wants to be — just as it’s getting good, it has to dart off into a finale that doesn’t have enough impact, because we’re not really invested in the villains either.

Talking of what the movie “should’ve been”, a word on the certification. Bumblebee was originally given a 12A by the BBFC, just like every other modern blockbuster, but there was some kerfuffle in Australia that led to it being cut down under, and it seems that version was tamer enough to get a PG in the UK, so that’s the one that was released here (and, I think, everywhere outside the US). It loses about six seconds of injury and violence, apparently. There was a time earlier this century when anything below PG-13 was a bad thing, because they thought teens/adults would write the film off as being kids’ fare. Maybe that’s changed. Maybe it just doesn’t apply in the UK. Maybe they thought being a PG wouldn’t put grownups off (as an adult, who looks at the certificate, especially for the sixth movie in a well-established franchise?) but would allow more kids in. Who knows. It is what it is. I’m not sure it’s worth caring about.

This cute dog is also in it a bit

Also, another thing about differing releases: I wish they’d put it out on 3D Blu-ray somewhere, so that I could’ve bought that version. As noted at the start, I watched the 4K UHD disc, and the (upscaled) picture was fine but not spectacular (aside from one or two bits, and the usual benefits of HDR), but there were whole chunks I feel would’ve benefited from 3D. The Bay movies certainly did. I know those of us who enjoy the format are more in the minority than ever, but it seems that interest remains in some markets (looking at other titles that didn’t get a 3D release in the US and UK but did elsewhere, countries like Germany, Italy, Japan, and India seem to be among the lucky ones), so I don’t know why this hasn’t turned up in any of them.

Anyway. If Bumblebee managed its structure and pace better it’d be a lot more fun. I feel like, even with just the material that made it to the final cut, you could do a radical re-edit and turn it into a much better movie — ditch the Cybertron crap, cut way back on the baddies hunting for ‘Bee, get the relationship between Charlie and ‘Bee up and running faster, then focus on their teenage hijinks. Instead, someone thought it would be neat to bookend the film’s heart with a bunch of Bay-esque whooshbangery, and it gets in the way.

3 out of 5

Bumblebee is released on DVD and Blu-ray (regular and 4K UHD flavours) in the UK today.

Transformers: The Last Knight (2017)

2018 #47
Michael Bay | 155 mins | Blu-ray (3D) | 1.90:1 + 2.00:1 + 2.35:1* | USA, China & Canada / English | 12 / PG-13

Transformers: The Last Knight

Here we have the fifth Transformers film in 11 years from director Michael Bay. At this point you ought to know what you’re getting — the style hasn’t fundamentally changed since at least the third movie, arguably since the first, so if you dislike those then most probably there’s nothing for you here. I say “probably” because I’ve seen at least one review from someone who despised the fourth film but enjoyed this one, so clearly there’s always room for variability.

We’re dealing with variations on a theme, then, and The Last Knight brings a few fresh-to-the-franchise plot spins to add a different flavour and texture this time out. Firstly, a prologue tells us that Transformers were already in England about 1,600 years ago, when they fought alongside King Arthur and Merlin, the latter of whom didn’t wield magic but actually Autobot technology (and is played by Stanley Tucci, hamming it up something rotten). This relates to the present day because… well, I could explain it to you, but it gets fiddly and, frankly, if you care then you’ll find out when you watch it. But, basically, in present day America Transformers are hunted and Cade (Mark Wahlberg) is an outlaw helping hide some of them and rescue others. When a MacGuffin from Arthurian times attaches itself to him, he winds up on his way to England to meet Sir Anthony Hopkins, the last in a long order of… oh, yeah, I said I wasn’t going to explain it. Anyway, only Marky Mark and Clever English Totty (Laura Haddock, playing the kind of Oxford professor who dresses like a secretary in a porn film) can save the world. Who do they need to save the world from? Optimus Prime! Dun dun duuuun!

Now he's called Nemesis Prime, for no good reason

It’s all nonsense, of course, but then the inherent concept of Transformers never made any sense so what does it matter? Adding in Arthurian legend and making Optimus Prime a baddie doesn’t make it any dafter than it already was. And that’s only the half of it — there are more disparate story threads and subplots than a particularly complicated miniseries. Despite being shorter than the last movie, it’s still indulgently long — and needlessly so, too. There’s a ton of stuff that could be cut to streamline the plot, from individual shots and lines (the Arthurian prologue is probably twice as long as it needs to be) to whole characters (a street girl Cade basically adopts, Izabella, contributes nothing of major significance in the end). After about an hour, the story basically stops and starts again — that’s how long it takes to get to Sir Hopkins. Stuff from the first hour remains relevant, certainly, but I’m sure there were other ways to handle it. By getting through the first hour of the movie in half the time, for one thing. For another, don’t introduce major-seeming characters that you’re then just going to set aside and ignore for the next hour while you introduce whole new ones.

It’s remarkable how the Transformers movies can have way too much plot and not enough plot all at once. If you want to follow it you have to pay attention, not only because there’s a lot of mythology to take in, but also because Michael Bay chops it all up into bite-size chunks amongst frenetic action sequences. The film is cut like one long trailer — but that’s been Bay’s MO for a while, so, as I said at the start, no one should be surprised. It remains, in its own way, impressive. As I previously said in my review of Age of Extinction, it’s almost avant-garde: a tumble of images and sound that give you an impression of what’s occurring rather than straightforward traditional storytelling. And I say it’s impressive because it must be so much work to create — all the camera setups involved; events staged for a single, fleeting, couple-of-seconds shot; and then edited together with non-stop dynamism, rarely pausing for any notable period.

Non-stop Bayhem

And if you think that’s mad, wait until you see how Bay uses aspect ratios. Thanks to Christopher Nolan and The Dark Knight blazing a trail, we’ve now had a fair few movies that use the IMAX format for select sequences, and emulate that on home media by allowing the aspect ratio to change — for laypeople, that’s when the black bars at the top and bottom disappear and the picture fills the screen. As I say, generally this is used for specific sequences, or occasionally for a particularly grand individual shot; and usually there are two ratios, approximately 2.40:1 (with the black bars) and approximately 1.78:1 (without). Bay uses… more than that. And he does so almost indiscriminately. They’re so all over the place that you can’t miss them. Like, there are standard shot-reverse-shot conversations between two characters, but each character has a different aspect ratio… and then, as if that wasn’t bad enough, halfway through the scene one side will switch to another ratio! It just leaves you wondering why and how it ended up this way. What was the intention? What was the point? Well, that’s not a new question with Bay — he still uses five shots when one would do, so why not extend that same thinking to the film’s aspect ratio?

Despite the faffing around, much of it still looks impressive in a purely visceral sense. Like every modern tentpole, it cost a fortune to make ($217 million), but at least it looks like it did: there are so many grand sets and large-scale set pieces, much of it built or performed for real — not the giant robots, obviously, but there are car chases and human stunts and so forth that they did in real-life rather than in a computer. The money is splashed all over the screen, to the nth degree. Is that inherently a good thing? Eh. But it makes you wonder where some other $200m+ movies spend their money — especially when you consider that apparently production difficulties resulted in a lot of material being filmed but never making it into the final cut. How much? Well, supposedly a whole hour of footage was ditched from the original cut to get to the theatrical version. As I’ve already said, the film’s too long as it is, but it’s a shame there are no deleted scenes available because I’d be kind of fascinated to know what more was meant to be there, and to see how much money it looks like they wasted on it.

They really did hang Marky Mark out the side of a speeding vehicle, donchaknow

In what we did get to see, the size of the endeavour and the impressive quality of the imagery is emphasised by how it was filmed. A large proportion of the movie was shot in IMAX 3D (apparently 98%, but I’m certain there was more than three minutes in non-IMAX aspect ratios), and there are innumerable moments that benefit from the depth and scope of the format. Post-conversion has come a long way, but I’m not sure it can always equal doing it for real, especially on a format with the quality of IMAX. That said, the visual splendour didn’t strike me as much as it did in Age of Extinction. Perhaps that’s because, as Richard Brody put it in his New Yorker review, Bay’s “sense of speed works against his sense of scale and of detail. All the best moments in the movie — pure images, devoid of symbol and, for that matter, nearly empty of sense — go by too fast, are held too briefly, are developed too little.” There are some great shots in here, but the rapid editing just races past them. If you wanted to find and appreciate the shots fully, you’d have to damn near go through the whole thing frame by frame. I’m not sure they’re that good.

Although Bay and his directorial style always get a critical slating for these movies (more so than others he’s made in the same period — Pain & Gain and 13 Hours both attracted a reasonable amount of praise), they let him keep making them, and he keeps wanting to. The former makes sense: although you rarely find someone who admits to liking them, they keep making money (The Last Knight is the series’ lowest grosser worldwide, thanks to a particularly poor US showing, but it still took over $600m). As for the latter… no, I don’t know why he keeps coming back. Can you think of another blockbuster-level director who’s made five films in the same series? No one instantly comes to mind for me, and even those who are close (Lucas with Star Wars; Spielberg with Indiana Jones) did so over a long period of time with many films in between. I mean, if Bay wants to do it then why not — it’s his life and career — but I don’t quite understand it.

The three-headed robot dragon that I almost forgot

As I said nearly 1,500 words ago (I never imagined I’d have so much to say about this movie — and I haven’t even mentioned the three-headed robot dragon, or the C3PO-alike comic relief butler), everyone should know what they’re getting with the Transformers films by now. The Last Knight shares the same pros and cons as the other entries in the series, to one degree or another — by which I mean that, for instance, I found the plot a little more coherent than last time (though still totally barmy), but I wasn’t quite as bowled over by the visuals (which are at least half the point of these films, I feel). On balance, I’d say it’s one of the franchise’s better instalments.

3 out of 5

Transformers: The Last Knight is available on Sky Cinema from today.

* The listed ratio for The Last Knight is 1.90:1, because that’s the tallest, but its shifts into various other ratios are very obvious, as I discuss in the review. The three I’ve listed are the most obvious, but one of the trailers was shown to use eight slightly different ratios, so who knows how many there really are? ^