Monday, 11 February 2019
The relationship between humans and machines has been a major theme in the live action Transformers films. Michael Bay's quintet, a loosely assembled series if ever there was one, may have taken a different tact every instalment but the underlining thesis was one of disgust. The humans trembled in the company of these walking gun platforms while the Cybertronians regarded their flesh companions with the kind of revulsion usually reserved for vermin.
In Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, the massive, barbed Megatron toys with Shia LaBeouf's Sam, delighting in his fragility. The contrast is clear - the Decepticon leader is built to hurt, his hands betray no other function than to slash and tear. Sam is the perfect target, a tiny, blubbery curiosity that would smear at the lightest touch. Even the heroic Autobots recognise a basic disparity between the two races that, apparently naturally, tracks into an acute revulsion. Transformers: Age of Extinction gave us a shellshocked Optimus Prime driven into hiding by mankind's treachery.
Prime's distaste runs deeper than Megatron's tactile disconnection too - he doesn't hate humans because they're physically weak, he distrusts them for their moral and ethical failings. After winning the Battle of Chicago single-handedly, slaying both a mortal enemy and his mentor in the process, Prime's reward is for his friends to be stalked and murdered by American special forces. Their remains pulled apart and reconfigured as toys for the consumer end of the military spectrum. Michael Bay's Optimus Prime is an engine of pure destruction, an indefatigable God Emperor powered by four million years of war and a violent, inflexible idea of egalitarianism.
Travis Knight's Bumblebee, written by Christina Hodson, is the first live action Transformers film that really pushes at an idea of healthy, mutually beneficial symbiosis between mankind and the Cybertronians. Not even just in a material or technological sense either, the film is built around the friendship between Bumblebee, presented here as an amnesiac child soldier prone to post-traumatic outbursts, and Hailee Steinfeld's Charlie, a lonely teenager who feels alienated from her family. It's the same basic set-up as 2007's entry, except the filmmakers have spent time trying to engineer a dramatic hook with a little more heft to it than Sam Witwicky's eBay grumbles.
Both Charlie and Bumblebee are in mourning. Charlie missing her father, an auto-mechanic whose death curtailed his daughter's interest in, well, basically everything. Charlie stopped diving competitively, the activity too wrapped up in painful memories of Daddy-Daughter bonding. Charlie has grown distant from her remaining family, resenting her mother and brother for allowing another, and as far as she's concerned lesser, man to enter into their lives and take her father's place. Charlie isolates herself, working a demeaning Summer job (hotdog serf for jocks and princesses at a local fair) to hustle up enough cash to continue working on an apparently unsalvageable Corvette, her last physical link with her departed Dad.
Bumblebee's pain is founded in extreme shock. His movement (here called the Autobot resistance) has been routed and the planet he calls home has fallen, consumed by Megatron's lieutenants. Most tragic of all, Optimus Prime is apparently dead, last seen surrounded by an army of cackling Decepticons. Prime's portrayal in this film skews nostalgic and idealised, calibrated to appeal to those raised on Sunbow, Marvel and Toei Animation's The Transformers TV series. Prime pops in and out of the film, springing onto the screen from Bumblebee's fragged memories. The diminutive Autobot recalls his commander as explosively powerful, utterly fluent in combat, but equally willing to lay down his life for his smaller, weaker comrades. Essentially, Bumblebee is pining after his own lost father.
Bumblebee, as in the film, feels unexpectedly fresh because it allows these two characters the time and space to just be in each other's company. They hang out, listen to tapes and talk through their problems. Knight's film isn't an excitable gag machine pushing at slashed-up, chromed-out absurdity, it's actually interested in locating a sombre emotional tone then working through it. The Transformers are allowed to navigate scenes as dramatic participants, responding to, rather than contrasting with, their human companions. That the film is able to carry this off is mainly down to Steinfeld and how she is able to anchor rote situations with a delicacy and innate likeability otherwise lacking in this snorting, reptilian franchise.