'Bumblebee' Is 2018's 'The Shape of Water'
Forget everything you already think about Transformers. Bumblebee, a prequel to Michael Bay’s decade-old, five-movie franchise, is actually a wonderful, tender story about love and connection between two individuals — one of whom just happens to be a transforming yellow robot from the planet Cybertron.
Arriving in theaters on Friday, Bumblebee is 2018’s unexpected, but not unwarranted, successor to last year’s tender inter-species romance from Guillermo del Toro, The Shape of Water.
Where del Toro finds romance between two lonely souls in a pulp monster movie (he was inspired by Creature From the Black Lagoon), Travis Knight’s Bumblebee finds romance between two souls in a science-fiction coming-of-age adventure.
Set decades before the events of Michael Bay’s other Transformers movies, Bumblebee begins in 1980s San Francisco and focuses on a restless teenager named Charlie, played by Hailee Steinfeld. She doesn’t know it when she stumbles upon an old, yellow Volkswagen Beetle in her friend’s junk yard, but her friendship with an alien robot called B-127 is about to begin.
While fixing it up, Charlie soon discovers her car is alive, and is in fact a refugee from the planet Cybertron. Charlie nicknames B-127 “Bumblebee” and he — Bumblebee uses “he/him” pronouns — soon resume his mission save Earth from two bloodthirsty Deceptions who have learned of his location.
Bumblebee evokes a number of themes that, even after five Transformers movies, are new to the franchise. Post-war trauma and a loss of identity accompany the film’s story of companionship, and however obliquely, romance, all in a tidy family-friendly adventure with an inconsequential period setting.
Bumblebee is, without hyperbole, this year’s Shape of Water, though it expectedly doesn’t explore the the adult themes of del Toro’s story — Hasbro would have a very hard time selling those toys. It’s a comparison fans seized upon as soon as the trailer was released in June, and after seeing the film, I can say those early comparisons were on the money. In The Shape of Water, which won the Oscar for Best Picture in February, a lonely, mute cleaning lady Eliza (Sally Hawkins) falls for a captured “fish man” (played by Doug Jones) from the Amazon rainforest. After breaking him out of the research lab where she worked, she hides him in her bathtub. Soon, a whirlwind affair begins between the two people “othered” by society.
“The triumph of this story is that love is available to all of us, no matter if we’re mainstream or if we are other than,” Jones told Inverse. “That is something we can continue to hope for, even if we feel we’re hopeless and love is past us. It’s not. It’s possible and plausible.”
While Steinfeld’s Charlie doesn’t fall into that sort of explicit, adult love with Bee, the Bumblebee is loaded with so much transparent symbolism it’s difficult not to think of the movie primarily a romance, albeit one with space robots and cop car destruction.
Bumblebee also subverts expectations by refusing to pair its female protagonist with the adorkable boy next door. In Bumblee, Charlie has only eyes for her car, voiced in early scenes by Dylan O’Brien of The Maze Runner and MTV’s Teen Wolf.
In spite of his shorter filmography than del Toro, Knight — a filmmaker heretofore best-known for Kubo and the Two Strings — has demonstrated with Bumblebee an equally adept skill for finding new stories in well-worn genres, much like his more experienced colleague.
Exploring unexpected narratives within the familiar has been del Toro’s superpower: The director has found fairy tales in a period war movie (Pan’s Labyrinth) and teen sports movies in tokusatsu spectacles (Pacific Rim).
Knight, whose Wikipedia page begins with his rap career as “Chilly Tee” and traces his journey to form the animation studio Laika, demonstrates a knack for this with his varying credits in Laika productions: Coraline (animator), ParaNorman (producer), and Kubo and the Two Strings. All those films are surreal reinventions of a children’s fairy tale that flirt with everything from New England gothic horror to Japanese mythology.
Knight and del Toro understand in their films how romance begins: Touch. Physicality is key to understanding Bumblebee and Shape of Water, even if only one of those movies has traditional scenes of intimacy. In lieu of human-on-Autobot action (I’d say go to Tumblr if you want that, but…) Knight relies on meaning and metaphor. It is significant that Charlie’s first meeting with Bumblebee proper is when Charlie cups her hands on Bumblebee’s face in the garage (see below). While Eliza and the Asset’s romance begins with eggs, it’s not long until they bond with touch. A poke there, an embrace here. Before you know it you’re at the part where they’re naked and flooding the bathroom.
Knight and del Toro also play on the old war movie trope of a wounded soldier and a (generally coded as female) nurse or healer. And “healing” has a more thematic meaning than the literal treating of wounds.
Bumblebee plays up the war trope more than Shape of Water. Charlie, a self-taught mechanic, “fixes” Bee, her hands deep under Bee’s hood as the two look longing at one another. Later, when Charlie unloads her emotional baggage with Bee over her father’s death, the two embrace as Sam Cooke’s version of “Unchained Melody” plays, the scene soaring to Cooke’s line in the chorus, “I need your love.” Clearly, Bee is a therapeutic presence for the troubled Charlie, a tender wrecking ball who smashes its way into her being.
This is more opaque in Shape of Water. Deep into the film, the Asset begins to suffer due to prolonged exposure to oxygen — he’s a fish, after all (and this kicks off a daydream by Eliza of the two dancing in a Golden Age Hollywood musical number). Just as Eliza cares for the Asset in his suffering, so too does the Asset’s presence in Eliza’s life “heal” her humdrum existence.
There are minor, but not insignificant similarities too. Just as Elliot in 1982’s E.T. feared the government would poke and prod his new friend, so too do the characters of Shape of Water and Bumblebee: Both films have a resounding anti-establishment message, depicting military men as square-jawed jingoists. For The Shape of Water, del Toro cast Michael Shannon, who has a prolific career playing hostile authoritarians (his sociopathic anti-bootlegger Agent Van Alden in HBO’s Boardwalk Empire is an deeply underrated TV villain) while the latter has John Cena, a semi-retired WWE star whose film career began in a movie literally called The Marine, before Cena pivoted to far more entertaining self-aware portraits of alpha men.
Bumblebee isn’t a sexual movie, but it is a sensual one. Like The Shape of Water, the bond between the film’s heroes transcends limits of language, body, even species. But while The Shape of Water is more overtly a romance; Bumblebee only walks up to that distinction. It doesn’t demand much from its audience beyond an open mind, but if you pay it closer attention (unheard of for any previous Transformers movie), you’re rewarded with warmth instead of the usual empty spectacle. If you’ve never seen a Transformers movie you see, make Bumblebee your first.
Watch this clip released ahead of the film’s release.