Bad but commercially successful movie franchises have never been in short supply, even as far back as the 1930s and 40s. But the Transformers series deserves a special place in our collective memory for franchises that are inept, underhanded, vulgar and arrogant. It was the product of a filmmaker - Michael Bay - that, evidently, had a deep-seated dislike for audiences who dare to assume that dialogues, scenes or even movies have a purpose.

Undeniably, the fighting robots were fun. The problem was all the rest - the plot, theme, acting, cinematography and dialogue. Bay understood this and piled on as many fight scenes in slow-mo as he could within a movie. He also doubled-back on product placement, effectively turning each installment into brainless, unfeeling episodes of giant robot infighting interspersed with car adverts. It was nauseating.

The announcement and release of a prequel only brought about more agitation, for me at least. But Bumblebee is the relatable Transformers movie that we never got in the past five films Bay directed. It melds the excitement of the Transformers in action sequences with the poignancy, drama and comedy that not a single previous movie in the franchise was able to generate.

It takes place during the 1980s. Bumblebee arrives on Earth - as most aliens do, in the United States - after being given orders from his superior, Optimus Prime, to wait until they could regroup in the small blue and primitive planet. He is quickly intercepted on Earth by a member of the very Decepticons that he was fighting against on his own planet, Cyberton.

The consequent fight with the other Transformer disables his speech component and his memory core, the latter essentially giving him the machine-equivalent of amnesia. But he manages to transform into an old 60s Volkswagen Beetle before he finally turns off.

This is until he is inadvertently activated by Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld), who finds him in a junkyard. He reveals what he is and, with minimal shock, she accepts him as a friend, and at times, a father figure. The attempt to hide him from members of her family and the neighbourhood, as well as the United States government and Decepticons, in a tiny garage does not go as well as they hope. Of course, in the end, matters have to be settled in a fistfight.

The film can best be described as E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial meets the original, 2007, Transformers. The film may contain the characters and universe established by the Transformers franchise, but the heart of the film is with E.T.

It is successful in managing to make the movie a smaller, more personal affair instead of the apocalyptic significance the other movies tried to take. This is a movie just as much about the robot as it is the human protagonist.

As strange as it sounds, what works for a fantasy of this sort is to lessen the stakes, allow limited destruction and opt to dissect the plot and the characters at the individual level.

Much credit should go to Travis Knight and Christina Hodson, director and scriptwriter of the movie, respectively, who realised the franchise could never have been more than one for the family. The success rate of making an intellectually engaging film about machine-like aliens as protagonists is just not possible; better to go for comedy and light themes. That is why E.T. remains one of the best movies ever made about aliens.

For Knight - who directs with the assumption that a few seconds of good action sequences rather than long minutes of bad ones is better - this is a mighty achievement. He could have fallen down the hill that Neill Blomkamp was a victim of. He did not make an ingenious movie like District 9 only to sell out with the likes of Elysium and Chappie.

He made Kubo and the Two Strings, a competent and touching animated film, and took on a project that could have turned out to be egregious but succeeded anyway. I cannot wait for his next work.

PUBLISHED ON Jan 05,2019 [ VOL 19 , NO 975]

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