Reviewed by Steve McGowan
Review Rating: 4.5 out of 5 giant robots
The Transformers live action film franchise was a series of popular but schlocky movies by filmmaker Michael Bay, which began in 2009 and has spawned numerous sequels, based on the cartoon and toyline that started in the 1980’s, and thus feeding off of the childhood dreams of the now-adults that enjoyed the property when they were children, and introducing the concept to an entirely new generation of kids. It was a slam-dunk marketing strategy for Paramount and Hasbro, until the films became so bad that every new episode in the franchise led to diminishing returns at the box office. Therefore, it was in everyone’s best interest that the franchise was either retired or reinvented, and they chose reinvention. While many reboots and remake attempts have fallen flat, Bumblebee is an epic surprise of a triumph on so many levels. Michael Bay is thankfully gone from the director’s chair, and Travis Knight (of Kubo and the Two Strings fame) now helms the movie. The script was written by Christina Hodson, who clearly has a lot of love for the source material.
This film is not a sequel to the Bay films, but a prequel. It serves as a sort of soft reboot of the series, as some continuity points are maintained while others ignored. For example, the loss of Bumblebee’s voice is explained, as well as how he ended up in hiding on Earth. I would have preferred a full reboot, with the Bay films being completely ignored because why bother maintaining continuity with a weakly written series of films that never cared about continuity in the first place? In any case, the fact that it is a prequel means it takes place in the glorious 1980s, with an awesome 80’s soundtrack to boot.
Bumblebee’s opening moments show us the war on Cybertron, and it’s a glorious montage of pure fanservice for anyone who loved the 1980’s G1 cartoon. We see Optimus Prime leading a losing war against the Decepticons, only to retreat and send his lieutenant B-127 to Earth as a place to regroup their forces. Every transformer sports their classic G1 look, from Optimus’s boxy red torso to the sleek triangular Cybertronian forms of the Seekers, Starscream and his posse. B-127 escapes to Earth in the battle, and unfortunately lands near a US military training camp where he is spotted and pursued not only by the army but also by a Decepticon that followed him to Earth. He is successful in fighting them off, but is gravely wounded, losing his ability to speak, his memory, and is about to lose power. However before he does, he takes the form of a yellow Volkswagen beetle to disguise himself on Earth.
After that action-packed introduction, the film changes pace and introduces us to our human protagonist: Charlie Watson (Hailee Steinfeld), an outcast teenage girl struggling with the death of her beloved father, living with her mother, brother and stepfather who seem to not understand her pains and frustrations at all. Her hobby is auto-repair, a passion she shared with her late father. She is trying to repair a Corvette that doesn’t start, a project she was doing with her father before he died. In the meantime, she rides around a Moped and wishes she had a car that worked. She works at a corndog shop, while her co-worker Memo (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.), an affable nerd with a huge crush on Charlie, tries to work up the courage to talk to her.
She also helps out at a junkyard, and that is where she finds B-127 in the form of an old yellow Volkswagen. On her 18th birthday, the old junkyard dealer gifts her the run-down old beetle, and she happily drives it home. Upon closer inspection in her garage, she accidentally reactivates B-127 and he turns into his robot mode. It’s at this point where the two outcasts form an unlikely friendship, and begins a series of hijinks and adventures. Charlie names her friend “Bumblebee”, and helps him recall his memories by fixing him up. She tells him to hide his true form when around other humans, although Memo eventually discovers Bumblebee and becomes friends with both Charlie and her robot pal. Charlie and Bumblebee’s character arcs are the defining moments of this film. They’re charming, funny, and joyous.
However that is not to last; two Decepticons, Dropkick and Shatter, track Bumblebee down to Earth. Also on poor Bumblebee’s tail is the US military and Section 7, the shady organization we saw in the other Transformers films. Eventually Bumblebee does have to fight off not only the Decepticons but the military as well. Fortunately, Charlie and Memo prove themselves to be loyal allies to Bumblebee, and by the end of the film the fate of the Earth itself hangs in the balance.
This film lovingly crafts all of its main characters, humans and robot alike, in a way that we fall in love with them and actually feel the stakes when the big battles arrive. The previous films by Michael Bay lacked any kid of emotional payoff, thus the action scenes were empty and lacked a sense of urgency or stakes. Here the characters feel real. We feel for Charlie’s pain. We feel for Bumblebee’s pain. The emotional core of the film packs a punch through both the superior acting skills of Steinfeld and the incredible production designers that gave Bumblebee expressions entirely through a robot face and movements.
The selling point for the Transformers films used to be the spectacle of giant robot battles, but without any heart or characters worth a damn, they were big loud empty wastes of time. Bumblebee turned all that around into a film worth watching, with characters worth caring about. The icing on the cake for longtime fans are the numerous easter eggs and cameos, and the amazing 80s-themed soundtrack (including an easter egg song that will make every Transformers cartoon fan squeal with joy, you’ll know when you hear it). It isn’t a perfect film, but damn is it joyous and full of fun.