Directed by Travis Knight.
Starring Hailee Steinfeld, Dylan O’Brien, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., John Cena, Angela Bassett, Justin Theroux, John Ortiz, Peter Cullen, Jess Harnell, Jason Drucker, Abby Quinn, Rachel Crow, Ricardo Hoyos, Gracie Dzienny, Kenneth Choi, Pamela Adlon, Stephen Schneider, Grey Griffin, Steve Blum, Marcella Bragio, Andrew Morgado, David Sobolov, Jon Bailey, Megyn Price, Glynn Turman, Vanessa Ross, Len Cariou, and Tony Toste.
On the run in the year of 1987, Bumblebee finds refuge in a junkyard in a small Californian beach town. Charlie, on the cusp of turning 18 and trying to find her place in the world, discovers Bumblebee, battle-scarred and broken.
Bay-humor was a plague on the live-action Transformers adaptations. I don’t think any sane, rationally thinking person will debate that (just about every scene in the series with the parents was some excuse for purposeless gross-out humor). There’s also nothing inherently wrong with inserting comedy into Transformers; these are towering battle-hardened robots that can instantly morph into automobiles and back on the fly, but above all else they are sentient beings that don’t have the slightest clue regarding how life works on earth, meaning that fish out of water set pieces theoretically should be commonplace. Once again, just not the juvenile nonsense Michael Bay brain, no, more like shitstorms.
Full disclosure, Michael Bay does serve as a producer on Bumblebee, prequel to the six blockbusters that he helmed, miraculously worsening with quality each outing and with diminishing box office results to boot. Now, I’m not going to act like the atrocities to cinema Michael Bay committed has ruined my childhood along with my ability to look at these beloved characters the same way again, but if this franchise was ever going to successfully continue in live-action cinematic form, then a changing of the guard was necessary, regardless of if Michael Bay wanted to pull yet another Terry Funk and come back for one more despite repeatedly professing his finality. Needless to say, himself, returning executive producer Steven Spielberg, and Paramount as an entity found a fitting and inspired successor with revered Laika Studios lead animator Travis Knight (who also directed his first project a few years ago, the excellent animated feature Kubo and the Two Strings).
There are plentiful rewarding creative decisions here, but one of the wisest is hiring a filmmaker that has previously worked on stories of fractured families, second only to the decision to hire a female writer in Christina Hodson so that protagonist Charlie Watson (Hailee Steinfeld yet again endearing, capable of adding complexity to a somewhat basic hero archetype) feels like an actual 18-year-old girl living in the 80s, struggling with moving on from the loss of her father and her mother’s (Pamela Adlon) apparent swiftness at finding new love and remarrying. She’s mechanically intelligent, emotionally guided by music (her wardrobe consists of a seemingly never-ending array of decade appropriate band T-shirts), charmingly clumsy, and prefers to be alone. Her mother and younger brother have moved on, and her stepfather (Stephen Schneider) isn’t exactly the brightest person to talk to about her pain; he means well but often just says unhelpful nonsense.
Basically, she comes into ownership of the eponymous Bumblebee (a nickname she designates to him during a heartwarming initial first encounter upon revealing that he’s more than car parts) and is thrilled she now has a means of transportation. The only problem is that some sort of extraterrestrial hunting military squad led by John Cena (he has fairly generic motives that are mitigated from playful writing giving him a number of goofy macho one-liners that he nails for intended laughs) are under the impression that Bumblebee is the enemy rather than a pair of Decepticons also on the hunt for him as a means to locate Autobot leader Optimus Prime. The self-aware script even pokes fun at the dumbness of the soldiers and inevitable involved scientists for inadvertently going along with the enemy. If you’re not going to subvert clichés, you might as well have some fun with them; Travis Knight and company even find the time to drop some amusing references to the original films.
Much of Bumblebee is centered on the friendly bond that grows over the course of the film, done so with a gentle touch sorely missing from past installments. When Charlie and Bumblebee decide to throw toilet paper and eggs at the house of a nasty bully, the comedic payoff actually works because we care and like these characters. This is no hyperbole, but Michael Bay never did that once, which is astounding considering all six of his movies run well over two hours compared to Bumblebee‘s tight pacing resulting under two hours. The stabs at silly humor here work, the soundtrack comprised of nearly every fabulous 80s hit you can think of (everything from Bon Jovi to Depeche Mode and more including fan service inclusions) strikes the nostalgia chords hard, the character work resonates when Charlie has a verbal light with her mother; in other words, it’s fantastic having a Transformers film fixated on characters instead of explosions and giant metallic robot testicles.
There is a romantic interest in the form of a shy and nerdy Memo (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.), but his presence, unfortunately, feels like an unnecessary third wheel to the proceedings more than anything. The character arc of Charlie is centered on finding her place in the world and moving on from the tragic death of the most important person in her world, her irreplaceable father, and while she technically never actually kisses him, the dynamic is there but thankfully never distracts too much from the chemistry between her and Bumblebee. It’s a tricky situation; he’s a character that does nothing but in a way, he shouldn’t really get a chance to do anything of major importance. Realistically, Charlie does need to make a friend, but there’s probably a better way to do it than a pseudo-love subplot.
Anyway, aside from all of these character dynamics, the promise of action does loom over the story and does deliver with a lower-stakes climax that excites for multiple reasons. The one-on-one battles in Bumblebee take a page from the rest of film, focusing on specific characters rather than bombarding you with robots (this only briefly happens during the opening sequence depicting the fall of Cybertron) and feel far more personalized to the combating participants. Not to mention, the arenas are more confined allowing for more crisp and coherent action to take place; the choreography and special effects are outstanding. Essentially, it’s another improved upon area from Bayformers.
Some have already touted Bumblebee as the best live-action Transformers movie, which is a no-brainer and not much of a complement at all, honestly. Go further; this movie is better than all previous six films combined. Michael Bay always had the right idea by injecting humor into these movies, but Travis Knight has refined the jokes here while Christina Hodson has penned a script that understands both Transformers lore and the frustrated emotions of its central heroine. Steven Spielberg once again has his name on a film that actually does bear resemblance to an Amblin project of the 80s, but really, Travis Knight’s DNA is also all over this. Sometimes giving a relative unknown tons of money to direct a blockbuster doesn’t always pay off (let’s face it, the bar for success here was also always going to be easy to clear), but this time they picked an immensely talented and passionate filmmaker that will hopefully (alongside screenwriter Christina Hodson) receive even more high profile work. If he’s on board, I’m all in favor of simply letting Travis Knight direct every live-action Transformers from now on.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com