Travis Knight directs Hailee Steinfeld in this Transformers origin story
Michael Bay's adrenaline addled adaptations of the Transformers saga have been the poster children for the cognitive split between audiences and critics for over a decade now. The first five films in the series have largely served as a compendium for loud, incoherent computer-generated action sequences with little of substance to insure that'll they survive the test of time. Released during the summer blockbuster push in their respective years, they've been a consistently perfect storm of brainless hyper sensory entertainment for millions, but they've also been very bad movies.
Travis Knight's latest addition to the franchise, the origin story of the Transformers spunky diminutive sidekick Bumblebee, is the antithesis to all of Bay's nonsensical bombast. With Bumblebee, writer Christina Hodson (Unforgettable, and the upcoming DC Birds of Prey feature) is actually trying to tell a story in which characters and characterization matter. The script introduces previously foreign concepts like character arc, motivation, and empathy into a story about giant robots smashing each other to bits. It's a genuinely good movie.
As the Transformers planet of Cybertron is in its final days, the Autobot rebellion needs to find a new base, safe from the aggression of their Decepticon enemies. It falls to the shrimpy B-127 (soon to be rechristened Bumblebee) to set up camp on the distant, hidden planet of Earth and wait for his leader, Optimus Prime, and the rest of his compatriots to join him an regroup. Bumblebee's mission doesn't exactly go to plan, and he ends up in a junkyard having taken the form of a beaten up VW Beetle with little to no recognition of what he's doing or why he is where he is.
The year is 1987.
Enter: Charlie Watson (Hailee Steinfeld), an 18 year old Tomboy desperate to find a way out of her hometown of Brighton Falls and away from her mother and the memories of her recently deceased father. She has a job at the Hot Dog on a Stick nearby, but she has to take a moped to get there and really needs a car. Hey, there's a beat up VW Beetle in a junkyard, what a coincidence?
From here the story develops much as you would expect. Charlie discovers Bumblebee's true identity as a 15 foot sentient robot, the bad robots pick up Bumblebee's scent and attempt to track him down with the help of some over-eager government agents looking to make interstellar friends, and Charlie and Bee have to save each other, and the world, and discover the meaning of life, and learn how to talk to boys, and how to have courage, and also figure out why Bumblebee has such a distaste for The Smiths.
While the story might be fairly straight forward - it mirrors any number of mysterious visitor films from the last 40 years, E.T., Harry and the Hendersons, Encino Man... - it's told with such charm and empathy that it's easy to get sucked in. Charlie is a hard-ass around everyone, especially her family, but her journey to self-realization involves overcoming those internal demons we all have, as well as learning to open up after the tragic passing of her father. Bee is a kind of magical guide through that journey, helping her to understand what she needs to do to move on and start living again. Add to that a goofy family, a love-struck nerdy (?) neighbor, and plenty of robot hijinks as Bumblebee learns what it means to be human, and you've got a recipe for a nuclear charm bomb.
The script and execution of Bumblebee are absolutely drowning in '80s nostalgia porn, and it was okay by me. The sheer volume of FM radio needle drops in the film, from diegetic music, to carefully selected soundtrack songs, to the music that Bumblebee uses to communicate, are guaranteed to make any fan of the decade grin from ear to ear. Charlie's wardrobe is a never-ending gallery of retro indie rock band tees from The Smiths to The Cure to Motorhead and beyond, and he bedroom walls are plastered with college rock posters. The decision to push the reset button on the series by going back to its '80s roots - which is why everyone loved it in the first place - was a stroke of genius, and the way plays out on screen is perfect.
However, when I go see a Transformers movie, the thing I've always cringed about most was the action, and that's one more element that Bumblebee gets so right. There are still a decent number of CG action blowouts, but they are so much better executed than the previous films that it's like night and day. The fights are scaled down in terms of the number of grey metal pixels flashing incoherently to and fro, and every battle has significance to the plot. The stakes are clear, and the geography of the fights is well-defined, meaning that I never have to wonder where I am and where the action is going, and it all tells a story. It is exceptional work on the part of the director and FX team.
I haven't even mentioned John Cena, whose comically square jaw and overly earnest performance as the lead government agent trying to take the Transformers down is charming in a way that anchors the film back to its cartoon roots. He's quietly become one of the most dependable character actors in the business with strong, memorable turns in this, Trainwreck, and Blockers over the last few years.
I didn't expect much from Bumblebee, but it really won me over and turns out that it's one of the best family friendly action films of the year. Even though this one is PG-13, it never quite feels like it's pulling its punches as much as films like The Meg, and it's not as cartoonishly violent as Rampage, it sits in a nice sweet spot in between as a coming-of-age film with more than enough explosions to go around. This is the Transformers film we wanted all along, and it's finally here.