Now this is how you do a Transformers film right!
Set in the late 80s with a trimmed down narrative focus centering around a single member of the Autobots, Bumblebee follows our titular robot in disguise as he crash lands on Earth following an emergency exit from the war torn world of Cybertron. With his memory banks wiped clean and nowhere to go, Bumblebee befriends Charlie Watson (Hailee Steinfeld), a teenage girl who is having a hard time coming to terms with her mother remarrying after her father passed away years ago. Feeling like a misunderstood outcast, Charlie takes it upon herself to help get Bumblebee back in fighting shape as she teaches him how to blend in with everyday life as well as the ins and outs of living on Earth. But with two Decepticons hot on Bumblebee’s trail, a pissed off agent of Sector 7 named Jack Burns (John Cena) tracking him down, and his mission parameters still stuck inside his wiped motherboard, will Bumblebee and his young protector be able to fend off the oncoming threat, or will Bumblebee fail at protecting Earth before he can even get the chance to?
I’ll say this right off the bat: I truly enjoyed almost everything I experienced in this film. I loved the more grounded, simple approach to the story that focused more squarely on its characters and their relationships with one another rather than the thin, one-note caricatures populating the series from its inception. I loved the more intimate, yet larger than life battles that played up the spectacle of seeing two metal giants beat the ever-living scrap out of each other instead of the typical rush to another set piece where things go boom just because. If it’s not already obvious by what I just described, this ain’t your typical Michael Bay Transformers film, no, this is something different entirely, and the film – and hopefully the franchise as a whole moving forward – is much better off because of it.
Directed by series newcomer Travis Knight, the film felt like it was in good hands almost immediately. Starting things off with a quick look at Cybertron and the civil war we’ve all been waiting to see play out since this series started, was an inspired choice and set the proceedings off on the right foot. With an 80s soundtrack that perfectly brings the flavor of the time period to realization and a cast that is better than any film in the franchise thus far, Bumblebee wears it’s heart on its sleeve and isn’t afraid of keeping that the focus throughout, not only giving us some great bonding material between Charlie and Bumblebee himself, but also between Charlie and her family. The emotion is real, and I’d be lying if some of it didn’t catch me off guard, Christina Hodson’s script doing wonders to build a world where a towering yellow car can forge an everlasting bond with a girl that just wants her father back, while at the same time giving us a feeling of having known these characters before the end credits roll. The script is funny when it needs to be and perfectly functional everywhere else, only losing its focus when the conflict of the story rears its ugly head, but hey, the filmmakers tried to at least make it seem natural in the grand scheme of things, but more on that later.
On the technical side of things, computer graphics are so close to being photo realistic in these films that it’s a wonder why we can’t have an all Cybertron focused film in the foreseeable future. Each battle looks and feels great and making Bumblebee an actual character that has to interact with humans more often than before (outside of simply speeding them off to safety that is), really allows the filmmakers to play with these characters in a realistic way, from having them interact with the word around them more often to just simply having funny, world/character building moments because they can. It’s obvious at these points that the filmmakers cared about these characters before doing anything with them, whereas in the original films, no one seemed to give a shit about anything except midriff shots of Megan Fox and explosion porn, but I digress.
Though there’s a lot to love with this film, it still has its fair share of problems that stop it from being truly great. Most of the issues I had stem from a central conflict that seems to be more of an afterthought than anything of real substance to a point that it throws a wrench into the pacing and logic of the film as a whole, and distracts from the very personal story of two unlikely friends that form a strong bond through their intense shared experiences. Fortunately, because of the fantastic dynamic between said unlikely friends, Charlie and Bumblebee, the conflict missteps can be reluctantly forgiven if not somewhat frustrating whenever the story decides to focus its attention on it. Because of this, and since John Cena is such a natural at acting, it’s slightly annoying to see his character have to take on the cliché role of the “villain” in this one, but with only two other one-note Decepticons in the film pushing the story forward, a lot of the bad scripting and necessary story beats are laid at his feet – which he mostly handles well, mind you – but casting someone stellar in a relatively thin role to hopefully help ease some of the narrative missteps just barely pays off, so I guess I shouldn’t complain.
Other than a few other odd, dumb and head scratch-worthy story beats that again seem like they’re only in play to manufacture the continued progression of the story, the epilogue of all things felt a bit forced. Listen, I get that every film that comes out nowadays is always a set-up for something more, but the way that the filmmakers tagged on an ending that ties into the existing franchise while simultaneously setting up a potential sequel is a bit disheartening if only because it doesn’t jive with the way the rest of the film played out. It felt like they were nipping a great future for this prequel series in the bud all in the name of keeping that synergy between the films that have come before, and while I don’t know what a sequel would entail at this point, I’m still a bit peeved to see that same old franchise mentality that ruined the series to begin with still find its way into this one.
Better than the past few Transformers films combined, Bumblebee takes the smart approach to this diminished franchise by boiling down the story to a simple premise and allowing the character-work do all of the heavy lifting. With some truly great action set pieces that feel more intimate and somehow more explosive than ever before, and a sense of direction that lands in the sweet spot for where this series is hopefully heading, this film has no right to even exist but is able to defy expectations in nearly every way. Sure, there’s a bit more of a family friendly tone to it as well as some questionable and cliché script choices, especially when it comes to the actual conflict of the story and shoehorned epilogue, but for fans of the Transformers legacy and casual moviegoers alike that might have been jaded with the franchise as of late, everyone should find something to enjoy in this unexpectedly solid prequel. I’ll take another one of these as long as Michael Bay stays far away from it.