The latest Transformers movie, Bumblebee, isn’t going to win any prizes for originality – but it’s pretty good at doing what it should do, says Travis Johnson.
And so, after five increasingly poorly reviewed but hugely lucrative Transformers movies from director Michael “three helicopters” Bay, comes Bumblebee, a soft series reboot that dials down the number of shapeshifting robots and explosions, ups the sentiment and nostalgia, and is clearly intended to extend the life of a franchise which, after 2017’s utterly OTT The Last Knight, really had nowhere left to go. Once you’ve partially eaten the Earth, you’ve pretty much run out your string in terms of spectacle.
Bumblebee fires off most of its spectacle in its prologue, which takes place on the planet Cybertron in the dying moments of the Autobot/Decepticon civil war (let’s just assume you’re at least a little au fait with the Transformers mythos, or we’ll be here all day). Following a few cameo appearances that will draw Pavlovian drool from the mouths of now-adult old school Transformers fans, plucky yellow scout B-127, aka Bumblebee (Dylan O’Brien, albeit briefly), is dispatched to Earth by heroic Autobot leader Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen, who’s been voicing the character since the year dot). But a Decepticon attack and a misunderstanding with the US military (repped by wrestler-turned-actor John Cena) leaves our hero voiceless, amnesiac, and disguised as a 1967 Volkswagen Beetle.
Which leaves him in prime position to meet up with troubled teen Charlie Watson (Hailee Steinfeld), who is both struggling with the recent death of her father, and in need of a first car. It isn’t long before she figures out that said car is a large but friendly alien robot, and then we’re basically watching an aged-up E.T. with a few action beats sprinkled in for good measure.
Like the rest of us, the creative minds behind Bumblebee are in no doubt that the only completely successful element of the preceding Transformers films was the “a boy and his car” sequence with Shia LaBeouf in the original 2007 live action film, and have essentially expanded those scenes to feature length here. It mostly works, too – Steinfeld delivers a charismatic turn as the moody, mechanically gifted Charlie, who’s nous for engines is only matched by her love of dark alternative pop (did anyone expect a Transformers soundtrack dominated by The Smiths?). The chemistry between her and her robocar buddy is palpable, and the film’s best scenes are when its just Charlie hanging out with Bumblebee and trying to teach him stuff.
However, while the central pairing is solid gold, the further we get out from it the less interesting things get. Charlie is embedded in a standard-issue Spielbergian troubled family which includes Pamela Adlon as her mother and Stephen Schneider as her new stepfather, but the domestic conflicts there are fairly forgettable. Likewise, Charlie’s friend and possible love interest, Memo (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.) isn’t given much to do, and a small subplot involving Charlie trying to prove herself to the local cool kids adds up to very little – it’s all just ‘80s movie plot boilerplate.
And you better believe that Bumblebee is ‘80s to the bone. The film is set in 1987 (three years after the toy line made it’s debut in the U.S.), and it never misses an opportunity to remind you of the fact. The soundtrack is needle drop city, the fashions are the most ‘80s of ‘80s excess, iconic movie posters adorn bedroom walls, and at one point Charlie’s family sit down together to watch ALF over dinner. The Breakfast Club gets referenced a lot. It’s utterly excessive; I lived through the ‘80s and I am here to tell you, the actual ‘80s weren’t even this ‘80s. Still, the hunger for nostalgia is high right now, and there’s no doubt that this kind of pandering will be happily received in most quarters.
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Strangely, the film’s weakest areas are when its actually dealing with its main plot – the whole Autobots vs Decepticons thing, here embodied by two evil Transformers voiced by Angela Bassett and Justin Theroux, who team up with Cena’s military man to track down our ‘bot Bumblebee (sidebar: they missed a trick by not making Cena’s character a member of the G.I. Joe team). This plot thread spins its wheels until it’s time for the big action finale, literally marking time until the appropriate moment for the pyrotechnics to kick off. When they come, those pyrotechnics aren’t particularly impressive. Say what you want about the excesses of former helmer Bay, but in his last outing he gave us a three-headed robot dragon and a robot the size of a planet; Bumblebee’s low-key climax can’t really compete in terms of spectacle, and the film hasn’t done enough emotional heavy lifting for the pathos to pay off, either.
Which isn’t to say that Bumblebee drops the ball, rather that it fulfills its remit in a precise but unsurprising manner. It’s a competent film, repeatedly and confidently hitting the mark again and again but never goes the extra mile to deliver a truly impressive or resonant filmgoing experience. Really, it feels like the filmmakers have course-corrected too much; whereas Bay’s Transformers films frequently felt like they held their audience in contempt, Bumblebee was swung too far in the opposite direction. This is safe, palatable, risk-free commercial filmmaking, which will hit the spot nicely for a great swathe of viewers, but leave the more discerning vaguely but unmistakably dissatisfied. It is what it is.