When the notion of a Bumblebee spin-off movie was first put forth, initial reaction assumed it would just be more of the same, and a shrewd way to keep the franchise going. But then the first trailer hit and suddenly expectations changed. The prospect of an ’80s-set Transformers movie, which showed brief glimpses of Generation 1 designs and touching character work, started to build hope that the film could finally be the one that original fans had been waiting for. So it’s an incredible relief to say that Bumblebee exceeds all expectations and delivers a fantastic, emotional, exciting film that ranks as the best live-action Transformers movie to date, by far.
If you grew up with Transformers, the opening five minutes will have you wanting to leap out of your seat and jump with joy. Director Travis Knight essentially lifts imagery from the start of the cartoon pilot to show the war on Cybertron–and it immediately assuages any fears. It’s a statement that makes Knight’s love of the lore clear, but also that he’s putting his own stamp on the movie from a visual standpoint and in the way the action is shot.
Gone are the blurry, indiscriminate Bay designs and instead we get the bold colors and instantly recognizable faces of those characters so beloved from childhood. We see Soundwave and Shockwave lead the Decepticon charge as seen in the trailer, so to disclose any more would spoil the surprise. A standout moment though is getting to watch some prime Prime in action, and there are no lips on Optimus this time.
Events soon crash down to earth, where we’re introduced to John Cena’s Burns, whose training exercise is rudely interrupted by a robotic rumble, leaving him scarred in more ways than one. It adds a little more depth to the usual, militaristic cliché and Cena (who’s built an acting career out of solid supporting roles) plays the nuances and anger of the character well, eliciting sympathy rather than just being ‘the bad guy’ to root against.
The heart of the film, however, centers on the relationship between Bumblebee and Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld), and it’s here that the film excels. Setting the film in the ’80s allows it more room to breathe in terms of the narrative and character development. The action takes place in a smalltown suburbs–a staple setting for some of that decade’s best movies–and the film wears its numerous influences proudly on its sleeve, with E.T. being the most prominent.
Charlie is an outsider and very much alone, failing to connect with her new family unit, while enduring torment from the usual gang of mean girls at school, but what adds such poignancy is that she’s suffering from all of these things due to grief. Just as Travis Knight has done with his beautiful animation work, especially Kubo and the Two Strings, he deconstructs and reconstructs the idea of family and relationships with heartbreaking power. The bond that Charlie forms with ‘Bee’ becomes so pervasive that it’s almost impossible not to shed a tear, or several–even just the way she touches his face can bring a lump to the throat. It’s a testament to both Steinfeld’s performance and Knight’s direction of the CG that they can bring new life to the loveable yellow ’bot.
Of course there’s also plenty of action and spectacle, but the decision to keep the number of both Transformers and human characters to a handful adds that much-needed investment to the film’s thrills. And again the flashbacks to Cybertron, which happen on a much larger canvas than we’ve seen before, are driven by the joy of seeing (and hearing) the original robots in disguise as fans have always wanted.
For narrative reasons, there are two new Decepticons added to the fray, who spend the duration of the film living up to that very name. The pair bring some real menace to the cat-and-mouse pursuit of Bee while not falling into some of the previous (and unfortunate) stereotypes that have hindered previous Transformers movies. It helps that their introduction sees a rather brutal encounter with an iconic Autobot – a sly nod to the blunt force trauma that the 1986 movie inflicted on many fans as children.
The Easter eggs don’t stop there though, as the film is jammed full of references but since they’re all done with affection, they don’t feel forced or jarring. The Breakfast Club, for example, makes an appearance as it is want to do in many a high school-set film, but it’s only when you make the connection to Judd Nelson and Hot Rod that you appreciate how layered they are. There’s also a very real quality given to the ’80s setting, which is almost understated in Bumblebee in comparison to most depictions–there’s no overt indulgence into the mullets and shoulder pads, which gives the movie an almost timeless quality.
Of course the soundtrack is a giveaway, but there are still teenagers across the globe finding solace in listening to the Smiths to deal with angst and loneliness, and it’s great to think that a whole new generation might find their way to the likes of Tears for Fears and Duran Duran via a new Transformers movie. Dario Marianelli’s score, meanwhile, adds a little fusion of John Carpenter-style synth to proceedings, adding to the richness of the film in a subtle way.
Bumblebee is a success on many levels, with content that can be enjoyed by young audiences, those who have grown up with the Michael Bay movies, as well as original fans. It’s certainly a high for the franchise, balancing action with drama to great effect. And while some of the comedy doesn’t quite land, you’ll most likely be too busy punching the air to care.
Bumblebee opens on Dec. 21.