Bumblebee Departs The Transformers Formula To Be A Good Movie
By Jordan Bosch
I’ve consciously avoided seeing most of the Transformers movies. I was never much a fan of the franchise, and Michael Bay, despite being a more interesting filmmaker than he’s given credit for (as Lindsay Ellis and Patrick Willems have expertly demonstrated), generally doesn’t make very good movies. But Bumblebee, a spin-off prequel to the series, piqued my interest for three reasons.
First, it’s directed by Travis Knight, president of of the stop-motion animation studio Laika and director of its strongest feature, Kubo and the Two Strings. Second, though it boasts a script by the talented Christina Hodson, it underwent significant (though uncredited) rewrites by Kelly Fremon Craig, the writer-director of The Edge of Seventeen, which alongside Kubo was one of the best movies of 2016. And third, that films’ star Hailee Steinfeld is the human lead of the story, and she’s one of the most talented actresses of her generation. All of this boded unusually well for the movie, and luckily I was right to be optimistic.
Set in the San Francisco area in 1987, the alien robot B-127 (Dylan O’Brien) has been sent to Earth by his leader Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen) after the Autobots suffered a major loss in their war with the Decepticons. Through a series of circumstances he loses his ability to speak and most of his memories. Disguised as a yellow Volkswagen Beetle, he’s discovered by a teenage girl Charlie (Steinfeld), unhappy and misunderstood since the loss of her father. Keeping him secret, Charlie names him Bumblebee and the two form a close bond at the same time as other Decipticons have discovered his whereabouts.
One of the movies’ biggest strengths is Hailee Steinfeld. Her characters’ backstory and journey are in no way original (in fact they mirror parts of Sam Witwicky’s from the first Transformers movie), but Steinfeld gives them exceptional weight nonetheless, ensuring the audience is invested in her and single-handedly lifting the film out of some of its tropes. There are seriously some emotional moments that work purely because of this performance. Charlie is quite likeable too, and her detached, awkward behaviour comes from a place of real hurt -certainly more compelling and relatable than any of Bays’ leads. Steinfeld and the filmmakers also understand the importance of giving her a strong relationship with Bumblebee. The movie is essentially E.T. with a robot and it captures a similar touching relationship between its two outcast characters. And their bond is the movies’ heart, making it that much more disappointing in the knowledge of this being a prequel that Bumblebee must go on to spend a lot more time with far lesser characters.
It’s a really small scale movie too, not trying to be epic or mount huge stakes. It’s much more in the vein of an 80s teen movie, which should be no surprise considering the people who made it. The film is at times too on-the-nose with its 80s references, particularly in the music. Charlie’s love of The Smiths is fine, but the movie didn’t need back to back montages to Bon Jovi and Duran Duran. However where music is used well is in Bumblebee’s method of communication, which as in the other movies is through select radio excerpts, but this movie details his learning to do that. Bumblebee has a great design and his transformations are very smooth and logical. This is where Knight’s experience with stop-motion is an asset as he makes sure the audience sees the detail in how Bumblebee becomes the Beetle and vice-versa. The visual effects and action scenes are also fairly clear and devoid of excess. It’s remarkable what these creatures and this world can look like when not shot like a commercial.
The story isn’t very clever or nuanced; there’s an element of Charlie’s backstory that is certain to come back in the climax, and it deals in some typical 80s teen stereotypes, including obnoxious bullies and shenanigans. But in this set-up it’s being made by a very competent team who clearly care a lot about these characters and this universe -something that’s made clear enough in a short prologue on Cybertron which includes no doubt a number of easter eggs for fans.
The movie’s supported by John Cena in a charismatic performance as a government agent and John Ortiz as an idiot scientist. Charlie’s mum and step-dad are played by Pamela Adlon and Stephen Schneider, but the most prominent side character is Jorge Lendeborg Jr’s geeky Memo, a neighbourhood boy who has a crush on Charlie and is accidentally brought into her confidence about Bumblebee. He’s very much an obligatory character though, only there for Charlie to have someone else to talk to. His pointlessness even serves a joke in the climax. The Decepticon villains are voiced by Angela Basset and Justin Theroux, and have some refreshing personalities, living up to their species’ name as well in how they interact with humans.
Bumblebee, though not a great film, is by far the best movie of theTransformers franchise. Its restraint and earnest story are amplified by an excellent performance by Steinfeld and a real endearing relationship between her and Bumblebee. The filmmaking bears no resemblance to what came before, and is all overseen by people who like the source material enough to put genuine effort in that pays off. I hope Bumblebee is a success, so that it encourages more movies like it in this franchise. Because the Transformers series isn’t going to die, and films like Bumblebee are much more preferable to the alternative.