REVIEW – ‘Bumblebee’

After an impressive and enjoyable first film, the Transformers franchise quickly became one of the most overbloated and nauseating sagas of recent times, typified by last year’s nonsensical entry The Last Knight, which this film critic would have no hesitation in calling the absolute worst film of the last five (or more) years. With director Michael Bay’s penchant for bigger and louder explosions and visually incomprehensible robot-on-robot warfare, each film seemed insistent on leaving its audience with a bigger migraine than its predecessor.

They served their purpose (i.e. they all made a truckload of money) and undoubtedly have their admirers. However, in a landscape where most box-office blockbusters are proving to be more than just bombastic, vacuous noise, it was time for this beleaguered franchise to hand the reins over to someone other than Bay. And, unsurprisingly, it just may have saved the entire series.

With a narrative on a decidedly smaller scale, a plot that’s entirely coherent, and a hefty dose of warmth and heart, Bumblebee is the much-needed and richly-entertaining departure the Transformers franchise so desperately needed. Throw in a host of characters you actually give two damns about, plenty of genuine and earnest humour, and lively action sequences you can actually visually comprehend, and, rather amazingly, you have one of the year’s greatest action blockbusters. Who saw that coming?

Wisely taking the “let’s try to rescue the franchise with a prequel” route, Bumblebee takes place before the events of the original 2007 instalment. Working as essentially both a prequel and a spinoff, the film begins with a prologue set on the technologically-advanced planet of Cybertron, home to the warring robots known as Autobots and Decepticons. Landing smack bang in the middle of their devastating civil war, we witness the Autobot resistance, led by Optimus Prime (voiced by Peter Cullen), admitting defeat and ordering an evacuation of their home planet. Under Optimus’ command, young soldier B-127 (voiced by Dylan O’Brien) heads for the distant planet of Earth, which will serve as the new base for the Autobots’ potential future counterstrike against the Decepticons.

Arriving on our planet circa 1987, B-127 has the unfortunate luck of crashlanding right in the middle of a military exercise being conducted by Jack Burns (John Cena, hamming it up to maximum G.I. Joe effect), a commander of a secretive U.S. government agency known as Sector 7. Naturally, Jack’s first instinct is to immediately order the destruction of the poor lost robot who takes off in a desperate bid to elude capture. Things only get worse for B-127 when Decepticon hunter Blitzwing (voiced by David Sobolov) touches down on earth and launches a vicious assault against his rival. After Blitzwing destroys B-127’s voice box and leaves the robot a crumpled mess, he has no choice but to disguise himself as a beat-up yellow 1967 Volkswagen Beetle and lay low in a San Francisco Bay Area junkyard.

It’s here B-127 is uncovered by Charlie Watson (Hailee Steinfeld), a scrappy 17-year-old who’s scrounging for parts to help finish a Corvette restoration project she started with her late father. While her mother, Sally (Pamela Adlon) and little brother, Otis (Jason Drucker) appear to have moved on from his untimely death, Charlie still mourns her beloved father and ultimately feels rather alienated from those around her. In desperate need of a car to claim some semblance of teenage independence, Charlie is really more in need of a close friend. And, hey, whaddayaknow, she gets both rolled into one with B-127, who transforms to reveal his true persona when Charlie brings the VW Bug back to her home garage.

After recovering from her initial shock at the realisation her new car is actually a robot from outer space, the pair forms a close bond, particularly after Charlie renames her new pal “Bumblebee” when he can’t communicate his real moniker. This unlikely duo soon becomes a trio, after Charlie’s neighbour Memo (an endearing Jorge Lendeborg Jr.) stumbles upon Bumblebee’s big secret and quickly connects with the robot. But things are about to get very complicated, as two ruthless Decepticon trackers Shatter (voiced by Angela Bassett) and Dropkick (voiced by Justin Theroux) arrive on Earth and promptly team up with Sector 7 to destroy Bumblebee once and for all.

What’s wonderfully refreshing about the plot of Bumblebee is how understated the stakes are. The five previous films in the Transformers franchise became progressively more ridiculous and overblown, each repeating the same apocalyptic scenarios for Earth and its poor inhabitants. There’s no mass end-of-the-world invasion here. Or a gigantic battle spectacular where dozens of robots attempt to destroy each other, but really just end up obliterating whatever city Michael Bay felt like blowing up this time. By pulling way back on the outlandish spectacle that ultimately destroyed this cinematic brand, director Travis Knight gifts us with an intimate and charming character piece/buddy film that is instead elevated when the action does break in.

In the moments Knight does present the antics we still demand of a film like this, he presents each set piece in a simplistic and smooth fashion, so the audience can fully appreciate what’s being presented. The frenetic style of Bay made is genuinely difficult to know what was even transpiring in moments of conflict. Thankfully, that’s all but gone, leaving something far more comprehensible in its place. That’s not to suggest Knight has lost the thrills and spills by taking a gentler approach. The punches and crunches still land with tremendous impact. It’s just this time, you can actually tell who just hit who.

Even the film’s special effects work has been stepped up a notch, with the robots looking far sharper and less cartoonish than in previous films. This is particularly evident in the facial expressions and physical presence of Bumblebee, which create the most endearing and lovable film robot since WALL-E. His big blue eyes are the windows into his sweet, sheepish soul, and it’s not hard to understand why Charlie takes an instant shining to her newfound friend. Beneath his imposing stature hides a sensitive, caring nature. His awkward, introverted behaviour is gorgeously charming and infectiously delightful. I’m still rather amazed I’m using these phrases to describe a 17 feet tall robot, but they really have crafted a fully-dimensional character here.

This is where Bumblebee sets itself apart from the rest of the franchise. Knight and screenwriter Christina Hodson have made a character-driven piece that also happens to star a bunch of intergalactic alien robots. That was always the beauty of Transformers. The Autobots and Decepticons were more than just giant chunks of metal. And they were certainly more than just “toys.” They each had their own distinctive and unique personalities and character traits, and Hodson appears to be the first writer to genuinely understand the source material. These robots portray genuine human emotions you earnestly believe. Perhaps that’s precisely what’s been so disappointingly lacking all this time.

That’s what made E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial and WALL-E such glorious achievements. They weren’t just space aliens. They were aliens with heart. Knight and Hodson undoubtedly take heavy inspiration from Steven Spielberg, and the final result is richer for it. He mastered the art of this coming of age, human-meets-alien genre, so why not follow his lead? One particularly amusing sequence finds Bumblebee alone in Charlie’s house, as he begins to explore this strange new world he’s found himself in. Naturally, the bumbling robot makes a huge mess in the process, in a clear homage to one of E.T.‘s most memorable moments.

With its 1980s setting, the film is obviously lovingly loaded with period pop culture references that thankfully never feel too overdone. Everything from Pong to TaB to cassette and VHS tapes is highlighted. The soundtrack features everything you’d expect including the second cinematic appearance this month of Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up,” which is used to hilarious effect. Even seminal 80s classic The Breakfast Club makes an appearance more than a handful of times, with Judd Nelson’s iconic fist pump being adorably adopted by our titular star. There’s a way to pay tribute to an era without crossing the line into eye-rolling nostalgia-grabbing, and Knight manages to toe the line rather deftly.

Placing a female at the lead of a Transformers film proves to be another key element so achingly needed to shake up this franchise. In Steinfeld’s capable hands, Charlie proves to be a worthy protagonist to take this series into the future. In a role that requires both equal parts dramatic and comedic talent, she delivers a performance that plays to her strengths. There’s unbridled warmth and energy to her performance plus a few hints of necessary teenage angst thrown in the balance the character. The end result is a female character far more rounded than anything this franchise has offered up before.

Surrounding Steinfeld is a terrific ensemble supporting cast, led by the ever-impressive comedic skills of Cena. What he delivers is a cartoon character more at home in a Rocky and Bullwinkle comic, but it fits this tale so effortlessly, you can’t help but admire his choices. His performance is entirely ridiculous, but it’s the levity this franchise has been missing since Shia LeBeouf checked out. Lendeborg Jr. is entirely beguiling as the nerdy boy-next-door with the heart of gold. Adlon’s casting as Charlie’s shellshocked mother is rather unexpected, but it’s a choice that’s quite inspired, playing off the comedian’s impeccable comic timing and dry wit.

It’s not all perfect, of course. The dialogue can be a little hokey at times and the film runs a little longer than necessary. But in comparison to what we’ve been saddled with from this franchise the last few years, something so downright enjoyable and genuinely entertaining feels like a miracle of cinema. Bumblebee is indeed the best Transformers film to date, which likely isn’t saying much, but it still needs to be said. If you’ve been disappointed by what’s come before, it’s time to allow this franchise the chance to make it up to you.

Bumblebee represents a fresh start for a franchise on its last legs. By scaling down the eye-popping nonsense and instead focusing on character and narrative, the film is purposely smaller in scope but richer in overall enjoyment. It’s still a blockbuster but one with tremendous heart and life. There’s enormous joy to be found in this new Transformers film, and that’s a phrase I never thought I’d ever say again.

Distributor: Paramount
Cast: Hailee Steinfeld, John Cena, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., John Ortiz, Jason Drucker, Pamela Adlon, Stephen Schneider, Justin Theroux, Angela Bassett, Dylan O’Brien, Peter Cullen
Director: Travis Knight
Screenplay: Christina Hodson
Producers: Lorenzo di Bonaventura, Tom DeSanto, Don Murphy, Michael Bay, Mark Vahradian
Cinematography: Enrique Chediak
Production Design: Sean Haworth
Music: Dario Marianelli
Editor: Paul Rubell
Running Time: 119 minutes
Release Date: 20th December 2018 (Australia)