Transforming robot Bumblebee, on the run from the villainous Decepticons, hides out in 1987 California. There he meets Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld), an 18 year-old coming to terms with her father’s death. When two Decepticons arrive in pursuit of Bumblebee, he and Charlie are thrust into a life-or-death struggle to save the Earth.
Or something to that effect. Bumblebee is not much of a film for surprises. A loose prequel to the long-running Transformers franchise, it follows a lot of very familiar story beats in a pretty typical blockbuster fashion. Put short: if you ever felt that what Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra-terrestrial was missing was pop culture references and giant robot fights, then Bumblebee is the popcorn flick for you.
Animation director Travis Knight (Kubo and the Two Strings) makes a creditable live-action debut with this Transformers spin-off. The previous five films have been directed in an increasing incoherent and moderately pig-headed fashion by Michael Bay, and if nothing else Bumblebee is solid proof that it is possible to make a Transformers film with a sensible plot, likeable characters, and action sequences that are actually possible to follow. It is, to an enormous extent, a remake of Bay’s 2007 original with the good bits enhanced and the bad bits excised. It does not innovate – nothing will come as the slightest surprise – but it retreads familiar ground professionally and in a broadly entertaining fashion. Younger audiences will clearly have a ball. Older viewers who don’t find anything to like here should probably reconsider the kind of films they watch.
The 1980s setting is a clearly cynical move, tying a surfeit of period-appropriate pop songs to the 1980s origins of the Transformers franchise itself to make one giant exercise in nostalgia. It is overplayed to a comical extreme. So many songs pass during the film’s early Earth scenes that it feels like someone is loudly skipping through an mp3 player in the back of the theatre. It settles down, but continues to feel mildly intrusive.
The nostalgia extends to the general tone of the film: Steven Spielberg is an executive producer of all the live-action Transformers films, and this is deeply familiar territory for anybody who grew up with Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment back in the 1980s. It’s good-hearted family entertainment, and avoids the leery innuendo of Bay’s franchise; a pleasant development. As a final nudge of sentimentality, most of the film’s robot designs echo the original toy designs of the 1980s. I suspect the hardcore Transformers fan-base will have a ball with some of the early cameos.
Where the film absolutely excels is in the relationship between Bumblebee himself and his human companion Charlie. Hailee Steinfeld has always delivered strong, reliable performances, and she fully commits here with one that while barely two-dimensional (and really, that’s the fault of writer Christina Hodson) is still a positive, funny, and thankfully non-sexualised asset.
The computer-generated animation used to create Bumblebee himself is sensational. He is gifted with most wonderfully charming tics and quirks. His face has never been this expressive. His physicality is distinctive and childlike. For the first time it does feel as if a Transformers film has given one of the robots a proper personality, and it goes a long way to making this film as enjoyable as it is.
Is it a great film? Absolutely not, but it is a good one – and easily the best live-action Transformers film made to date (let’s exclude the 1980s animated version for now, although it does get a nod in this one). You can see the stitches where the screenplay has been put together – many plot elements are obviously foreshadowed, and the predictably employed when the plot requires them – but it is staged with skill and a warm familiarity. If you like the Transformers, rest assured this is a good one. If you’re exhausted by Hollywood franchise filmmaking, then this absolutely will not change your mind. It is, after all, a prequel to a film franchise based an action figure range. On the other hand there’s a solid argument to be made that if you are tired of giant robots punching each other, then maybe a little part inside of you has grown tired of life. I put aside my adult cynicism, and had a hell of a lot of fun.