Travis Knight’s 2018 film is the sixth instalment in the Transformers movie franchise, a prequel to 2007’s Transformers, and it stars Hailee Steinfeld as 18 year old Charlie Watson, a fairground worker and amateur mechanic who finds an old VW Beetle in the scrapyard that she often frequents and sets about fixing it up for herself but as soon as she does, it comes to life and it’s revealed that the machine is none other than Bumblebee, an Autobot who was sent to Earth by Optimus Prime following the fall of Cybertron. Charlie gradually bonds with the amnesiac Autobot and as it becomes clear that he was sent to Earth for a reason, the pair soon find themselves being tracked by Sector 7 agent Jack Burns (John Cena), who has previous history with Bumblebee, and two dangerous Decepticons who are determined to find Optimus Prime and bring other baddies to the planet.
To start with, I really enjoyed watching Transformers back when it was released in cinemas in 2007. Long before it was the subject of much disdain from film critics, the film was a minor obsession for me for a short while as I thought that the film was really cool and exciting, I quickly learned all of the Autobot/Decepticon names, played the PS2 game, and I even enjoyed the widely derided Revenge of the Fallen. I didn’t care much for Dark of the Moon though and after that, I didn’t bother with Age of Extinction or The Last Knight, given the notoriously negative reviews.
But then news of Bumblebee started floating around and the word was: “this is the best Transformers film – one that’s actually good!” so obviously, this was the perfect opportunity to get back into the franchise and having now seen it, I’d say that Bumblebee is indeed a good film, a fun and exciting little adventure that focuses on everyone’s favourite little Autobot, but I still prefer 2007’s Transformers.
Compared to the other films in the franchise, Bumblebee is . . . small. Because it does away with all the prophecies, world building, globetrotting, hordes of brawling machines and the imminent threat of global destruction to instead focus on more intimate story about family and friendship and in this film, the action only really takes place in a single area and there’s essentially only one Autobot and two Decepticons. On the whole, this is a wise move because the film is more decluttered than your average Transformers outing and it takes a break from all the mayhem, CGI slugfests and nonsensical storytelling that the series has become infamous for and instead keeps things simple, straightforward and compact, with a story that family audiences will be able to understand and enjoy without needing much knowledge of previous films. Humour is also used in a more effective manner because things don’t get as silly or embarrassing as the early films in the franchise did and with Bumblebee, though specific moments are indeed a little silly, the humour is affectionate and deployed in all the right places.
But the simplistic, small scale approach doesnt always work in the film’s favour because a smaller scale also results in fewer setpieces and cinematic thrills and some viewers may be left wishing for a little more ambition and spectacle. Given the messiness and overambition that the series has become known for, scaling things down was most definitely the right thing to do but personally, I would’ve appreciated a little more oomph and adventure.
Heading up the small cast, Hailee Steinfeld is a great lead and she makes her character of Charlie refreshingly interesting, relatable and deep – qualities that are most welcome in a Transformers protagonist! For much of the time, she’s effectively snarky, no-nonsense and standoffish, finding herself as a unique misfit in amongst all the “perfect people” all around her but as she gets to know Bumblebee, she gradually lightens up and we get to see how much she cares for her Autobot pal and her family, showing plenty of bravery and resilience while also managing to be ideally witty and fun when required. Hailee Steinfeld continues to prove herself as an excellent actress and the film couldn’t have asked for a better leading lady – she’s cool, confident, strong and always up for a laugh.
And rounding off the cast, John Cena is authoritative and occasionally funny as agent Jack Burns, Pamela Aldon has her moments as Charlie’s mother, and Jorge Lendeborg Jr. is a lovably nerdy and awkward supporting character but there’s nothing much to his character and he’s ultimately a one-note love interest/friend.
Visually, Bumblebee certainly hits the spot because there are no instances of bad CGI and as it has been for the rest of the film series, the human actors and CG machines integrate seamlessly and it genuinely seems as though they’re really up there in the flesh. Or metal, whatever. The fight scenes and battle sequences on Cybertron are also crafted very well, with a certain amount of panache, but what makes Bumblebee stand out most is its 80s influences; the film makes sure to include Transformers with a retro 80s design and the well selected music also reflects the period, with fun music from the likes of The Smiths, Rick Astley, A-Ha, Steve Winwood, Tears for Fears, Simple Minds and Rob Base.