Running Time: 113 minutes
Written by: Christina Hodson
Directed by: Travis Knight
Featuring: Hailee Steinfeld, John Cena, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., John Ortiz, Jason Drucker, Pamela Adlon, Dylan O’Brien, Peter Cullen, Angela Bassett and Justin Theroux
Optimus Prime: “Bumblebee, our war rages on. You must protect Earth, and its people.”
This week sees the release of the latest entry into the “Transformers” (2007-present) franchise which has seen some dizzying heights as well as some very real lows, the last installment springs to mind, “Transformers: The Last Knight” (2017), which was the worst performer in terms of box office, the critical reception as well as a personal level for Michael Bay. It may have seemed that Paramount had put a full stop on the franchise with that last entry, for the time being anyway, but now less than two years later we have the first spinoff as well as a mini reboot with one of the more popular and fun characters, “Bumblebee” (2018). Not only that, this is the first time Michael Bay has not been at the helm, it has the smallest budget almost two thirds less than the last outing and it is set in the 1980s which makes this very much a period movie with a female as the lead and the centre of the story that is built around real emotion instead of a war or the possibility of a relationship – my early reaction is that this is not only the second best ‘Transformers’ movie but one of the best studio movies released this year, especially with a running time less than two hours. Not only that but the lead character is written as not some love sick adolescent but a young woman who has more on her mind than finding a boy, but becoming someone who is lost because of a family situation as well as the loss of her father.
I do not think it is any coincidence that “Bumblebee” set in the 1980s has at its heart a homage to one of the biggest movies of all time, definitely the biggest movie of that decade in Steven Spielberg’s “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” (1982), not only that it also borrows from another giant robot movie in the form of “The Iron Giant” (1999), making this movie a spiritual sequel of sorts to both which could have been a disaster, but actually makes “Bumblebee” something very special. Not only that but because it also has a woman in the lead who is definite about her aims in life as well as not bowing down to a mans whim or objectivity this signals it being made in a post #meetoo world, she has agency which stays true throughout the movie right to its fantastic conclusion which closes the door on this particular story.
That brings us to the writer and director of this new movie, in Travis Knight and Christina Hodson respectively who are both newish to full length features but at least one has already directed a movie that has become an instant classic and favorite in “Kubo and the Two Strings” (2016) which was nominated for two Academy Awards. There are many elements of Knight’s direction that are to be admired, first and foremost are the CGI effects as well as the design and physics of the transformers themselves, they have never looked so good or easy to follow, which was always a bugbear with the first five movies. The other element is the narrative, which is simple but contains some very serious issues that are all too human as well as revolving around a woman who is dealing with her life even while encountering giant transforming robots. Nothing about Charley is short-changed, her entire arc is dealt with even with her Mother, brother and possible stepfather, and this really is a role that shines right to the end. As I have already mentioned the actual story is very similar to other movies, both classics, what is fantastic is to lay them over the top here to prove that they are timeless stories that are complicated in theme, but still work so well, and here in this new movie they are used expertly with some twists that make “Bumblebee” a very good movie. Finally the last element which is apparent from the opening scenes on Cybertron is the move to a more classic transformer look which is so welcome, the robots all look like they did not only in toy form but also in the animated “Transformers” (1986) movie – a welcome move indeed. This is also gives an extra layer as it feels new, not just some retread from something audiences have seen before, because they haven’t.
The story itself revolves around the Autobots led by Optimus Prime who are preparing to leave their homeworld Cybertron as they are vastly outnumbered by their enemies, the Decepticons, and on the verge of losing the war. The Decepticons ambush them during the evacuation, and Optimus sends young scout B-127 to Earth to set up a base of operations where the Autobots can regroup. B-127 reaches Earth alone in 1987, crash-landing in California during a military training exercise led by Lieutenant Jack Burns, who mistakes him for a hostile invader. Burns and his men chase B-127 into the forest, where he is then ambushed by a Decepticon, who tears out his vocal processors and damages his memory core when B-127 refuses to give up Optimus. B-127 manages to destroy Blitzwing before collapsing of his wounds. Before entering stasis, B-127 scans and transforms into a nearby 1967 VW.
“Bumblebee” is led by the expert performance of Hailee Steinfeld who over the years has proven how good an actor she is in a variety of roles and this performance is no different. With what could have been a trope-laden character in a trope laden movie the performance is spot on, with a challenging performance set in a decade before her time, with co-stars both real and unreal who all have varying degrees of expertise, there is no doubt that Steinfeld is the leader of this movie, the proof is onscreen, it is one of the best knowing performances in a blockbuster this year. Filled out with some excellent performances the two that stand out are Pamela Adlon as Charley’s Mother who is consistent throughout as well as a presence onscreen that matches her co-stars which is something as Adlon is more know on the stand up scene and on television in comedies. Then there is John Cena who is always a physical presence and has over the past few years proven he can be funny alongside proven comedians, here he proves that he can pick projects that others might overlook as well as present a nuanced performance without winking to the audience in a character that viewers might think they know but there is originality there definitely. It is also a treat to see Len Cariou as a key player in that he helps Charley get to her new old car, he plays the curmudgeon expertly but of course has a heart where she requires one to be shown, the right character actor for the right part.
This was not a movie I was excited about or looking forward to, but I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it, the story was great as was the narrative, it was all recognisable from previous installments, in particular the first movie, “Transformers” (2007) with the aspect of someone young looking for their identity as well as a new car that gets more than they bargained for – this felt new with twists that have been introduced to keep the ideas fresh, which they are. Of course there are elements of other movies that have been incorporated but I cannot be upset by that as their inclusion makes this movie all the better as well as proving that there is life in this franchise yet.
As this is a period movie the music plays a massive part in scene setting with some great period pop as well as alternative music especially with the English band ‘The Smiths’ playing a huge part not only as background music but also as a part of the narrative, which is something few non-musicals do. We also hear Duran Duran, Howard Jones, Rick Astley and many more although sometimes they can be a bit on the nose it is all welcome that it is not music we have heard before. There is also a nod to the John Hughes classic, “The Breakfast Club” (1985) which was nice to see as it has aged very well and fits nicely within this movie, although I wonder how a girl who is unable to afford parts for a car would be able to pay for a VHS in 1987.
I cannot recommend this movie more, it is the very definition of a drama based sci-fi film that is well cast with some excellent special effects that sets itself apart from the previous instalments by being about something that is human, not hard to follow goal oriented movies that are boring which is the net result of many of the Transformers movies. If you are unsure about seeing this family movie don’t be it is one of the better studio films released this year.
“Bumblebee” is out now only in cinemas.