In a perfect world Autobots and Decepticons would learn to live in harmony sparing us humans from enduring several cinematic versions of their exploits. Truth be told, I enjoyed 2007’s Transformers despite its frequent trips into the realm of potty humour and Michael Bay’s objectification of Megan Fox’s body. The four sequels it spawned were a sliding scale of awfulness.
While it may be a low bar to jump, Travis Knight’s latest work Bumblebee is by far the best Transformers film to date.
A prequel to the 2007 film, the story picks up as the Autobots find themselves on the losing end of the war with the Decepticons on Cybertron. Needing to regroup, Optimus Prime, leader of the Autobot rebellion, sends loyal soldier B-127 to the remote planet Earth in order to set up a new base. Landing on Earth in 1987, in the middle of a military training exercise led by Sector 7 lieutenant Jack Burns (John Cena), B-127 quickly finds himself under attack by both the military and the Decepticon known as Blitzwing. After the battle leaves him voiceless and battered the Autobot disguises himself as a 1967 Volkswagen Beetle and winds up in a junk yard.
It is there where he is discovered by eighteen-year-old Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld), who convinces her Uncle Hank (Len Cariou), owner of the scrapyard, to give her the Beetle. Still mourning the lost of her father, whom she used to fix up cars with, Charlie finds it difficult to cope with the fact that her mother (Pamela Adlon) has remarried. It is when working on the Beetle that she discovers that her car is anything but ordinary. Renaming him Bumblebee, Charlie and her new alien friend begin to learn how to overcome the physical and emotional scars that are holding them back from becoming the individuals they are meant to be.
Playing like an 80’s coming-of-age tale – one filled with pop culture references of everything from The Breakfast Club to Miami Vice to The Smiths and all things in between – the film is packed with a surprising amount of emotion. As he proved in his brilliant directorial debut Kubo and the Two Strings, Knight has an ability to capture the way young people process grief in an engaging way.
Unlike previous installments in the franchise that got tied up in reinventing the mythology of Transformers, including placing them on the moon and having them help Harriet Tubman fight slavery, Knight keeps the focus on Charlie and Bumblebee’s relationship. While Transformers like Optimus Prime, Shockwave, Soundwave and Cliffjumper make cameo appearances, this is the first film where the characters and story feel more important than merely selling toys. Bumblebee’s central Decepticon villains Shatter (Angela Bassett) and Dropkick (Justin Theroux) are used just enough to keep the action moving without sacrificing the emotional core.
Bringing a once dead franchise back to life, Bumblebee is the live-action Transformers film fans have been wanting for over a decade.