Movie review: Bumblebee

The first Transformer film not directed by Michael Bay is the best of the series

Bumblebee
Directed by Travis Knight
With Hailee Steinfeld, John Cena, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., John Ortiz, Jason Drucker, Pamela Adlon, Dylan O'Brien, Angela Bassett, Justin Theroux. Peter Cullen

The Transformers series has become increasingly noisy and bloated, so it is rather a surprise that the standalone film Bumblebee has some heart and soul. The film focuses on the plight of one single transforming robot named Bumblebee who was sent to Earth in 1987, before the action of the other Transformer films.

This helps people who haven’t been following the decade-long series, as they can ignore all the later developments between the good Autobots and the evil Decepticons.

The film is essentially a teen love story, with Charlie Watson (played by Hailee Steinfeld), a charismatic and energetic young woman, getting hold of the wreck of a 1967 Volkswagen Beetle and not realizing it is an Autobot sent to Earth on a crucial mission.

Charlie, once she finds out about the robot hidden in her car, treats him like a stray pet that she has to protect but also keep hidden.

Bumblebee, due to damage early in the film, has lost some of his capabilities and has to learn a lot all over again, so it is a bit like raising a giant and awkward puppy. The same strategy can be seen on Sesame Street, with Big Bird being clumsy and childish while larger than the rest of the cast.

There is also side plot, where Charlie has a bit of a romance with a human her own age, the somewhat shy and nerdy Memo (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.).

An overused trope is that Charlie’s father died, and she no longer gets along with her pushy mother and clueless stepfather. Why action films and animation always have to have broken homes at the center is a mystery.

There are few robots in the main part of the film. Bumblebee came to Earth alone and has been pursued by a pair of Decepticons.

This leaves quite a bit of time for the human characters to develop, and even for Bumblebee to show off some personality. The visual design of Bumblebee makes him look a bit childish, with a wide-eyed face that evokes empathy.

Of course, there is a save-the-world plot, with Charlie as the only one who understands what is really happening, while the adults make a string of poor choices. Government agent Jack Burns (John Cena) even points out that it seems like a bad decision to trust robots who call themselves Decepticons, as they might be being deceptive, but nobody listens to him. It is actually rather a nice moment of very dry humor.

The film does build up to big chases and lots of explosions, but since Charlie, Memo and Bumblebee have made them audience invest themselves in their future and survival, the action is more engrossing than in previous Transformers films.

As Charlie, Hailee Steinfeld creates a memorable character and contributes a lot to the film’s success. She won several awards for her role in True Grit in 2010, though she hasn’t had a big hit since then. Her starring role in the 2016 coming of age drama Edge of 17 showcased her talent, but the film was only a moderate box office success.

This is the first of the Transformer series not to be directed by Michael Bay, who was involved only as a producer. The script by Christina Hodson, who wrote the 2016 thriller Shut In and 2017’s Unforgettable, has a strong feel for its young female protagonist as a complex character and not just a tomboy who just tags along to say edgy jokes and mess around with car parts.

Director Travis Knight paces the film well.

Sure, a film about talking robots from outer space who bend themselves into cars and jets so they can hide does have a few plot holes and inconsistencies. Some of the action is a bit hard to swallow and there are perhaps one too many scenes of someone miraculously rising up again after seeming to be dead. Cinephiles will also spot a lot of scenes “inspired” by other films.

On the plus side though, Bumblebee also has a catchy soundtrack of late 1980s hits, which could make the film more palatable for parents taking their kids.

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