Bumblebee is a hard reset for the Transformers series. Crucially, the film is lead with authenticity and heart by an impressive Hailee Stanfield (True Grit (2010). If she weren’t already at the height of pop stardom we could say her career is about to blow up in a significant way. Once the epitome of everything wrong with big films, Bumblebee brings the franchise to a place of newfound goodwill. Where Michael Bay only found excuses for action, Travis Knight (Kubo and the Two Strings, 2016) finds human elements. Mighty impressive given the material.
The film begins with a war on Cybertron. It’s immediately clear that Travis Knight has a great fluency for action segments, he never overindulges. The fights are clear and physically grounded within the context they’re given. He understands the importance of providing the physicality of space, which makes coordinating such a segment a delightful companion to its cartoon nature. The shots are sleek and flowing, the work of good craft. This is carried throughout. Bumblebee’s action remains coherent and thoroughly pleasant to watch. This clean work allows the film to have a more logical center.
Hailee Stanfield plays the coming-of-age Charlie. We’re deep in the ‘80s, Charlie has just turned 18, and her family does not understand her. The passing of her father, with whom she shared a knack for cars, has weighed heavily on her spirit and left a gaping hole in her support system. Her mom gifts her an ornamental moped helmet and her stepdad has given her a self-help book, a guide on smiling. After a rough day, she has more luck at her uncle’s garage, discovering a disused Volkswagen Beetle she takes to salvaging.
Within this framework, about ten minutes pass where I legitimately forget I’m watching a Transformers film. Bumblebee finds a special human element in its buildup. A film within a film that is fine all in its own. For the first time in the live action translations, we’re reminded of Steven Spielberg’s involvement. More heartfelt Amblin than Michael Bay’s explosive Ambien.
What further surprised me is that the sense did not go away. Once Charlie meets Bumblebee, it still operates within character moments. It’s a sweet moment and while the film never totally figures out the nature of their relationship (unclear what motivates either party), it works. What doesn’t work is a non-starter of a romantic subplot, which also does not develop a context for its purpose. In this sense, there’s a writing problem about plotting any character motivations. Bumblebee still gets by on its differences to its cinematic past, but any sequel treatment deserves a writing room tune-up.
The film has a thick sense of the 80s. We’re all very tired, and even young kids must feel like they are living out the never-ending cultural remnants a decade they’ll never truly know. Sometimes the pure joy of period work comes to fruition. It’s nice that Charlie eats Mr. T cereal, debates Bumblebee on the uncertain value of The Smiths, and revels in the zeitgeist of her time. Initially Bumblebee’s voiced by Dylan O’Brien, but satisfyingly, loses his voice, and speaks through amusing clips from the popular music of the time. This functions as a comedic setup with several high-quality payoffs. It’s a fun send-up that feels aware that it might be rubbing up against nostalgic fatigue, but also wants to reset Transformers to the generation to which it belongs.
John Cena plays a military man who cooperates with the Decepticons to help track down Bumblebee. Cena hams it up on cue, making funny remarks, like why does the military trust robots called “Decepticons” and generally being charming enough. Crucially worthy of note, Angela Basset does a superbly evil Shatter to compliment Justin Theroux’s Dropkick. It’s a good and efficient cast, that belies any former efforts to include everything, by including only a few pieces that work well together. Optimus Prime and Megatron are not needed to keep this engine running.
There is no question: this is the best live action Transformers. Travis Knight embarks on a great refresh of a franchise desperately in need. Hailee Stanfield thoroughly impresses, showing there is still exponential room to grow her celebrity. In a busy month, Bumblebee doesn’t feel like the beacon that it almost certainly is. This franchise has recovered without precedent, with a neatly crafted throwback to the time when you may have first fallen in love with it. For the first time, a bright live-action future lies ahead for the Transformers.