Movie review: Why ‘Bumblebee’ is the Transformers film we deserve


There’s a scene in “Bumblebee” that gives you a pretty good
idea of the entire movie: Charlie, played by Hailee Steinfeld,
is driving along the road in her titular mustard-yellow VW
Beetle when she asks her friend, Memo (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.), to
take off his shirt. She then uses the shirt to blindfold
herself before opening the VW’s sunroof and standing up. Memo
also joins her as they whoop it up half-in, half-out of the
car, driverless, as Bumblebee does all the driving for them.
The wind then whips off her blindfold but Charlie does not
stop. She just keeps going, arms raised, with a Tears for Fears
song providing the soundtrack. 


That’s probably the best scene in “Bumblebee,” the prequel to
the “Transformers” franchise and the first not to be directed
by Michael Bay. It’s also a marker: this ain’t your usual
Bayhem Transformers.

It’s calm without being loud, there is no lingering
camera-crawl on a woman’s behind, the story is coherent, the
misogyny non-existent. The Autobot vs Decepticon battles are
not headache-inducing. More importantly, its story is very
human. You can take your kid to this movie and come out with
your sanity intact. 


Working with a fraction of Bay’s mammoth budgets, director
Travis Knight takes an ’80s sci-fi trope – kid befriends alien
(see: “ET,” Flight of the Navigator,” “Mac and Me”) and then
flips it – this time, the lead is a girl and the alien a
robot. 

Charlie (Steinfeld) is a teen mechanic who’s still grieving
over the loss of her father. She’s working to restore an old
Corvette but really just wants a car for her 18th birthday.
When she does get one, a rusty 1967 Volkswagen Beetle from her
uncle’s junkyard, she gets more than she bargained for when the
car turns out to be B-127, a Cybertronian robot soldier on a
mission to find a new base for the Autobots. B-127’s activation
brings in two Decepticons, Shatter and Dropkick, who want to
find the new Autobot base and bring the war to a new
planet. 

 

There’s plenty to like, plenty to be joyful about with
“Bumblebee.” “E.T.” is a major influence on this movie; the
scene with B-127 clumsily destroying Charlie’s house feels like
something out of Spielberg’s playbook. Charlie’s relationship
with a non-human, inorganic character also grows on you: that
scene with the destruction of the house links directly to her
growing concern for her strange new ward. 

Steinfeld, who recently voiced the amazing Spider-Gwen in
Golden Globe-winning animated feature “Spider-Man: Into the
Spider-Verse,” does topnotch work as Charlie. Much like the
titular robot, she’s bursting with potential but held back by
trauma. When she takes a literal leap of faith for the love of
her robot, you know she’s on her way into healing. 


Also notable is the use of music in the movie. Since Bumblebee
is mostly mute in this movie, he has to use songs to
communicate. Expect some Smiths, Rick Astley and one pop hit
that gave me chills. 

What really wowed this ’80s kid, however, is the callbacks to
G1 Transformers. Fans of the original cartoon are going to flip
over the cartoon-accurate depictions of Cliffjumper, Shockwave,
Soundwave, Ravage, and Arcee. Also (spoiler) I had legitimate
chills when Optimus Prime takes on Starscream and the other
Decepticons. 


There are a few stumbles in “Bumblebee”: the B-plot with the
Decepticon pursuers defies logic and the acting by WWE
superstar John Cena as a Sector 7 agent is groan-inducing.
There are also one or two story beats in the final act that
felt like story padding, which is fine compared to the
narrative bloat in the previous Transformers movies. 


Director Travis Knight doesn’t mimic the visual style that Bay
gives these movies: there are no confusing layers of movement
per shot, fewer explosions, fewer fast cuts, lack of grounding
shots. “Bumblebee” doesn’t feel frantic and lacks a certain
sense of scale, which is a good thing. 

It’s a small movie compared to Bayformers where every other
shot feels huge, explosive and oozing money. Instead, Knight
gives “Bumblebee” a heart instead of spectacle. Sometimes, less
is more and that’s all you need in a Transformers
prequel. 

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