Director: Travis Knight
Cast: Hailee Steinfeld, John Cena, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., Dylan O’Brien
Running time: 114 minutes
There is a scene early on in Bumblebee during which Hailee Steinfeld’s teenage protagonist tests out her newly upcycled car cassette player (remember those?) on our Autobot-cum-Beetle hero. After promptly rejecting The Smiths – a decision that is later rightly rectified – Steinfeld’s character inserts a different tape. Before the immortal lyrics of ‘Never gonna give you up; never gonna let you down’ can play out in full, our titular Transformer has duly spat the cassette half-way across the room. In this single moment, a tainted history of senseless explosions, ethically-questionable characterisation, and disconcerting shots of Megan Fox’s rear very nearly melt away forever.
It might come at the sixth time of asking, and require some Rickrolling, but we may now finally have the Transformers film we deserve.
We begin on Cybertron in the midst of the raging civil war between the Autobot resistance – led by the infamous Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen reprising his role from both the animated and silver screen series) – and their dastardly Decepticon counterparts. Outmatched and outnumbered, Prime orders the evacuation of the planet, sending B-127 (a.k.a. Bumblebee) to Earth to set up a base where their kind can eventually regroup.
Cut to 1987, where Californian teen Charlie Watson (Steinfeld) lives the life of an adolescent outcast: distancing herself from her mother, brother, and step-dad by plugging metal into her ears and hands as she frequents her Uncle’s failing scrapyard. There she finds a decrepit old ’67 Volkswagen Beetle who she quickly discovers is, in fact, our otherworldly refugee in hiding. Together, they form an unbreakable bond of friendship while evading detection from government forces – spearheaded by military man Jack Burns (Cena) – and merciless Decepticons, alike.
Despite its status as a prequel to Michael Bay’s Transformers series – Bay is given a Producer role here, too – there is very little of the unlikeable identity that underpins such films anywhere in Bumblebee. Instead, this is a much more intimate, reigned-in affair; a welcome change in tone that oozes so much charm and warmth throughout that when the robot smashing eventually comes a-crashing, it feels necessary and altogether earned.
From his experiences at the helm of the wonderful Kubo and the Two Strings, director Travis Knight is a man well-versed in making suitably imaginative and complex stories accessible to children. And while he might be restricted in the degree of creative freedom allowed for a project like Bumblebee, he nevertheless pumps his film so full of heart and morality that you’ll quickly remember why infant-like, largely mute animate hunks of metal (cut from the same cloth as the likes of The Iron Giant and Wall-E) hold such a special place within us all.
The narrative structure of Bumblebee might be a familiar one, but in both Knight and Executive Producer Steven Spielberg, the film has two men who understand what makes such a tale the tried and tested (and successful) formula that it is. The film is peppered with brilliant contextuality, one bopping soundtrack, and pop-culture references by the bucket-load – from nods to The Karate Kid and The Breakfast Club to Mr. T branded cereal and everything in between. Knight’s film is as much a nostalgic ode to the era as it is a return to what made the original Hasbro Transformers so popular in the first place: their timeless resonance with children.
Steinfeld is a neat fit as a slightly rebellious but kind-hearted youngster struggling with grief and finding her place in the world. Meanwhile, John Cena is having a blast as a largely one-note tough guy, riding about in trucks and helicopters spouting off nifty one-liners – one being the very rational assumption that trusting a race of galactical machines called ‘Decepticons’ should raise a few red flags.
But it’s the titular hero’s quietly pleasant demeanour and expressive eyes that make all the difference, here. Bumblebee is soulmate first and soldier second – a far cry from the urinating Chevy of the Bayhem days, indeed. Welcome to the movie robot hall of fame, dear friend.
Admittedly not a very impressive bunch, but Bumblebee is unequivocally the best of it. It does exactly what an uplifting coming of age film with robots really should do: make you want to triumphantly punch the air Judd Nelson style.