Paramount actually made a Transformers movie that’s a lovely, exciting and wholly engaging gem of a sci-fi adventure for teenagers. I guess it’s time for me to finally go into my dream business of exporting the newly formed ice from hell using my army of flying pigs.
Bumblebee is an ’80s set spin-off/prequel to Michael Bay’s migraine-inducing, often infuriating, and always head-slappingly stupid five Transformers flicks. It wisely scales down Bay’s love of random mayhem in favor of a fairly respectful and inventive throwback to those ’80s family sci-fi/adventure movies about the friendship between a nerdy, lonely teenager and a friendly and protective alien/robot/magical being. The bond between the teenager and the creature teaches the teenager to come out of her shell and face her fears. Of course since we also need an action-heavy third act, the big bad military that’s unfairly threatened by the creature goes after it, forcing the teenager and the creature to defend each other against all odds, learning lessons about the importance of friendship and love in the process. Sure, Bumblebee doesn’t really bring much that’s especially new or daring to that formula, but at least all the ingredients really work.
The lonely teenager this time around is the tomboy gearhead Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld), who wants a car of her own more than anything. Since pretty much every film in this sub-genre has to follow in E.T. ’s footsteps, Charlie’s father is out of the picture. At this point, every screenwriter tosses a coin to figure out if the father is dead or divorced. The coin lands on “dead” in Charlie’s case. Her family has found a way to move on, but she still has problems processing her grief, so she thinks that fixing a banged up car the way she used to do with her dad is the key to keeping his memory alive. For such a straight genre piece, Christina Hodson’s screenplay constructs a surprisingly deft exploration of how a teenager grieves such a loss, frustrated at the inability to drag oneself out of depression while feeling like a burden to the rest of the family. Of course, this makes Charlie ripe for a sci-fi creature to change her life forever, and soon enough a yellow Volkswagen beetle that turns out to be Bumblebee, the cutest and most popular Transformer, is using recordings from pop culture to communicate. Charlie and Bumblebee quickly form an unbreakable bond, inspiring Charlie to come to Bumblebee’s rescue when the big bad military, led by the gruff Agent Burns (John Cena), and two Decepticons come after him.
The initial premise is the same as the first Transformers, but instead of an obnoxious kid wanting a car just to get laid, there’s actual character development here. Isn’t it wonderful how much our engagement to expensive and flashy action set-pieces change when we actually care about what happens to the characters? Instead of treating the story and characters as nuisance to be cynically rushed until we get to the endless clanking of metal on metal, Hodson and director Travis Knight, who previously helmed the vastly underrated stop-motion feature Kubo and the Two Strings, make sure to first build the plot’s central relationship. Once that groundwork is done, the inevitable third act of every Transformers movie—Autobots and Decepticons punching the crap of each other—is nowhere near as annoying as it used to be.
Of course it also helps when you can actually discern what is actually happening during the robo-brawls. Instead of Michael Bay’s trademark “fucking the frame” aesthetic, where the camera is placed a millimeter away from the carnage while shaking non-stop as if the tripod is switched to “twerk mode,” Knight takes his time framing the build-up to the action, giving the audience a clear view of where the adversaries stand and what their possible handicaps are before the metal fisticuffs begin. Even the action choreography is somewhat inventive this time around, like the Jackie Chan style prop-fighting Bumblebee exhibits with a chain in order to dispose of one of his enemies.
It’s hard enough to have a fully CG character as your co-star, and it’s even tougher when an actor is tasked with creating a deep emotional bond with something she can’t even see during production. Steinfeld is up to the challenge, making us believe in Bumblebee’s existence almost as much as the animators who worked on bringing him to life. Since the story takes place in the ’80s, I fully expected a groan-worthy amount of pop culture references just for the sake of it. Not only are they refreshingly few and far between, but some of them, like Bender’s fist pump from the end of The Breakfast Club, are seamlessly integrated as running gags or character beats. There’s also surprisingly little product placement for a Transformers movie. All of this can of course be attributed to the film’s NDMB—Not Directed by Michael Bay—quality, but that would be taking away from the seemingly genuine passion Hodson and Knight put into the project. Just like death and taxes, it’s a certainty of life that we will get a new Transformers in theaters once every few years. If they’re more like Bumblebee going forward, the thought of that doesn’t depress me nowhere near as it used to.
Director: Travis Knight
Writer: Christina Hodson
Starring: Hailee Steinfeld, John Cena, Dylan O’Brien, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., John Ortiz, Pamela Adlon
Release Date: December 21, 2018
Oktay Ege Kozak is a screenwriter, script coach and film critic. He lives near Portland, Ore., with his wife, daughter, and two King Charles Spaniels.