This might just be the ‘Wonder Woman’ of ‘Transformers’ movies!
Charlie Watson (Hailee Steinfeld) is a young girl growing up in 1987 California. She has recently lost her father, which has been traumatic for her, and feels resentful of her family, who has managed to move on. For her birthday, Charlie gets her hands on a yellow Volkswagen Beetle, not knowing that the car is an Autobot in disguise, named B-127. He is from the far-off planet of Cybertron, where the Autobots, under the leadership of Optimus Prime, are at war with their enemies, the Decepticons. While the Autobots were making preparations to leave their planet, Prime sent B-127 to Earth to establish a base for the Transformers to escape to. Crashing to Earth, though, B-127 had to avoid both representatives of the United States government, who view him as a threat, and two Decepticons, Shatter and Dropkick. Upon discovering this, Charlie, along with her neighbor, Memo, strive to protect B-127, renamed “Bumblebee,” before all is lost.
Whenever I go to watch a prequel or sequel, I try to make sure I watch every single film in the series so I am all caught up. In the case of the Transformers series, I did not bother. Personally, I have only seen the first two in full, along with several scenes from the alter sequels on television, but from what I understand, they are all practically identical. Given what I have seen of this series, each film suffers from the same problems: the action is too chaotic, the characters are obnoxious, and, despite much work going into the production process, the film has no structure, and therefore, viewers have little reason to care about…well…anything these movies have to offer. While I don’t consider myself to be on the Michael Bay hate train, I don’t usually like the movies he’s made, save for maybe 13 Hours.
When I first heard the news of a Transformers spinoff revolving around Bumblebee, I admittedly groaned. I figured it would just be the same incomprehensible mess all over again. When I saw the first trailer, though, I started to feel slightly optimistic, because the trailer had such an usually sentimental and emotional tone. When I found out that the director of this film was Travis Knight, the director of the stop-motion picture Kubo and the Two Strings, I got even more excited, because Kubo was an emotional experience. Gladly, I can report that this film is not only good, but it is also the best film in the Transformers series, by far.
Why is this the best? Because for the first time in this series, the story and characters are being handled with care. Gone are the obnoxious human characters, gone is the inappropriate sexual humor, and also gone is the overly saturated visual look that Michael Bay’s films are known for having. For once, I did not feel like I was watching a commercial for toys, cars, beer, or anything people find sexy these days. Similar to last year’s Wonder Woman, I felt like I was watching a real film.
It is obvious to see that the filmmakers were passionate about the project, as well as the Transformers fan base. They knew that one of the key ingredients to the appeal of Transformers is nostalgia, and the movie is oozing with elements of nostalgia from the 80s, like wooden furniture, top-loader VCRs, and a can of Tab. Something else that this film has that the other Transformers films don’t is the inclusion of Stan Bush’s ‘The Touch,’ a staple song from the original animated Transformers movie from 1986. In hindsight it might be a bit too meta to have this song included in the film, but it was a good-natured throwback, and it fit the moment well, both in terms of emotion and period detail.
Nostalgia is not the film’s only successful factor, though. The story takes a significant amount of time in establishing its characters, allowing the audience to feel what they are going through. It pays off well, too, because the actors that were cast in this film are dynamite, particularly Hailee Steinfeld. She has proven herself in past films to be a terrific actress, and she plays Charlie exceptionally well, especially since her co-star is a giant robot. Speaking of which, the character of Bumblebee is a well-realized character as well, and since his character doesn’t speak, it allows for some interesting scenes of communication between him and Charlie.
The scene where Charlie talks to Bumblebee about the last time she saw her father is a real tearjerker. People might compare this movie to E.T, and they would not be wrong, as the film uses many of the same beats from that movie, such as the main character hiding the creature from both the family and the government. I, personally, would connect this more to Brad Bird’s The Iron Giant. No matter, though, because I’ll gladly take an Iron Giant retread over a Michael Bay actioner any day.
What amazes me the most about this film was that Travis Knight, in his live-action directing debut, made a more cohesive film than Michael Bay, a man who has been making action movies for 27 years. If anything, this movie should also serve as a template for how to shoot action: the camera doesn’t have to be so close to the characters that you can’t see them. The visuals of this film are at their prime, to excuse the pun. The shot, featured in the trailer, where we first see Bumblebee transform from a car into his true form as the camera moves away from Steinfeld gives a fresh look at an effect audiences have grown tired of. Another spot where the effects really shine are in a car chase scene that leads to a highway tunnel.
Sadly, the movie is not without flaws, but that should be expected with a movie based around something as wild as Transformers. It falls victim to the standard action movie trope where a character is able to outrun something that is clearly moving faster than they are. Also, that emotional feeling from the beginning takes somewhat of a backseat during the climax, which ends in another giant robot duel. There are other issues, but most of them are menial, don’t detract from the experience, and are mostly limited to the climax.
Overall, Bumblebee is the fresh tank of gas that the Transformers series needed. Some might say it is a bit over the top and cheesy, and yes, in places it is, but it also manages to include the ingredients one would need to tell a good story. Well-acted, well shot, and action-packed, Bumblebee is one emotional rollercoaster that is certainly more than meets the eye.