The distant planet of Cybertron is populated by robotic beings. It is currently in the middle of a violent civil war. The Decepticons, led by Soundwave, Shockwave, and Starscream, will stop at nothing to conquer the galaxy. In response, the Autobots, led by Optimus Prime, have formed a resistance to stop them. Unfortunately, the Decepticons have pushed the Autobots into a corner, and the latter faction must evacuate the planet. In a desperate gambit, Optimus Prime sends his friend, B-127, to Earth to set up a base of operations where the Autobots can regroup.
Shortly after landing there, B-127 is attacked by the Decepticon Blitzwing. B-127 is able to vanquish his enemy, but not before the Decepticon tears out his voicebox and damages his memory core. Before his vision fades, B-127 scans a nearby 1967 Volkswagen Beetle. Meanwhile, a teenage girl named Charlie Watson notices a similar vehicle in her uncle’s scrapyard.
Bumblebee is the sixth film in the live-action Transformers series. Since the poorly received second installment, Revenge of the Fallen, the series had earned a dubious reputation for their poor quality. They were seen by cinephiles and critics alike as manifestation of Hollywood’s worst propensities to exploit the commercialized Generation X nostalgia in order to make the most amount of money with the least effort. This way, they didn’t have to bother with trivial matters such as comprehensible writing or lending an actual sense of heart to their work. Despite their negative reception, these deeply flawed films frequently dominated the box offices with Revenge of the Fallen making $800,000,000 on a $200,000,000 budget.
Immediately after the similarly ill-received The Last Knight, I, and many other filmgoers, was wary when I saw the trailer for Bumblebee for the first time. Although it suggested the series was about to go in a completely different direction with the canon, I knew, generally speaking, there are more good trailers than good films. Never did I expect that six installments in, Bumblebee would be the breath of fresh air the series desperately needed. It seemingly wasn’t content with being better than its subpar predecessors; it went the extra mile, achieving a respectable 93% on Rotten Tomatoes. After seeing the film for myself, I determined that the critics had not lost their minds. The prospect of a good Transformers film seemed truly alien in 2018, yet the reality was undeniable; director Travis Knight managed to breathe life into a stagnant franchise.
There are many reasons why Bumblebee manages to be a good film, but I feel the most obvious is that Mr. Knight clearly studied the earlier installments and proceeded to systematically weed out everything holding them back. One of the most common criticisms of the live-action Transformers films regarded their human characters. Despite being a central focus for a significant portion of the film’s runtime, Sam Witwicky’s contributions to the plot of the original and its sequels were minimal to the point where the writers could have excised his character entirely.
Fresh off of her excellent performance as Nadine Franklin in Edge of Seventeen, Hailee Steinfeld makes sure the audience knows within seconds of her introduction that Charlie Watson is not simply a female counterpart to Sam Witwicky. As the one who discovers B-127 in his transformed state, she causes the plot to begin in earnest. Mute and without his memories, the Autobot is markedly more timid – almost childlike. From there, the two form a strong friendship that ends up being mutually beneficial. The most significant part of Charlie’s backstory is that she is coping with the recent loss of her father. She is resentful of her mother for remarrying and is somewhat withdrawn as a result. This is emphasized with her taste in alternative rock and lack of a social circle. Through interacting with B-127, whom she nicknames Bumblebee, she eventually grows more confident in herself, making another friend in the form of her neighbor Memo.
One minor touch I enjoyed is that despite taking place in the final years of the Cold War, the military isn’t depicted as completely incompetent as they were in previous installments. Though they end up cooperating with the Decepticons, they are highly suspicious of them. One member even cuts to the chase and points out exactly what the audience is thinking the entire time: wouldn’t the name “Decepticon” raise several red flags? Indeed, you get the feeling that they’re going along with the plan because it’s their only lead at this point – not because they genuinely believe it to be a good idea.
Ultimately, I would say the greatest strength of Bumblebee is that it accomplishes more with fewer moving parts. Compared to previous Transformers films, has a smaller cast, and never do you feel that any of them are redundant or superfluous. Though Charlie obviously wouldn’t stand a chance against the antagonists in a straight fight, she never becomes useless – quite the opposite. When the military captures Bumblebee, she infiltrates their base and resurrects him. Though Bumblebee tries to protect her from harm in the final battle, she takes advantage of the turmoil to deactivate the Decepticons’ beacon, preventing an invasion of Earth in the process.
It is during these amazing action sequences that I was able to appreciate how Bumblebee actually goes out of its way to earn them. Previous Transformers installments were stereotypical mindless action films that couldn’t go a significant length of time without an explosion present onscreen. Though it starts off with two major fights, they serve to inform the viewer of the stakes. When Charlie is introduced, it becomes a slice-of-life film that just happens to star an Autobot. The characters are so likable that you’re never impatiently waiting for the next action sequence; in fact, when they do begin anew, they come across as a rude awakening. Bumblebee incorporates elements from disparate genres and finds a way to seamlessly meld them together without any glaring tonal or pacing issues.
Bumblebee is one of those films that doesn’t sound like it should work when you’re summing up the basic premise and the circumstances leading up to its release on paper. It was the newest installment of the live-action Transformers films, which embodied everything both critics and cinephiles hated about Hollywood at the time – chiefly, their propensity to rely on special effects to appeal to the lowest common denominator. The creators decided then decided to go in a more subdued direction somewhat reminiscent of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial after five bombastic entries incinerated any notions of subtlety from the word go.
It’s impossible to overstate exactly how much of a bad idea this seemed in 2018, and yet Travis Knight and his team managed to pull through despite the odds being massively stacked against them. With a real sense of heart, excellent soundtrack, and solid character arcs, Bumblebee is exactly what the Transformers film series should have been from the beginning. Whether you’re a fan of the Transformers franchise or not, Bumblebee is worth watching, standing out as one of 2018’s most pleasant surprises.
Final Score: 7/10