The Transformers films have been up and down over the last ten or so years. Each one seems overly concerned with creating massive intergalactic threats that it ended up losing some humanity. Shia LaBeouf has been funny at times, but he’s never been the heart of that franchise. The focus has been on an abundance of Transformers, a whole army of cool vehicles that fight each other in massive battles (in which you can’t tell what’s happening at all). So you’d understand if I were hesitant about this film, after being burned so many times.
Bumblebee features the title character, as the home planet to the Transformers is being destroyed. He is sent to Earth by Optimus Prime, though the battle has cost him his memory and he goes into a slumber. He’s found by a young mechanic prodigy named Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld) who fixes him up, just in time to discover a pair of evil Decepticons have arrived on Earth, while the U.S. government also looks for Bumblebee, spearheaded by John Cena. We also have Jorge Lendeborg Jr. as Charlie’s neighbor “Memo” who has a bit of a crush on her.
This movie is directed by Travis Knight, whose only other directing credit is Kubo and the Two Strings.
I heard hyperbole that this was “the Transformers movie that we’ve been waiting for” and that almost worried me, that my expectations might be too high going into this. Well, let me just say that those sentiments were absolutely spot-on.
I wouldn’t have predicted that a Transformers prequel would’ve ended up as one of my favorite films of 2018 but it’s shaping up that way. This movie works because of its simplicity, something that the other films neglected. It’s really about Bumblebee bonding with Charlie, and then eventually trying to stop some evil Decepticons. The chemistry between Bumblebee and Charlie is spot-on, which is difficult considering Bumblebee can’t really speak. It works because they make Bee incredibly emotive and incredibly likeable, through the smallest of details.
It’s the visual effects that truly bring him to life and it’s likely Knight’s background in animation that allows this film to succeed here. In the other Transformers films, every fight scene looked like gears just whirling and spinning while sparks flew. I could never tell what was happening in the action. Here, the camera zooms out and it lingers. You watch as Bumblebee crashes with these Decepticons, as he escapes from the military. It looks perfect, still allowing for the same liquid nature that allows them to change so seamlessly but it also gives them weight and allows you to see all the details, instead of trying to obscure them.
As the human lead, Hailee Steinfeld also knocks it out of the park. I’ve been a fan since The Edge of Seventeen and she nails it here too. In the intro I referenced Shia, who held down movies 1-3 of this franchise. Steinfeld doesn’t just serve to get Bumblebee from plot point to plot point, but she has an entire story all to herself, revolving around her recently passed father. It’s got some real emotional weight behind it, much more than any other Transformers film delivered.
Now, I’ve referenced the past films a lot. Being better than those films is not much of an improvement. I want to make it clear though. This movie is better than a lot of films.
The only complaint is that the trailers might convince you that this is a huge movie, with the focus on Cybertron and other heroes and villains. Those characters are in it, but don’t go in expecting Optimus Prime to have a big part to play. This is a small scale story about Bumblebee and Charlie, that’s pretty much it.
Bumblebee is a touching story, giving a strong arc to both our title character and Charlie, played by Hailee Steinfeld. It’s one thing to praise Steinfeld’s performance (which is great) but it’s more impressive that they’ve made Bumblebee a sympathetic and likeable character, even moreso than his appearances in past movies. This feels more like Iron Giant than the past films we’ve seen. We have a strong emotional arc here, balanced perfectly with incredible fight sequences and dazzling visual effects. This movie tackles quite a few things and nails all of them. For director Travis Knight, it seems lightning has struck twice.