Rejoice, one and all. Genuine heart, solid humor and extravagant visual cohesion have found its way to the Transformers franchise. The prequel Bumblebee represents a new and exciting era for the fictional universe.
Cybertron is at war. The peaceful Autobots are at their wit’s end fending off their sworn enemies, the Decepticons. Autobot leader Optimus Prime (voice of Peter Cullen) orders his soldiers to leave the planet, specifically tasking scout B-127 (voice of Dylan O’Brien) to set up a base on Earth for the Autobots to eventually regroup. When B-127 lands at Earth in the year 1987, he is immediately attacked by the militaristic Sector 7, led by agent Jack Burns (John Cena). After a battle with an arriving Decepticon that causes him to lose his voice permanently, B-127 goes into hiding at a junkyard in California as a Volkswagen Beetle. It is there where he is discovered and taken by teenager Charlie Watson (Hailee Steinfeld). Charlie is an outcast, whose life has been upended by the death of her father. She has tension with her family, including her mother Sally (Pamela Adlon), dorky stepfather Ron (Stephen Schneider) and annoying brother Otis (Jason Drucker). She is picked on by her peers, and ignores the affections of her neighbor Memo (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.). Charlie’s tampering with her new ride leads to her discovering B-127’s true identity. Renaming him Bumblebee, Charlie teaches the alien robot the ways of Earth, strengthening their friendship in the process. But Bumblebee must act as a protector when he is hunted not just by Sector 7, but also the ruthless Decepticons Shatter (voice of Angela Bassett) and Dropkick (voice of Justin Theroux), who are on a mission to find Optimus and mobilize the Decepticons for an invasion.
Bumblebee feels far from the five previous Transformers films, and the main aspect that separates this spin-off is that there is humanity in the story. The previous films were populated with human characters that felt inhuman. While previous franchise stalwart Sam Witwicky was an outcast with a dull personality, he is replaced with a lead character that experiences true pain, and learns to overcome it. She develops a relationship with a giant special effect that feels real, something desperately missing from the previous films. The screenplay by Christina Hodson definitely draws inspiration from 1980’s era Amblin pictures, such as E.T. The Extra–Terrestrial. But, none of it feels derivative because the central relationship between Charlie and Bumblebee is so compelling. What also helps this relationship succeed is the incredible performance from Steinfeld and the top-notch visual effects by ILM.
Steinfeld has proven herself as one of the most impressive actresses of her generation. She brings likability and a dynamic aspect to her character. You feel for her and what she is going through, and every emotional turn Charlie takes, Steinfeld handles with ease. The film also makes great use of Cena, using both his commanding presence and dynamic comic timing to great effect. Also worth mentioning is Lendeborg Jr., charming as can be. While the humans undoubtedly are at the forefront, the vocal performances are great as well. Particularly, Bassett makes for a fantastic villain. Transformers has never been a haven for quality acting, but everyone takes their roles seriously and it shows.
This time, the director’s chair is occupied by Travis Knight, who previously worked in animation and directed the brilliant Kubo and the Two Strings. Knight’s work in a visual field like animation serves him well in this live-action canvas. The action is no longer chaotic, but exciting. The Transformers themselves have never looked better, drawing inspiration more from the Saturday morning cartoon counterparts than the previous films, and they blend seamlessly. While this is a thrilling blockbuster, he never loses sight of the heart. He is assisted by great work from cinematographer Enrique Chediak and a stunning score from fellow collaborator Dario Marianelli.
What’s truly special about Bumblebee is that it could have settled for just being better than the films that came before it. But, it transcends this by being one of the most satisfying blockbusters of the year. All of the rusted parts are gone, and like a well-tuned car, this franchise is finally running like a champ. | Bill Loellke