A prequel for one of the fan favourite characters of the Transformers‘ series, Bumblebee in many ways acts as a tentative soft reboot for the franchise. For the first time we see the reins handed to a director other than Michael Bay, and the design turn towards a more classic look.
Set in 1987, a fleeing B-127 (Dylan O’Brien) seeks to set up an Autobot base on Earth after the fall of Cybertron. Attacked by panicked military forces and beset by a Decepticon jet, the young cybertronian barely survives, and is forced to shut down and hide disguised in the form of a yellow VW Beetle. Discovered by Charlie Watson (Hailee Steinfeld), a young teenage girl, scavenging in a junk yard for car parts, the two form an unlikely friendship. Renaming him Bumblebee, the duo attempts to keep the Earth safe from persuing Decepticons (Shatter and Dropkick, voiced by Angela Bassett and Justin Theroux) and escape notice by the mysterious government agency, Sector 7 (in the form of John Cena’s Agent Burns).
The good news is that Bumblebee is the best Transformers live action film, but in truth, that was a mighty low hurdle to clear. The first few minutes showing the fall of Cybertron with Generation One designed Transformers, is something that fans of the original franchise have been waiting for since 2007. Bumblebee handles this in spectacular style, nailing the special effects and setting itself up well for the rest of the film. For that alone this film would have won a place in fan’s hearts, but there is certainly more here. However it is not an entirely smooth ride.
The problem is Bumblebee cynically pushes the nostalgia aspect of setting and premise. Sure with its 80s setting it would be mad not to, but here it is done in an artless and often ham-fisted way. The music and film references within the film are obvious and blatant, but more worrisome still is the way that director Travis Knight (Kubo and the Two Strings) has stitched together the tale to create a film that harkens back to those summer blockbusters of Spielberg, Hughes, Zemeckis, and Dante. Each scene seems to be more in line with triggering those recollections, rather than necessarily servicing plot and characterisation. As such the pacing and flow of Bumblebee can feel stilted and awkward.
However at the end of the day Knight lands those emotional beats required, and manages to create a more successful Speilbergian clone, than even the master himself could achieve this year. Bumblebee might be a cloyingly sweet member berry cocktail, but it’s oddly addictive.
In part this is due to the charisma of Hailee Steinfeld. Charlie Watson makes the perfect plucky teen heroine of the 80s, although thankfully she is given a little more agency to reflect the current social change. John Cena also attacks the role of Agent Burns with a great degree of humour, bringing more to the archetypal “government agent in pursuit” than just his obvious physicality. Both pitch their performances perfectly for the genre and tone of the film.
Bumblebee is far from a perfect film, but it does deliver a hell of a lot of fun, and a strong nostalgia fix to many of the original and subsequent fans of the Transformers. It’ll be interesting to see what this will mean to the franchise going forward, and if this prequel does act as a soft reboot for the series as a whole.