Bumblebee review: the Transformers are better without the Bayhem

Hailee Steinfeld goes back to the 1980s in this big-hearted robotic caper that harks back to the early days of the toy franchise and rejects the overheated spectacle of the recent movies.

Anton Bitel

from our forthcoming March 2019 issue

Hailee Steinfeld as Charlie Watson in Bumblee

Hailee Steinfeld as Charlie Watson in Bumblee

Directed by Travis Knight (Kubo and the Two Strings) Bumblebee is a prequel, (mostly) preceding the events of the five live-action Transformers films made by Michael Bay between 2007 and 2017, and telling the origin story of how B-127 escaped from the war-torn planet of Cybertron on a mission to establish Earth as the future home of the exiled Autobots. There are also aetiologies for how the loving, loyal Transformer came to lose, and in part regain, his voice, how he acquired the name Bumblebee, and how he comes to have the form (by the beginning of 2007’s Transformers) of a Chevrolet Camaro, despite being a yellow VW Beetle in his various 80s incarnations.

There are inconsistencies with Bay’s series – for example, here B-127 lands on Earth in 1987, decades too late to fight Nazis during the Second World War (as he did in 2017’s Transformers: The Last Knight). Nonetheless, this reversion to the 80s takes us back not only to the franchise’s origins in the Hasbro line of toys and their associated animated TV series (both launched in 1984), and to the animated feature The Transformers: The Movie (1986), but also to a range of pop cultural references from around that decade. For much as heroine Charlie Watson (Hailee Steinfeld) is using spare parts from a scrap metal yard to rebuild a car, and much as Bumblebee, his voicebox broken, communicates by scanning the radio airwaves and ‘sampling’ appropriate songs and quotes, so too this film appropriates bits and pieces from Herbie Goes To Monte Carlo (1977), The Breakfast Club (1985), The Thing (1982), E.T. – The Extra Terrestrial (1982), TV’s ALF (starting 1986) and a whole mixtape of 80s tunes to weave its back-to-basics story of angsty teen coming-of-age and alien infiltration.

Bumblebee (2018)

Having just turned 18, and still reeling from the death of her beloved father, Charlie is the emotional crux of this film (and the franchise’s first female protagonist). Her struggles and general alienation make her the perfect human counterpart to Bumblebee, who is himself isolated and lost. Together they rebuild their damaged identities, renew their sense of purpose and make saving the world from Decepticon invasion just another rite of passage in a world full of hostile bullies (such as John Cena’s government agent Jack Burns, who finally makes the obvious observation that perhaps the Decepticons’ very name ought to be a red flag to their devious intentions).

Inevitably, Bumblebee showcases what has always defined the Transformers brand – epic-scale meta(l)morphic vehicular battles – but, by featuring far fewer extra-terrestrial participants, Christina Hodson’s screenplay has a tighter focus on the human characters (and on Bumblebee’s own human/canine qualities), and offers far more coherent spectacle than the ‘Bayhem’ maximalism of the previous franchise titles. At times very funny, Bumblebee is still at heart a big ol’ B-movie, but less bumbling and bombastic than its post-dated predecessors.

 

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