Michael Bay did Transformers fans the best possible favor he could do for them by not directing Bumblebee. Bay, who has directed each of the Transformers movies thus far and delivered some of the ugliest and most unwatchably bad blockbusters of recent memory, stepped aside in favor of director Travis Knight in a move that has single handedly turned this franchise around. Bumblebee is terrific and is the first indication we’ve had that the Transformers could work as a big screen blockbuster.
(FYI, I don’t care how much money the Transformers movies made, they are all terrible and I hate them, a lot.)
Bumblebee stars Hailee Steinfeld as Charlie, a teenager dealing with the loss of her father and a strained relationship with her mother, Pamela Adlon, who has remarried. Charlie’s love of cars came from her dad and when she fails to fix up a car she and her dad had been working on, she sets her sight upon a broken VW bug at a local junkyard. What she doesn’t know is that her new car is actually the alien robot, Bee-127, a warrior sent to guard the Earth against the evil Decepticons.
In a prologue, we meet Bee-127 in the midst of a war on his home planet of Cybertron. When the battle appears lost, Bee-127 is sent to Earth to establish a safe landing zone for his fellow Autobots and to keep Earth safe from the Decepticons. Arriving on Earth, Bee is immediately thrust into trouble with members of the military, led by Agent Burns (John Cena). Bee landed in the midst of Burns’ war games in a California forest and is immediately pursued by the military.
Unfortunately, Bee is also pursued by one of the Decepticons leading to a destructive battle. Bee is eventually left immobilized and taking the shape of the last thing he sees before losing consciousness, an ancient Volkswagen Beetle. That brings us up to date, Bumblebee is set in the 1980’s and well before the action of the Transformers films that precede it. That distance really helps the story and creates a mystery as to Charlie’s fate that lingers throughout the movie.
One of the many significant failures of Michael Bay’s Transformers movies was the editing which shredded the robot on robot fight scenes into painfully unwatchable catastrophes. The fight scenes in each of the Transformers movies are clattering cacophonies of chaos where you can barely make out what robot is on which side and which one is hitting the other. And then you add the sound which was a punishingly loud mix of awful scoring and metal on metal screeching.
No such trouble in Bumblebee. By keeping the camera static, for the most part, and keeping the editing at a readable pace, Travis Knight delivers robot on robot fighting that we can see and enjoy as if the robots were remotely real. That’s not to say that Knight reinvented anything, he and his team just appearsto have taken more care to craft fight scenes in a fashion that is not offensive to the eyes and ears of the audience.
Then there are the wonderful characters of Bumblebee. Knight, who broke into the mainstream with the tremendous animated feature Kubo and the Two Strings, takes great pains to give us characters we believe in, sympathize with and care about. Unlike the cartoon figures of the Bay movies who shout and preen and are nearly as unendurable as the fight scenes, Knight’s characters are warm and funny, fully formed human beings with backstories and inner lives we are interested in.
Hailee Steinfeld is a wonderful young actress who infuses Charlie with a spiky puckishness that is a delight to watch. She’s not saccharine or mopey, she’s a believable teenage girl with agency and strength. You can sense her strength and character from her dialogue and her manner, her care and compassion when Bumblebee is revealed is a lovely character moment. Bay’s Transformers movies have not one single character with the kind of depth or humanity that Charlie exhibits in any one scene in Bumblebee.
The supporting cast is slightly more broad but not nearly the ugly caricatures that Mr Bay traded on. John Cena brings a forceful energy to his tweener character. Agent Burns is no paper baddie, he has depths to be unveiled. He’s a loyal dedicated and talented soldier and a believable foe for our hero and our heroes true villains, The Decepticons. Cena is also effortlessly funny and charismatic in this role. And, Mr Cena gets the film’s biggest laugh with a reference to the name ‘Decepticons.’
Bumblebee isn’t perfect, the opening few minutes on Cybertron rush by a little and have a slightly awkward vibe. But, once Steinfeld’s Charlie is introduced the film improves immeasurably. The character of Bumblebee becomes whole in interacting with Charlie. Acting like a giant alien robot puppy, Bumblebee exhibits vulnerability and strength in equal measure. Where Mr Bay reduced Bumblebee many times to a gag delivery machine, Knight makes Bumblebee a character and quite a good one.
The biggest difference in Bumblebee and the Transformers of Michael Bay is Travis Knight’s attention to detail. This attention to detail emerges in small, seemingly unimportant moments that take on meaning once you consider how those moments are lacking from the other Transformers movies. The ending is especially rich with attention to detail with a rearview mirror shot that is surprisingly emotional.
I adore Bumblebee. This movie ranks behind only Black Panther as my favorite blockbuster of the year. This movie is fun, it’s hilarious and it is exciting. Most importantly, it’s the first time I have been able to enjoy the Transformers on the big screen. I was never deeply offended, I didn’t feel like the movie was actively hateful toward the audience and, when I walked out, my eyes and ears didn’t hurt. That alone could have made me admire Bumblebee, but Travis Knight made me genuinely enjoy Bumblebee.