Bumblebee review: The Transformers franchise puts itself into reverse gear and heads back to its 1980s roots with this prequel-reboot from the director of Kubo and the Two Strings.
It would be fair to say that the Transformers franchise was in need of a re-tool following the latest effort from Michael Bay (last year’s The Last Knight). When that film’s $605.4 million worldwide box-office proved to be a disappointment for the studio (relative to the franchise anyway), the powers that be determined it was time for a change. For that, they’ve done the fashionable thing and looked to tap into that grand old Oak tree of nostalgia, placing the action in the 80s and dialling down the Bayhem to deliver a refreshing change of pace for the robots in disguise
The film kicks off on the Transformer home-world of Cybertron, as the Autobot Resistance led by Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen) wage war against the evil Decepticons. When they are forced to retreat, Optimus sends one his most loyal scouts, B-127, to Earth, with the promise that the rest of the Autobots will soon follow. But when B-127 is left with memory loss and a broken voice-box upon his arrival in the year 1987, he takes the disguise of a Volkswagen Beetle and ends up in the care of a young girl, Charlie Watson (Hailee Steinfeld) a teenage misfit struggling to come to terms with the death of her father.
From the very first moments of this film, it is clear that the intentions and approach are very much different from what has come before. The film’s biggest action scene comes right at the start for one, as we witness the war on Cybertron. It is a huge opening, one that makes sure it features more than a fair few of fan favourite characters within the action. This, coupled with the more retro designs of the robots themselves clearly signposts that this is a film made more with the fans who grew up with the characters in mind.
This becomes abundantly clear once Bee crash lands on 1987 Earth. With soft lighting offering a nostalgic glow and a banging 80s jukebox soundtrack, Knight clearly has a ball setting up a 1987 that feels like the world of old 80’s movies, particularly teen dramas like The Karate Kid and Pretty in Pink. There’s a care for an authentic period feel that occasionally overloads on the details, but nonetheless feels like the work of a filmmaker who has a clear affection for the period.
The same can be said when it comes to the relationship between Steinfeld’s Charlie and B-127, who gets given the cosier name of Bumblebee by Charlie. It is not difficult to see where Knight is looking for inspiration when it comes to this relationship, as the shadow of E.T. looms large, something which Knight and his team more than directly address particularly in one sequence which is effectively the kitchen scene from E.T. just with a giant robot and more pop-culture references stuffed into it in order to tickle those sweet nostalgia spots for those in the audience familiar with the period. .
While the obvious parallels to E.T. and Spielberg in general rob Charlie and Bee’s relationship of originality, there is no denying that there is a great deal of warmth and sentiment attributed to the two characters. It is in this aspect where the film is at its most refreshingly different to the Bay-led instalments. Where those films relied on loud action and juvenile humour to entertain the crowd, Bumblebee strives to connect to its audience with more relatable emotion and a pace that is more akin to a hang-out movie than it is a big sci-fi blockbuster. As a result, it has something that the Bay films tended to lack; a sweet, beating heart.
Much of that heart comes from Steinfeld’s Charlie. She gives her all in a spirited performance that proves particularly affecting when the film turns towards Charlie dealing with her grief. She completely sells the moments where she bares her soul to a giant CG robot, connecting with the character in a fashion which doesn’t feel forced or even all that silly, thanks in large part to her understanding of her character’s inner workings and the fantastic visual effects that bring Bee to adorable life.
Not everything works. While the change of pace is certainly a breath of fresh air, the film can often feel like it’s lacking propulsion and as a result the film occasionally sags, particularly when a sort-of romantic interest is introduced for Charlie in the form of Jorge Lendeborg Jr’s Memo. Lendeborg is more than charming enough, it is just that the relationship between the characters never quite sparks. The dynamic with the rest of Charlie’s family also isn’t particularly engaging and largely services predictable plot beats along the way to a admittedly satisfying conclusion. The cast are all on fine form though, with the stand-out being John Cena as military man Jack Burns, with his comic delivery often providing the film’s biggest laughs.
By looking back to the 80’s from whence it came, the Transformers franchise seems to have found its heart again with Bumblebee, an instalment which has clearly taken notes from what has come before to deliver a surprisingly sweet adventure, owing much to the Spielberg school of film-making along the way. It may be predictable and a little over familiar at points, but thanks to Steinfeld’s charisma and a sense of innocence that has been MIA in this franchise for a long time, this is a Transformers movie that has more to it than meets the eye.
Bumblebee review by Andrew Gaudion, December 2018.
Bumblebee is released in cinemas on 24th Decemebr 2018.