'Bumblebee' Review: Transformers Prequel Succeeds by Ditching the "Bayhem"
At just 114 minutes, director Travis Knight’s prequel is breath of fresh air for what’s felt like a bloated, dying franchise. Bumblebee also aims for a more kid-friendly perspective that avoids the hyper-masculine tendencies of the previous films, making for some much-needed improvement to the series.
Under Michael Bay’s oversight, every other Transformers movie suffered from an obsession with explosions, incomprehensible plot structures, and Megan Fox. Instead, Knight grounds Bumblebee with a sense of humanity that feels more like E.T. or The Iron Giant than Pearl Harbor with giant robots.
Rather than jack up the apocalyptic stakes at an exponential rate bordering on the absurd and incomprehensible (I’m looking at you, Transformers: The Last Knight), Bumblebee narrows its scope to focus on relatable characters. And rather than tell a male-centric story from an overly masculine, often immature perspective, Bumblebee instead delivers a brilliant female lead in Hailee Steinfeld as Charlie, a bright young girl on the cusp of adulthood who discovers a broken Bumblebee in a scrapyard.
It’s ironic that the most progressive Transformers movie ever takes place 40 years in the past, Steinfeld is the franchise’s first female lead, and not once is she sexualized. Charlie’s developing relationship to male sidekick Memo (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.) feels more like a newfound friendship than a forced romance (without excluding the possibility entirely).
The Oscar-nominated Steinfeld carries the film with an excellent portrayal of a relatable young woman who doesn’t fit in. She’s a counterculture rebel of the late-‘80s who loves punk rock almost as much as she does working on cars.
The ‘80s style of Bumblebee is also a perfect way to make things feel new and different. Between jokes about the Smiths and Bumblebee’s love of The Breakfast Club, there’s just the right amount of nostalgia without going overboard.
“‘Bee” spends a long stretch of the movie behaving like a 17-foot-tall toddler, and the charming first half has Charlie and him speak the universal language of friendship as they get to know one another. This is where the comparisons to stories like E.T. and Iron Giant come in, with a young child befriending a potentially threatening alien being.
Some of the film’s funniest moments also come from Bumblebee just acting weird. All the bleeps and bloops he makes feel reminiscent of Wall-E or RD-2D.
Without giving too much more away, Bumblebee starts with the initial fall of Cybertron and delivers a fun, action-packed, and sometimes even tender origin story for everyone’s favorite Autobot. Bumblebee’s sent to Earth as the vanguard of a new outpost for the Autobots, and we learn everything we could possibly want to know about him throughout the film.
What was Bumblebee like back on Cybertron? What’s his real name? What does he sound like? How does he lose his voice and learn how to talk with a radio? What are some of his favorite movies? If you’ve ever asked yourself any of these questions, this is the movie for you.
Inevitably, trouble follows in the form of two Decepticons that must be stopped to head off an alien invasion. There’s also Agent Jack Burns (John Cena) of Sector 7, the token angry military guy dripping in xenophobia. Cena was born to play this role, delivering just the right amount of cartoonish absurdity to undermine his character’s archaic worldview.
These obvious threats loom throughout Bumblebee, pushing it towards a predictable but satisfying conclusion. But by focusing on the growing relationship between Bumblebee and Charlie, the movie easily surpasses our expectation.
You’ll care more when it looks like Charlie might die than you did when millions of humans were wiped out by the cataclysmic events of The Last Knight because Bumblebee takes the time to explore Charlie’s growth as a person. We also see Bumblebee as a complex character in his own right. He can be a good-hearted robot infant at one moment and a scarily powerful warrior the next.
In a way, Bumblebee represents what the Transformers movies should have always been: a story about the connections forged between the noble Autobots and the human friends they make in their war against the Decepticons. This throughline has been there in all of the movies, but it’s often lost in the cacophony of Michael Bay’s “Bayhem” style of cinematography.
Finally, in this Transformers prequel, the full cinematic potential of the series is allowed to shine through.
Bumblebee will be released in theaters on December 21, 2018.
Check out an exclusive Bumblebee clip in which ‘Bee evades the cops.