Movie Review: 'Bumblebee'

Let’s put it right out there: ‘Bumblebee’ is the best live-action ‘Transformers’ movie ever made.

Not that the bar has been set too incredibly high, mind you.  After 5 overstuffed entrants into the film series, all directed and oversaw by “CGI superfan and explosion nut” Michael Bay, ‘Bumblebee’ gets that chance to take the franchise in a new direction of sorts – a direction of films being led not by special effects, but by characters and story.  You know, like most audience members actually want movies to be.

The film is directed by Travis Knight in his first-ever live-action directorial work, and is written by Christina Hodson; it’s clear that the pair had a mutual understanding of what type of film they were looking to create, and how they wanted it to differ than the ‘Transformers’ films that came before it.  The film is a chronological prequel to the others and, if it performs well, is reportedly set to serve as a “soft reboot” of the film series.  Viewers who are familiar with the existing mythology of the live-action movies will notice the subtle tweaks that are made to the canon that will allow things, moving forward, to go in a new direction for the Robots in Disguise.

The plot is fairly straightforward: after a seeming “final battle” on homeworld Cybertron between the good-guy Autobots and the evil Decepticons, Autobot leader Optimus Prime (voiced by Peter Cullen) sends his soldiers out into the universe to search for new planets where his team can regroup.  He chooses his young scout B-127 (voiced by Dylan O’Brien) to head to what Prime believes is the best option, a planet called Earth, in advance of the Autobots’ arrival.  B-127’s job: advance surveillance and preparation for the rest of the team’s arrival.

Upon landing on our planet, though, B-127 finds that task much more daunting than he thought.  He is immediately set upon by a unit of the US Army’s Section 7, led by Lieutenant Jack Burns (John Cena), who want to capture B-127 and neutralize any potential threat.  Complicating matters is the Decepticon Blitzwing (voiced by David Sobolov), who managed to follow B-127 to Earth and engages him immediately.  In the scuffle, which B-127 narrowly manages to win, Blitzwing rips out his vocal units, rendering B-127 mute and establishing a bit of important back-story for the Bumblebee character audiences have come to know and love in the other films.

B-127, badly damaged, takes the form of the most convenient automobile he can find – a yellow Volkswagen Beetle – and shuts himself down to avoid a total systems failure.  A short while later, “gearhead” teenager Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld) finds the “car” in a junkyard and takes it home to attempt to fix it up; as she works, she accidentally activates B-127 and triggers his homing beacon, which is picked up by two Decepticons who were nearby in the Solar System.  Charlie befriends B-127, whom she nicknames Bumblebee, and the two begin to learn more about the other.

Soon, though, the Decepticons – Shatter (voiced by Angela Bassett) and Dropkick (voiced by Justin Theroux) – arrive and dupe Section 7 into helping them search for Bumblebee, whom they have portrayed as a dangerous criminal.  There’s a chase or two, a final battle as Bumblebee and friends race against the clock to stop the Decepticons from sending a signal to the others and put the fate of Earth at risk – you know, you’re fairly standard sci-fi action-movie stuff.  But because the film has taken the time to this point to allow the audience to become emotionally invested in Bumblebee, Charlie, and the human good-guy gang, the final battle feels like it has real stakes to it, instead of the typical smash-and-explosion-fests of the previous “Transformers” films.

‘Bumblebee’ does several other things correctly where the previous films in the franchise have failed.  First and foremost, it opens the action with an utterly kick-ass scene on the Transformers’ homeworld of Cybertron, which has strangely been largely ignored by the other five films.  This is the genesis of the Autobots and Decepticons’ beef with each other, and it’s never been used as anything more than window dressing before ‘Bumblebee’ shows us the factions’ climactic battle in all it’s retro-fabulous, original Transformers look (Starscream! Ravage! classic Optimus Prime!), colored laser beams, robots-punching-each-other goodness.

Speaking of retro: this film is firmly entrenched in the 1980s, and not only are things visually presented to ’80s-love perfection, the plot and pacing feel like you’re watching a movie from that era.  The jokes, the visual montages, the set pieces and wardrobe, all the way to Bumblebee’s weird obsession with watching The Breakfast Club and emulating one specific character from that movie – it all just feels so earnest and pure, and because of that, it works.  Eagle-eyed viewers can also keep their eyes peeled for a slew of references to ’80s pop-culture – some intentional in the story, and some a bit more of the “Easter egg” variety.

It’s not a perfect film: there are several logic-jumps and plot conveniences that happen a certain way or are glazed over just because they have to be, and all of the Decepticons’ voices are so over-modulated that I sometimes had trouble understanding everything they were saying.  When it’s all said and done, though, this is easily the most entertaining and coherent of the six live-action Transformers films, and it bodes well for the franchise to hopefully movie in a new and better direction from here.