During its rather explosive 11 year run, the Michael Bay-helmed Transformers film franchise hasn’t exactly developed a particularly stellar cinematic legacy, with most productions being widely regarded as crass, noisy, explosion-filled, soulless Hollywood drivel with no shortage of puerile sophomoric humour and scantily clad girls draped over car bonnets. For the longest time, this was the status-quo for this franchise, to the point that I’d stopped caring about investing my money in seeing these films at the cinema by the time ‘The Last Knight’ rolled around. This simply boils down to the fact that since 2009, the mere act of watching Bay’s transformers films, with all their typical tempestuous bombast, incoherence and shameless product placement was in itself an exhaustive and mentally-draining endeavour in and of itself. This speaks volumes of the sloppiness and utter creative emptiness that Bay had invested into these films, and the knowledge that a big budget Hollywood media franchise is comfortable to reduce itself to such a state is utterly soul-destroying for modern cinema as a whole.
However, in December 2018, just over a year after ‘The Last Knight’ had been released, the flow of progressively worse productions in the Transformers franchise was finally given the chance to come to a halt with the release of a promising little spinoff that could, named ‘Bumblebee’. With Travis Knight of ‘Kubo and the Two Strings’ fame at the helm, this was the potential chance the franchise needed to at last fish itself out of the deep mire of obnoxious bombast it had wallowed in over the past 11 years. How does it hold up?
I’m glad to say that the film holds up very competently compared to its predecessors. It’s not by any means a masterful or profoundly original piece of cinema, but it’s still a delightfully exciting, hilarious and heartfelt ride all the way through, which is more than I can say for any of the Bay films since ‘Revenge of the Fallen’ (2009). While it’s still intrinsically tied to the narrative of the Bay films as a soft reboot, it appears to have deviated substantially from most of the standard vices that came part and parcel with them, such as a glaring lack of ethnically insensitive caricatures, more restrained and less drawn-out action scenes, along with the fact that the film treats the robots like characters as opposed to exploding CG abominations.
As an origin story for our titular yellow-painted robotic protagonist, the film kicks off immediately with an electrifying and wonderfully animated prologue depicting the fall of Cybertron where Bumblebee and his fellow Autobot rebels are fleeing their home from the Decepticons. This is both a marvellous showcase of Travis Knight’s animation talents, no doubt garnered from his experience at Studio Laika as well as a sign of deep-seated affection for the nostalgia of the 1984 Transformers cartoon, which goes part and parcel with the film’s 1980s setting and aesthetic. The exiled Bumblebee makes his way to earth where he crash lands in the middle of a U.S. military training exercise lead by Agent Burns, played by the ever macho John Cena. He immediately treats the robot as a hostile invader and orders an attack, but before Bumblebee can reason with him, he is ambushed by a Decepticon who viciously tears out his voice-box and damages his memory core and leaves him to fall unconscious. A moment that finally establishes the reason why the character couldn’t speak in previous films. We’re then introduced to our human protagonist, Charlie, played by Hailee Steinfeld, a teenage misfit who has difficulty coming to terms with the death of her father and is deeply resentful of her mother for re-marrying. She encounters Bumblebee in the form of a yellow Volkswagen Beetle in a scrapyard and the owner gifts it to her as a birthday present. From here on in, the bond that both human and machine share becomes the driving force and soul of the movie, giving it a sense of humanity and heart that the previous films were sorely lacking.
The relationship between both Bumblebee and Charlie is both a heartfelt and believable one that deliberately pays homage to the classic 80s Spielberg formula of the unlikely friendship between human child and alien creature depicted in films like E.T. and The Iron Giant (the fact that the film was produced by Steven Spielberg himself only further reinforces this). Both the human child, Charlie, having been emotionally crushed from the death of her father and estranged from her family, and the alien creature, Bumblebee, who had been left to wonder an unfamiliar world like a confused and frightened child, encounter one another during a desperate period of their lives when they unknowingly need each other most. Charlie needs Bumblebee as someone who can fill the void that her deceased father had left behind and one that her family does little to provide, and Bumblebee needs Charlie to show him empathy and humanity in a cruel and unknown world that treats him as an invader. Their relationship is made even more compelling to audience no thanks to Hailee Steinfeld’s fantastic leading performance as Charlie.
One problem I had with the film was that most of the other secondary characters come across as two-dimensional and underdeveloped but nonetheless serviceable. Agent Burns, for instance, representing the typical ominous governmental authority figure is not an especially well-developed human antagonist, but John Cena’s performance gives the character enough charisma to at least be somewhat memorable. However, it’s hard to say the same for the other side characters who are equally two-dimensional and uninteresting, but unlike Cena’s memorable performance as Burns, they provide very little to make them seem distinctive or endearing. Another, arguably more trivial issue I had with the film was the simple fact that as a soft reboot, it’s narrative still appears to remain tied to its comparatively soulless, noisy and uninspired predecessors. But this is a minor gripe that does little to stifle my optimism for the future of this franchise due in no small part to this film’s marked improvement.
‘Bumblebee’ is a sign of a slow and steady recovery for a franchise that had suffered over 11 years of poor cinema outings. It’s a film that’s undeniably built upon the template Michael Bay had established in his previous Transformers films, and it benefits surprisingly well from making use of that template. The robots themselves, for instance, while given an updated design reminiscent of their early 1980s appearance still take their general aesthetic largely from what Bay had established. That being said, it serves as a reminder that in spite of this franchise’s shortcomings, a film about an intergalactic war between factions of transforming giant robots still has the potential to tell a more nuanced, nostalgic and touching story.