The Transformers franchise, formerly wretched, gets an unexpected shot of heart.
Director: Travis Knight
Stars: Hailee Steinfeld, John Cena, Jorge Lendebord Jr.
There are things that you don’t expect. Interesting music from Ed Sheeran. Reasonable answers about Brexit. Stagecoach buses. You don’t expect them because of experience. Because for some things the well ran dry a long time ago and waiting on anything else is just madness. For some things, as Thom Yorke once sang, there are no surprises. Transformers movies fall directly into that pile of foregone conclusions.
And then someone like Travis Knight comes along and upsets the apple cart.
Smashing it out of the park with this live action debut (following the under-seen and phenomenal Laika stop-motion feature Kubo And The Two Strings), Knight takes us back to the beginning, chronologically, with a prequel that tries – as much as is reasonably possible – to act as a stand-alone film. In doing so, Knight looses himself from the shackles of Michael Bay’s eye-and-mind melting series and takes aim at an altogether different brand of popcorn cinema; the nostalgic and heartfelt family film.
Taking place in 1987, Bumblebee concerns a yellow alien robot thingy that is sent to Earth from planet robot (Cybertron?) as a kind of scout for the coming… eh, who cares? The film’s opening offers exceedingly little to raise the pulse or indeed expectations. The space stuff is as much garbage as its ever been (some incomprehensible war is happening) while, on Earth, John Cena’s teutonic Agent Burns is just as uninspiring. But then the movie switches gears, beds down and embraces its inner Spielberg.
Enter Hailee Steinfeld as Charlie. She’s a tomboy, an outsider, an enthusiastic mechanic and – in true Spielberg fashion – the child of a broken home. In the first in a long line of clearly deliberate nods to E.T., we learn that her father is gone (in this case dead from a heart attack). And while Charlie’s mother may have moved on, she herself has not. All she wants for her 18th birthday is a car. Thanks to her junkyard-owning uncle, she’s about to get one. And a whole lot more.
Mute and wiped of some pretty important memory banks, Transformer B-127 has been hiding in the guise of a battered old yellow VW Beetle. Now gifted to Charlie, he/it(?) is revealed and changes her life. She now has a fantastical friend and confidant; a project and protector; a shape-shifting car she names Bumblebee that becomes precious immediately.
The main of the film is a sunny and boundless joy that is knowingly infused with some of the halcyon elements of the time period screenwriter Christine Hodson has chosen as her playground. From Charlie’s Walkman to her cooler-than-cool bedroom wall art, Bumblebee presents the late eighties with the same love and attention that the crews of Stranger Things or Guardians Of The Galaxy bring to their respective projects.
Here, arguably, these baubles of fan service are more wisely incorporated. Bumblebee doesn’t just nod cheaply to bits of old tat or Duran Duran songs; its reverence to the period is there in the cinematic staples that pop up, like the trio of nasty girls and the daredevil jock. The story plunders E.T. but it also connects to such rites of passage movies as Short Circuit or (of course) The Love Bug. Bumblebee carries on a fine tradition of family friendly stories in which an otherwise inanimate object is imbued with soul by virtue of the person it comes into contact with. Bumblebee is a love letter to the most treasured possession from your childhood; a time when make believe imprinted personality on everyday artefacts.
Steinfeld is a major coup for the film. She’s built up eight years experience since catching attention in the Coens’ True Grit and her confidence in front of the camera makes her Charlie click from the get-go. Knight, for his part, plays the same deft balancing act of humour and wonder displayed throughout Kubo. There’s a hushed, whispered quality to some stretches of Bumblebee that recall elements of that film. Even so far removed, these trace elements make the film distinctly his. Animation has a way of playing for (and getting) big emotional beats in a manner that live action can’t often replicate without collapsing into the cornball. Knight dodges his pitfalls with admirable skill.
He also shows a dab hand for choreographed action set pieces, once the messy opening act is out of the way. The film’s finale is modest by the series’ scale, yet manages to feel more epic than usual. In part because Knight has established a clear emotional connection to what’s happening and also because he isn’t hamstrung by Bay’s preference for relentless, frenetic cutting. Mangled CG mayhem might ultimately be the order of the day, but crucially you can tell what that actually entails, where everything is… the works. In short, it isn’t a brutal headache.
With expectations non-existent, it would be easy to shrug off Bumblebee‘s successes as faint praise, but this is more than just a welcome case of someone, somehow, not fucking up. This is an emotionally engaging, entertaining and involving piece of craft, one that only intermittently gets bogged down in a sadly inevitable sea of gobbledegook and lore. The villainous robots sent to find Bumblebee are a necessary evil in this case and always the weakest part of the feature, but they detract rather than capsize. They’re lumpen litter, nothing more.
You don’t get good Transformers movies. You just don’t. Except now you do and we all have to deal with that. This movie will be a new generation’s E.T. or Short Circuit or The Love Bug, and that’s a most welcome thing so long as you can just get over yourself and embrace it.