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Transformed into a Good Movie

Hailee Steinfeld
Hailee Steinfeld
Paramount Pictures
 114 Minutes
Directed by: Travis Knight
Starring: Hailee Steinfeld, John Cena   

Give Michael Bay credit for knowing when to call it quits. After making five mediocre-to-dreadful, live-action movies based on the popular Transformers line of action figures, producer Bay has rebooted his series for the second time in ten years.  This time, he goes back to the franchise’s roots in the 1980s and elevates perennial sidekick Transformer Bumblebee to starring status in the not-so-originally titled Bumblebee. At first glance, calling the resulting film, the best Transformers movie ever might seem the cinematic equivalent of declaring someone the best player on the 1962 New York Mets, in other words, an exceedingly small honor. Surprisingly, however, given its predecessors, Bumblebee isn’t just the best Transformers movie; it’s a pretty good action film in its own right.


Since the movie takes place in 1987, the human stars of earlier installments, Shia LaBeouf and Mark Wahlberg, are nowhere to be found. Instead, the action revolves around 18-year-old Charlie Watson (Hailee Steinfeld), a lonely teenager trying to come to terms with the recent death of her father. Charlie feels out of sorts with her well-meaning mother (Pamela Adlon) and stepfather (Stephen Schneider), but her only real passion is working on cars, the one activity that really brought her close to her late father. While rummaging through a nearby junkyard where she often buys spare parts, Charlie discovers a bright yellow, inoperative Volkswagen Beetle. She soon convinces the shop’s kindly owner (Len Cariou) to let her have the car if she can get it to run.


Of course, as anyone who saw the prologue of Bumblebee knows, the car is not an actual car but the title Transformer in hiding. For those unfamiliar with the Transformers backstory, these robotic creatures are divided into two warring groups, the good-guy Autobots and the evil Decepticons. The film opens with the Decepticons routing the Autobots in battle and Autobot leader Optimus Prime (voiced by Peter Cullen) sending Bumblebee to Earth on a mission to keep the planet safe until the Autobots can regroup. Bumblebee lands in California, right in the middle of some military training exercises, followed shortly after by a Decepticon. In the resulting battle, Bumblebee kills the Decepticon but is severely injured and goes into hiding in the junkyard, to be found shortly afterward by Charlie.


Since Bumblebee is not actually a beaten-up klunker but, instead, a sophisticated sentient mechanical lifeform, Charlie is able to “fix” him easily and drive him home. There, in her garage, Bumblebee takes his true form and begins bonding with the lonely teenager. But, while Charlie is becoming friends with Bumblebee, others are looking for the Autobot. Jack Burns (John Cena), the military officer whose troops were attacked by the Decepticon previously, is convinced that Bumblebee is a threat to national security and is sending in lots of troops to hunt down the Autobot. Even worse, as far as Bumblebee is concerned, two Decepticons, Shatter (Angela Bassett) and Dropkick (Justin Theroux) arrive on Earth as well. There, they team up with the military, claiming that Bumblebee is the real threat. Burns doesn’t trust them, but, as usually happens in this type of movie, a government scientist (John Ortiz) is all too willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.


The theme of the large, well-meaning but misunderstood stranger befriending a sweet innocent has been around since the days of Frankenstein and King Kong, and it got a modern makeover, usually with smaller “strangers” from outer space in the 1980s (not coincidentally, the era in which Bumblebee takes place), courtesy of films like *Batteries Not Included and, most notably, E.T. In fact, a running joke in Bumblebee involves various characters watching the TV series ALF, a period show about a space creature living with a suburban family. Bumblebee doesn’t just play lip service to the E.T. playbook; the movie takes its time in establishing Charlie’s character and building the rapport between her and Bumblebee. After the two meet, most of Bumblebee’s antics are comical, playing off the “bull in a China shop” theme, such as a sequence in which he gets loose in the Watson living room and accidentally trashes the place.


One big reason why the character of Bumblebee is more effective and more memorable than any of the other Transformers in the first five films (including the earlier iterations of Bumblebee in those movies) is that Michael Bay made another excellent decision before starting this movie. He stepped aside as director and was replaced by Travis Knight, who is making his live-action debut here. Knight’s background is in animated films, like last year’s acclaimed Kubo and the Two Strings. Knight treats Bumblebee not as a combat accessory, as too many of Bay’s Transformers were, but as a real character, with emotions expressed through evocative body language (watching Bumblebee try to hide in the sand in one scene is a hoot). Knight also humanizes Bumblebee’s defining character trait, a “voice” comprised of bits and pieces of old song clips. Here, viewers see him learn to “speak” by sampling many, many songs of the era.


Of course, the last half hour of Bumblebee features the showdown between Bumblebee and his two Decepticon pursuers. But, unlike earlier Transformers movies, which often featured dozens of combatants in major set pieces, the action here is far more limited and much easier to follow. I still have a hard time accepting futuristic robot creatures doing battle like Rocky slugging it out with Clubber Lang, but the fight is staged entertainingly. A pleasant side effect of the small number of Decepticons is that Angela Bassett gets to create a memorably nasty villain as Shatter. In doing so, she joins the ranks of other distinguished actresses like Charlize Theron, Cate Blanchett, and Angelina Jolie, who have struck gold as female arch villains in recent years.


Bumblebee is still a Transformers movie, and it still carries the baggage of the weaknesses inherent in the franchise. The script minimizes the exceedingly confusing backstory, but viewers are still subjected to a big (albeit brief) opening battle scene. And a number of the supporting characters are straight out of Stereotype Central (I did, however, enjoy the eventual fate of John Ortiz’s misguided scientist). There are also a couple of scenes that are surprisingly intense for this type of movie, such as one in which a captured Autobot is strung up by his arms and beaten like a punching bag in a futile effort to make him talk.


But the heart of Bumblebee is still the relationship between Charlie and the Transformer, and Hailee Steinfeld is perfectly cast here and very sympathetic. Rewrite the script a bit, and this movie could easily have been about her alone, much like her recent underappreciated The Edge of Seventeen. Steinfeld heads an acting ensemble that contains few big names but, overall, put in the best performances seen to date in the franchise. Kudos should also go to John Cena, whose pursuit of Dwayne Johnson’s acting career should get a boost with his surprisingly well-rounded performance here.


Past Transformers movies were almost entirely about giant mechanical creatures changing shape and spending two hours bashing each other to bits. An exceedingly convoluted storyline had to explain (not that anyone except a handful of diehard fans cared) how they could fight the same battles against each other over and over. Making Bumblebee a prequel allows Bay, Knight, and their screenwriters to scrap much of that nonsense and start over. This time, with Travis Knight in charge, we see a kinder, gentler Transformer in a movie with an actual storyline that, thanks to its lead actress, packs an emotional punch. Bumblebee has breathed some new life into a moribund franchise.   

In this clip, Bumblebee battles a Decepticon.

Read other reviews of Bumblebee: 

Bumblebee (2018) on IMDb