The first film in the series not to be directed by Michael Bay, with Travis Knight (Kubo and the Two Strings) stepping in for his live-action debut, is coincidentally the first to be written by a woman. Christina Hodson has plunged into Bay’s mire of hypersexualised numbness and manages to find a surprisingly heartfelt, unashamedly Spielbergian story in amongst the Bayhem.
We open with an aerial battle on Cybertron, where a civil war rages between the Autobots and the Decepticons. These initial scenes are dangerously familiar territory: fast-paced editing and disorientating cinematography create an unwelcome sense of nausea, an after-effect of sorts from Bay’s tyrannical reign. With the Autobots on the verge of defeat, leader Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen) instructs Bumblebee (Dylan O’Brien) to find refuge on a newly-discovered safe haven… 1987 planet Earth.
While Bumblebee encounters heavy resistance upon landing – John Cena’s square-jawed military man not taking too kindly to the unidentified object at the tail end of the Cold War – we meet a slightly different type of danger in a West Coast beach town: teenage angst. Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld) thunders out of bed, dubiously smelling her pits while blasting The Smiths on cassette (nothing says “sullen 17-year-old” like Bigmouth Strikes Again).
In the kitchen, her mum (Pamela Adlon) is unpleasantly smitten with step-dad Ron (Stephen Schneider), while a karate-fanatic younger brother is met with deadly scorn. It’s all heavily contrived, but her relationship with the now-absent father feels authentic, and gives the film an earnest foundation that the subsequent action is always rooted in. A bright yellow, beaten up ’67 Beetle not only offers Charlie the freedom she yearns for, but the identity that she’s been missing since her father went away.
Their relationship flourishes – lying comfortably between paternal and utilitarian – as they are confronted with threats like churlish high-school girls and intergalactic Decepticon hunters. The latter, as it happens, are voiced by Angela Bassett and Justin Theroux, a dream pairing as villainous droids go. Cena again stutters his bid for movie stardom, though while his dramatic chops take a heavy beating here, this turn is further evidence of his comedic proficiency (“they literally call themselves ‘Decepticons’… doesn’t that raise any red flags?” is delivered like a seasoned comic). The same can be said for Jorge Lendeborg Jr. as the lovestruck Memo, whose humour admittedly outstays its welcome by the last third, but is selfless as sidekick complementary to Steinfeld’s show-runner.
The same age as Megan Fox in that first Transformers film, Steinfeld’s handling couldn’t be more disparate. Bay’s widely-offensive and harmful sexualisation of the teen heroine goes completely out the window; Steinfeld’s Charlie doesn’t so much bend over car bonnets as she does fix them up with a wrench and some grease. There’s still a romantic subplot, but the boy-next-door is deployed less for romance than he is comedic relief – a charmingly Spielbergian friendship in the vein of Super 8 or Stranger Things.
It’s a respectability that extends to Bumblebee himself: gone is the hypermasculine, over-compensatory Chevvy Camaro; instead Knight rolls back the years with a return to the original Volkswagen Beetle design. The end result is a refreshingly childlike sensibility – naïve and untainted by the virile brush of Bay.
Rather expectantly for a film that’s loaded with ‘80s pop culture references – Pop Tarts, Pong, and a repeated Judd Nelson shtick – it ends up a little too reliant on cheap nostalgia value over any savvy period detail. Steve Jablonsky, who scored all 5 previous Transformers films, is replaced by the Oscar-winning composer Dario Marianelli; though it’s such uninspired scoring you understand the soundtrack’s overreliance on Tears for Fears and Rick Astley.
The action is ugly, confusingly choreographed in a frustrating and nauseating manner, despite being comparatively scaled-back in its scope. It’s this grounding that allows Bumblebee to diverge enough from other Transformers films to feel somewhat necessary in a blockbuster landscape proliferated with prequels and franchise-expansion titles. Nonetheless, a retention of corny dialogue and frantically choreographed set-pieces are to its significant detriment – though I can’t predict they’ll harm its wallet.
In a series that had shown no signs of decelerating the machine, Bumblebee is a refreshing entry that hints at redemption – embracing the more innocent appeal of G1 to achieve a finished competence that’s barely recognisable from Bay’s films. The robots are in disguise, alright.
Dir: Travis Knight
Scr: Christina Hodson
Cast: Hailee Steinfeld, John Cena, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., Angela Bassett, Justin Theroux
Prod: Lorenzo di Bonaventura, Tom DeSanto, Don Murphy, Michael Bay, Mark Vahradian
DOP: Enrique Chediak
Music: Dario Marianelli
Country: United States
Runtime: 114 minutes
Bumblebee opens for previews on December 15-16th, before a wide release on December 24th.