BUMBLEBEE. Hailee Steinfeld, John Cena, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., John Ortiz, Jason Drucker, Pamela Adlon. Directed by Travis Knight. 114 minutes. Rated PG (Mild science fiction violence and mild themes. Some scenes may scare young children).
‘Bumblebee’ is a 1980s film through and through. Not only is it set in this most nostalgia-deified of decades, but it draws very deliberately on the cinematic feel of the time, of the movies that were being made. ‘E.T. the Extra Terrestrial’ comes to mind as a foremost influence, but director Travis Knight digs past his period influences to make a something timeless. Knight is the first director after Michael Bay to be handed the keys to the Transformers franchise (though Bay stayed on as a producer), and he’s a terrific choice. It’s only his second film as a director after 2016’s ‘Kubo and the Two Strings’, but Knight (who came up into the filmmaking industry through the world of stop-motion animation with Laika Studios) demonstrates a sure hand at the wheel. With ‘Bumblebee’, the relatively green director strips the franchise back to basics, arriving at a heart-warming story about a young woman and her friendship with an alien robot. Yes, there are still robo-brawls and explosions aplenty, but for the first time in a few ‘Transformers’ instalments, there’s a human element to the story that you will genuinely care about.
Our flesh and blood lead is Charlie Watson (Hailee Steinfeld), an 18-year-old girl growing up in Brighton Falls, California. She lives with her beleaguered nurse mother Sally (Pamela Adlon, doing a brilliant Catherine Keener impersonation), her doofus stepdad Ron (Stephen Schneider), and her karate-obsessed little brother Otis (Jason Drucker). She works part-time at a funfair, serving lemonade and corndogs to other kids who are enjoying their summer immeasurably more than she is. When she’s not working for change, she’s spending her time at a local junkyard, buying spare parts from Hank (Len Cariou) to get her late father’s old car working again. For her birthday, Hank, a gruff sort who harbours a soft spot for the talented young quasi-mechanic, gives her a beat-up yellow Volkswagen Beetle on one condition: that she can get it started first. Her skills are more than up to the task, and she soon drives it home.
Of course, this being a ‘Transformers’ film, there is more than meets the eye to this Beetle, mainly because it’s the current disguise of the titular Autobot. Bumblebee, formerly known as B-127 (voiced by Dylan O’Brien) was a young Autobot scout from the planet Cybertron, where a civil war raged between the good guy Autobots and the evil Decepticons. Autobot leader Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen) sent B-127 (Dylan O’Brien) to Earth, where Prime hoped that the Autobots would eventually be able to regroup. However, B-127 was followed and critically wounded by a Decepticon called Blitzwing, leaving him a mute amnesiac, stuck inside the final form he assumed before powering down. It’s in this VW Beetle form that B-127 is repaired by Charlie in Hank’s scrapyard, and by fixing the car, she reboots the alien robot too.
If this alien-human story has some shades of ‘E.T.’, then it feels very deliberate. B-127, whom Charlie quickly rechristens Bumblebee, is to Charlie what E.T. was to Elliott. Charlie’s father died of a heart attack some years earlier, and their close relationship meant that his passing affected her very deeply. Her efforts to fix her Dad’s old car were a way of feeling close to him, so when Bumblebee awakens and the pair strike up an unlikely but mutually supportive friendship, it’s Charlie’s way of getting close to her Dad again. As thin and even sappy as this may sound, there’s a sincerity and a sweetness to the screenplay’s humour too that was missing from previous ‘Transformers’ films, which were dominated by Shia LaBeouf’s manic, sarcastic energy, then Mark Wahlberg’s bro-ey alpha performance. Hailee Steinfeld is the franchise’s perfect antidote, bringing a warmth and charm to Charlie that anchors the movie and sells her relationship with Bumblebee. She’s a lively presence and boasts sure comic timing, even when acting across from a CG creation. The Elliot-E.T. aspect of their bond means that you care about both Charlie and Bumblebee, because they quickly become a necessary support for the other to lean on. It’s probably not an exaggeration to say the swell of emotion that the film evokes when the pair share their first hug tops anything that previous ‘Transformers’ films could muster. Their relationship reaches even greater significance and weight as the movie progresses, and by keeping it largely one-on-one, Knight taps into a richly sympathetic vein.
Of course, it’s not all warm and fuzzies; hot on Bumblebee’s trail are two more Decepticons, Shatter (Angela Bassett) and Dropkick (Justin Theroux). Shatter and Dropkick join forces with Sector 7, a government taskforce created to monitor alien activity on Earth, telling them that Bumblebee is a dangerous fugitive posing a grave threat to Earth. Though Sector 7 scientist Dr. Powell (John Ortiz) is thrilled to be working alongside such technologically advanced aliens, Agent Jack Burns (John Cena, playing his hammy role brilliantly) is a little more sceptical of the true intentions. However, Burns – who was among the first soldiers to encounter B-127 when he first crashed to Earth, and who lost many men in the firefight between B-127 and Blitzwing – eventually comes around, and Sector 7 allows the Decepticons to use their satellite array to track Bumblebee. While Charlie and her new friend/possible love interest Memo (Jorge Lendeborg Jr., really sweet) learn more about Bumblebee, and the Transformer learns more about life on Earth (Charlie’s attempts at musical education are a bright note in Christina Hodgson’s sparkling screenplay), Agent Burns and the ruthless Decepticons are closing in around them.
Bay’s influence can be felt in some of the action, like an impressive low-angle shot during the final showdown, following Charlie as she runs through a shipping yard while Bumblebee brawls with his Decepticon foe above and behind her. Fans of the earlier ‘Transformers’ films can rest easy – there are still plenty of explosions to be witnessed, as well as lots of robot on robot action. Knight tellingly diverges from the Bay school of carnage though, holding his shots longer and keeping them wider. It doesn’t feel as much like a warzone, with Knight preferencing clarity over a disorienting scale of mayhem. There’s one moment late in the film where Charlie’s family gets involved in her adventure with Bumblebee, culminating with Ron driving their family sedan through a red light at a busy intersection. I won’t spoil the joke, but the unexpected way that this little beat ends perfectly encapsulates how Knight goes for quieter, arguably cleverer moments over city-levelling cataclysms.
As I mentioned at the start of this review, ‘Bumblebee’ is a proud product of the 1980s; there are references aplenty to the Cold War and the Russians, there’s a great 80s soundtrack, nods to Alf and The Smiths, images of Reagan smiling beatifically down on a society with almost non-existent safety laws. But it’s more than a recreation of the time. It’s a story that uses this nostalgia well, like a filter that primes viewers for what to expect, a family-friendly, feel-good blockbuster that blends heart and thrills. This is the third ‘Transformers’ film that I’ve reviewed over the last five years, but it’s the first that I would recommend to anyone. In fact, I would go so far as to say that ‘Bumblebee’ probably has a little something for everyone.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out December 20.