Written by Christina Hodson
Directed by Travis Knight
The planet Cybertron is in chaos due to a civil war between the noble Autobots and the malicious Decepticons. Optimus Prime sends his Autobots out amongst the galaxy while secretly ensuring B-127 makes his way to Earth as an advance party for his people. However, when B-127 arrives, he runs afoul of both the U.S. military and a Decepticon who was tracking him. The battle ends with the Autobot’s vocal cords, and his memory wiped, leaving him stuck as a Volkswagen Beetle. He’s eventually discovered in a junkyard by teenager Charlie Watson. Charlie is mourning the passing of her dad who was a gearhead and trying to fix up an old car. Something draws her to B-127, whom she nicknames Bumblebee because of the small hive she finds under the vehicle. Once she learns the true nature of her new car, Charlie is quickly pulled into the battle between machines and sets out on a big adventure.
I am not too fond of the Michael Bay Transformers movies. I’ve seen all but the most recent, The Last Knight, continually coming back to them in the hopes that they might get better. Instead, they kept just getting worse and worse until the movies were unwatchable. Bad editing, no character development, and just ugly looking; they were no longer worth my time. Then they get me with this soft reboot of the series, bringing on a whole new writer and director, people without the horrendous moral core that Bay has festering inside. Setting the movie in the 1980s hearkens back to the show’s American roots and allows the filmmakers to hit a reset button.
The movie opens on a classic interpretation of Cybertron with the Transformers presented in their original forms, with a few little tweaks here or there, but looking remarkably like the cartoon series brought to life. One of the most significant problems with Bay’s Transformers was that he felt embarrassed that he was making a movie based on Transformers. As a result, the character designs are incredibly overcomplicated and ugly. During battle scenes, it is near impossible to tell what is going because the characters are just massive collections of metal and gears. In Bumblebee you can easily follow the action, and each character looks unique and more humanoid. I’m not one for empty nostalgia, but there is something very satisfying seeing Soundwave, with his synthesized voice launching a cassette that transforms into a robot panther.
1980s tropes and settings are at peak popularity, and Bumblebee walks that fine line between evoking the sense of the period and not becoming a series of easter eggs (I’m looking at you Ready Player One). The story at the heart of the movie is unashamedly an homage to pictures like E.T. and its many related family films. We have a youth befriending a visitor from another world, racing against the authority to save the day. There’s plenty of period-appropriate music and not all the tracks you would expect. I found the movie best evoked its time during a car chase sequence where Charlie’s family gets involved. The music, the pacing, and the joke beats were so pitch perfect. The only thing keeping you from completely getting lots in the 80s are the high def cameras being used that keep the look of the film modern.
Bumblebee shows that this franchise needs to be in different creative hands, that Michael Bay’s nihilistic worldview and darkening of the source material is not where these characters shine. Even if director Travis Knight or screenwriter Christina Hodson don’t have a role in the next picture, I hope Universal continues with this tone for the series. There is so much excellent story material from the classic Transformers era that we could have some fantastic big-budget movies in our future. I sit here completely surprised that I am raving about a Transformers movie after giving up on them before this.