If there were ever a Hollywood property in dire need of a complete makeover, director Michael Bay’s “Transformers” films would most definitely fit the bill. Since 2007, both Bay and Paramount, the films’ distributor, have managed to establish a major franchise that, despite its massive box office success, has caused moviegoers, critics and especially “retro” Transformers fans to unfortunately groan at the mere sight of each film.
Whether it would be because of the substitution of actual substance for mindless explosions, the stale humor often based on racial stereotypes or the choice to constantly objectify women as sexual objects, each of the five “Transformers” films have showed that Bay doesn’t care about your viewing experience, as long as he receives a juicy paycheck in return.
With “Bumblebee,” however, the slate has been completely wiped clean. This time around, Travis Knight, responsible for 2016’s “Kubo and the Two Strings,” has replaced Bay in the director’s chair. As opposed to simply producing another cookie-cutter Transformers sequel, “Bumblebee” aims to take the franchise back to its roots, centering on the iconic “Autobot” himself, Bumblebee.
With that said, convincing audiences to actually give this franchise another chance was never going to be easy, and both Knight and screenwriter Christina Hodson both put their best foot forward to make this film work despite generally negative expectations, ultimately leading to somewhat mixed results.
Set in 1987 California, the audience follows Charlie Watson (Hailee Steinfeld), a teenage social outcast, not to mention an amateur auto mechanic and former competitive diver, who has been emotionally struggling following the death of her father.
Instead of looking towards the future, she simply chooses to remain rather isolated from the rest of her family members, much to her mother’s (Pamela Adlon) discontent. That all changes when she comes across a worn-down, yellow Volkswagen Beetle that is eventually revealed to be Bumblebee in disguise.
Charlie quickly forms a bond with the robotic creature, as she promises to keep him safe no matter what happens to them. That promise, however, becomes easier said than done when a government agency, led by Agent Jack Burns (John Cena) and two “Decepticon” Transformers that go by the names of Shatter (Angela Bassett) and Dropkick (Justin Theroux), are all trying to hunt him down.
If it wasn’t obvious already, Knight clearly intended to not only pay homage to Steven Spielberg’s “E.T. the Extra Terrestrial,” but to also bring back that feeling of nostalgia that many fans have desired for a long time now (right down to the fact that the designs of Transformers themselves are very much akin to their 1980s or “Generation 1” counterparts).
Even with that in mind though, it doesn’t change the fact that “Bumblebee,” despite deliberately wanting to follow in the footsteps of the “adolescent meets alien” sub-genre of science fiction and even coming-of-age, sometimes falls into the tropes and clichés that are often expected.
To be fair, this film is meant to pay homage, yes, but other than the fact that a Transformer has replaced the “Extra Terrestrial” role, there is nothing truly original about this story.
Nevertheless, the film’s strong point is the friendship between Charlie and Bumblebee, which conveys so much more emotion and humanity than remotely anything that has been done in any of Bay’s Transformers films.
Their friendship never feels artificial or forced, but rather genuine and heartfelt, even if Charlie’s overall character arc is nothing we haven’t seen before. However, if there was one legitimate flaw, it would have to be the film’s pacing – which is sometimes too rushed for its own good. A fast pace is not necessarily a bad thing, but in the case of “Bumblebee,” there certainly could have been more time and development on Charlie’s relationship with her family, as well as Bumblebee’s backstory (before he came to Earth in the first place).
With both its ups and downs, “Bumblebee” manages to be a pleasurable throwback to both 1980s culture and to the origins of the Transformers franchise itself. Regardless of Knight and the crew’s efforts though, there are certain elements that hold back its true potential not just as an apology for the previous films that fans and critics have come to abhor, but as a film standing on it's own right.
All that being said, I will gladly take this over Bay’s Transformers films any day of the week, and despite its shortcomings, I am generally excited to see where this franchise will go from here.