‘Flogging a dead horse’ comes to mind when hearing about a Transformers prequel. One of the most bloated and basic franchises of modern cinema surely does not deserve another entry. It’s a miracle and welcome surprise then that not only is Bumblebee watchable, but actually quite delightful.
Set in 1987, the film opens with civil war raging on Cybertron (about as CGI-happy and excessive as the film gets) and Bumblebee is sent to Earth to establish an autobot camp. There he is discovered by eighteen year old Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld), who befriends the gentle robot and is drawn into helping him fight back against decepticons who have tracked him to the American West Coast.
Michael Bay is no longer in the director’s chair for this one, although is still involved as a producer. Instead, Bumblebee is left in the hands of Travis Knight, and the difference is staggering. The mindless carnage and explosions for the sake of explosions have been reined in, and Knight has produced an action blockbuster that realises how much more less can be. The story is also simple to follow without being too predictable, and throughout it all there is a 1980s beat underpinning the action.
It’s very easy to see this as another nostalgia-fuelled cash grab, but Knight and screenwriter Christina Hodson tie this in with a wonderfully crafted friendship between the two main characters. Knight has already shown how capable he is at establishing meaningful and believable relationships between human and non-human characters in his amazing directorial debut Kubo and the Two Strings (2016). That talent shines again here. You can sense a genuine connection between Bumblebee and the grieving Charlie, as the finest movements in Bumblebee’s eyes and body reveal for the first time how expressive he can be as he shares Charlie’s sadness. It’s a believability, depth and detail that the franchise has never enjoyed before.
Steinfeld should also be given credit for helping bring this friendship to life with a grounded and nuanced performance. While her character type is hardly original, she does a fantastic job of bringing Charlie out of her shell as she spends more time with the big yellow robot. Echoes of E.T. (1982) are present as the pairing blossoms under Knight’s considerate approach. There are several corny moments for those whose brains have been irreversibly diluted by previous Transformers films, and one or two stupid ones — John Cena shouting “There’s a door in my way!” before blowing it up being one of them. Unlike previous entries, however, these prove bearable as a satisfying blockbuster plays out before your eyes. It reaffirms Knight, Hodson and Steinfeld as cinematic talents. Not bad for a movie that nobody asked for.
Image: Erwin Sooputa Madre via Wikimedia Commons