The Transformers franchise has come to symbolize a behemoth of capitalistic consumerism, with blatant branding being shown in every frame and a shameless exploitation of women as objects and explosions filling the screen. Blockbuster maestro Michael Bay directed the first five films in the Transformers series, and his style didn’t really beg a different expectation from viewers. However, people became shocked and curious when a spinoff film was announced that would not only have a female as a protagonist, but a so called Travis Knight directing, who was known previously only for stop-motion films such as Kubo and the Two Strings.
Bumblebee is a prequel to the Michael Bay Transformers movies, and it couldn’t be more different from them. The film follows the good-willed robot who can transform into cars: Bumblebee. Our protagonist falls to 1987 earth and loses his voice and memory. He is found in California by a shunned teenager named Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld) who befriends him and the two begin to bond. Little do they know that both the US army and the evil decepticon robots from Bumblebee’s planet are on their trail.
The first thing that should be mentioned about this film is that it is as far away from the previous Transformers movies as you can get. The actual story is more reminiscent of great 80s flicks than anything seen in the past two decades. In fact, the film is such a joy because it is nitpicking parts from great movies from the past; there are definitely echoes to both E.T. and The Iron Giant. The result is a film that might have been formulaic and generic if it had come out in the 80s, but today feels like a breath of fresh air.
In the previous Transformers films Bumblebee was the standout character, as he was the only robot that couldn’t talk; instead he had to communicate through his radio, with movie lines and songs. This film being set in the 80s, there is a subsequent amazing soundtrack used for the character to communicate, and the song list will have the older members of the audience perking up their ears and smirking. It certainly has to be commended that Knight succeeds in making an indelible character of Bumblebee, who is essentially mute. The director certainly uses many tricks with the eyes and hand gestures similar to what made the opening of Wall-E so great.
Bumblebee really pulls back on the fights and explosions and instead focuses on the bond that Charlie and Bumblebee form, as two outcasts who are able to grow thanks to each other. The film also seems to be very aware of the flaws of the franchise, the result is that we have men incredibly objectified in this film instead (for once), pulling off their shirts for no reason and being the cheerleaders on the sidelines of the fights. It overjoyed me that kids who come and see this film for the action, will not leave with the idea that women are pieces of meat, but rather that friendships are what really matter, and that girls can truly kick some ass.
Steinfeld proves to be exceptional in this film. The actress has had success after success in her career, ever since her screen debut in True Grit, which earned her an Oscar nomination. When she signed on to this film, many thought it would be a big mistake in her career, but it appears to have been the opposite. Steinfeld gives her Charlie true depth showing a sweet teenager who’s been coated with incredible pain. She helped realize a relationship between human and robot that in previous films of the franchise had seemed ridiculous.
Bumblebee is a much needed update in this franchise, and frankly it would be better to simply forget all the other movies in the series exist and take this film to be the ultimate and only Transformers flick. The film does sin a little by borrowing too much good material from other films, so that the scales sometimes tip from homage to unoriginality. But Knight’s deftness in the composition of emotion and tone along with the always great Steinfeld make Bumblebee a real delight.