Bumblebee

Review by Elena Lazic @elazic

Directed by

Travis Knight

Starring

Dylan O’Brien Hailee Steinfeld Justin Theroux

Anticipation.

The Transformers films have been disappointing, but they didn’t star Hailee Steinfeld.

Enjoyment.

Bee takes a U-turn straight for my heart.

In Retrospect.

Tears and thrills for all the family.

There’s a dash of Spielbergian charm in this thrilling family adventure from director Travis Knight.

Bringing the Transformers franchise to the realm of kids movies was a big, dangerous gamble. Although based on a series of toys, the five militaristic Baybusters prior to Bumblebee were all aimed at teenagers and adults, and enjoyed incredible commercial success as a result. But the comparative failure of 2017’s The Last Knight – which made less money worldwide than even the first title of the franchise – signalled the end for the Michael Bay era of Transformers movies.

Although the fate of the world is again at stake in Bumblebee, the film is much sweeter and softer than its predecessors. As a prequel to the original movie, it takes place well before Autobots and Decepticons have made of planet Earth their battleground, and we begin the film in a world still relatively innocent. Director Travis Knight and screenwriter Christina Hodson lean into this ‘better days’ sentiment by setting the film in 1987. I wasn’t born then, and neither were the kids who will see this (at last!) child-friendly, awesome-robot-trucks film – but their parents definitely were.

From the soundtrack to our heroine’s band t-shirts, posters, VHS tapes, and even her mother’s furniture, the film’s entire look and sensibility screams the ’80s. No doubt a result of the Stranger Things phenomenon, the homage thankfully goes way past the gimmick. Indeed, the film understands what made the original blockbusters of the 1980s work, and incorporates their formula with genuine grace.

When our heroine Charlie Watson (Hailee Steinfeld) finds Bumblebee – years after the alien’s arrival on Earth, mute and with its memory wiped out – she attempts to hide the clumsy, puppy-eyed fellow in her garage, and warns it of the dangers of the outside world. The dynamic is strikingly similar to that of Elliott and E.T. from Steven Spielberg’s 1982 classic. Grief-stricken and rebellious since her father died, unable to connect with her new step-father, the teenager Charlie falls in line with Spielberg’s characters.

Like them, she navigates a broken family unit, and looks for the companionship and validation she craves in a visiting alien and surrogate family member. The comparison with E.T. extends to the way in which the military, led by John Cena as a cartoonish villain, seeks to both kill Bumblebee and to gain alien technology from the Decepticons who are after the friendly robot.

The blueprint for this simple yet efficient narrative was always present within the Transformers franchise. At the inception of the first film, it was executive producer Steven Spielberg’s idea to focus the film on ‘a boy and his car’. Considering the anthropomorphic and alien status of said car, the similarity to E.T. becomes obvious. The boy was Shia LaBeouf’s Sam Witwicky, but he was replaced with Mark Wahlberg in film four, and the follow-up titles have each brought diminishing returns.

The boy is now a girl, and what a girl she is. As played by rising star Hailee Steinfeld, Charlie is the most believable angry teenager committed to the big screen since, well, the actor’s own turn in 2016’s The Edge of Seventeen. Although our heroine’s sadness this time comes from grief, her arc here involves similar ideas of vulnerability, support and acceptance.

Aside from these major changes, Bumblebee naturally retains the gigantic fighting robots that define the franchise. With only the eponymous Autobot in sight and only a few Decepticons after him, the combats are smaller in scale here. And yet, their effect is much more intense: our emotional investment in Bumblebee raises the stakes to vertiginous heights, and the film’s visual style – much calmer, more spatially coherent than Bay’s – allows each painful blow to sink in.

As in an old-school kids’ film, there is no blood in sight. The few human deaths are framed as monstrous and shocking, but they’re never traumatic: individuals explode into translucent goo. But do not think that you are safe: Bumblebee swaps the environmental chaos and destruction of the original films for absolute emotional devastation. Reader, I wept at a Transformers film. And for the right reasons this time.

Published 15 Dec 2018

Tags: Bumblebee Hailee Steinfeld Transformers Travis Knight

Anticipation.

The Transformers films have been disappointing, but they didn’t star Hailee Steinfeld.

Enjoyment.

Bee takes a U-turn straight for my heart.

In Retrospect.

Tears and thrills for all the family.

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