After directing five films under the Transformers banner, Michael Bay finally stepped aside for some fresh blood in the form of director Travis Knight, best known for his work on the excellent Kubo and the Two Strings. While Bumblebee does serve as a prequel to the previous movies, it also feels a lot like a reboot with a story-focused approach and Transformers that look more like their G1 counterparts.
With Autobot forces being overrun by the Decepticons, Optimus Prime orders the abandonment of Cybertron in search of somewhere to regroup. While the Autobots scatter throughout the universe, Bumblebee is dispatched to Earth to establish a base of operations. He’s followed by Blitzwing, however, and during their fight Bumblebee has his voice box ripped out. Although he eventually destroys the triple changer, Bumblebee is severely damaged and shuts down.
He remains dormant until being picked up by Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld), a troubled teen that found the damaged Autobot at a local scrapyard. In the process of reactivating him, Charlie accidentally sends out a distress beacon that is detected by Decepticons Shatter and Dropkick, drawing the pair to Earth. They’re quickly intercepted by the U.S. military, led by Agent Jack Burns (John Cena), but after a brief standoff the U.S. agrees to aid them in locating the “fugitive.”
As that uneasy alliance searches for Bumblebee, he and Charlie begin to form a close friendship with the Autobot becoming something of a surrogate father after her own passed away recently, an event she continues to struggle with. All the while, danger continues to close in as the Decepticons work tirelessly to locate their prey, setting up a dangerous showdown.
For starters, this is, unequivocally, the best live-action Transformers movie to date. So much of Bay’s trademark bluster — the bloated run time, endless battles and low-brow humour that kept getting more prevalent as the sequels added up — has gone by the wayside, replaced with a more focused, relatable plot. The Charlie-Bumblebee dynamic feels authentic and meaningful in a way that neither Shia LaBeouf nor Mark Wahlberg ever managed.
There’s still a good deal of action in Bumblebee, and the fights feel like they have real stakes. It also helps that, for most of the film, there are never more than three Transformers battling at once, allowing for smoothly choreographed action. The one mass battle is also excellent, due in no small part to the faithful recreation of G1 models of Shockwave, Wheeljack, Starscream and more (honestly, try not to get hyped when Ravage ejects from Soundwave).
Bumblebee also benefits from much better pacing than previous Transformers films, coming in at less than two hours and offering a mix of action, humour and heart. Steinfeld headlines a better cast as well with Cena striking the right blend of serious and comedic elements. Pamela Adlon, the wife from Louie, does some good work in a tertiary role as Charlie’s mom.
When you stop comparing Bumblebee to other recent Transformers movies and view it purely on its own merits, more cracks start to emerge. The death of Charlie’s dad is used as a plot device, but we never get any explanation as to what happened. He’s gone and she’s having trouble accepting it. Beyond that, you’re left with little to work with, and it’s unclear why her little brother seems to have completely moved on.
Other plotlines also feel like they were meant to go further than they did, such as Charlie’s interactions with Tripp, a local boy that she accidentally spills a drink on then meets later atop some cliffs. There seems to be something going on, but he’s never seen again. Her eventual relationship with Memo (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.) also falls a bit flat.
THE BONUS FEATURES
There is a lot of additional content to sink your teeth into. Atop the list is nearly 20 minutes of deleted or alternate scenes, which present a mixed bag of added context (good) and a total rehash of the previous film in which vending machines came to life (bad). Some funny outtakes featuring Cena are cleverly spliced, and the breakdown of the Cybertron scenes is good for some G1 nostalgia. On top of all that, there’s several “making of” featurettes.
Bumblebee does the best job of the six Transformers films of telling a coherent, emotional story with focused action and excellent G1-inspired Decepticons and Autobots.