Connor Bynum // Film Critic
Rated PG-13, 113 minutes.
The TRANSFORMERS film franchise has been on a constant downward spiral ever since the first sequel in 2009. There are times I still feel legitimate anger when I remember just how tremendously awful 2017’s THE LAST KNIGHT truly was. So, when news that a Bumblebee spinoff film was in the works after what was essentially the cinematic equivalent of a burning dumpster getting into a fight from the Grouch from SESAME STREET, it’s easy to understand that audiences may not have been too excited. However, after seeing the film with my own eyes, I can finally rest easy knowing that second-time director Travis Knight has done the seemingly impossible: he made a good TRANSFORMERS movie.
Opening with a thrilling action sequence on the planet of Cybertron, the Autobot resistance, led by Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen), is all but defeated by the evil Decepticons. In a last ditch effort to save their cause, Prime sends Bumblebee (briefly voiced by Dylan O’Brien) on a mission to find a new planet where the Autobots can establish a base and regroup. After crash landing on Earth and making a poor first impression with the American military, Bee’s voice box (along with his memory) is irreparably damaged by a Decepticon pursuer. He then goes into hiding until he is discovered by a teenage girl named Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld), who has a knack for fixing up old cars. The two of them form an unlikely friendship and together must fight to help rebuild the Autobot resistance.
What makes BUMBLEBEE work so well is undeniably the genuinely touching relationship between Charlie and Bee. Knight wisely chooses to dedicate nearly half of the film’s screen time to establishing and developing Charlie’s character and the dynamic with her adorable robot companion.
John Cena does an adequate job as the main human antagonist, Agent Burns, but, unfortunately, comes across as unintentionally funny at times. The rest of the side characters do what they can, but ultimately become little more than filler.
With a grand total of three sequences of fighting-robot action, one might dare call this a minimalist TRANSFORMERS film. This makes the action sequences far more meaningful than nearly every other explosion-filled mess from the previous films. So, when the robot fists inevitably start flying, it actually feels earned this time around.
However, the film is not entirely devoid of some rusty parts. Being an ‘80s movie through and through, it feels as though a song from that time period briefly plays over a scene only to be cut off when the next scene begins. This would not be such a problem if it did not occur in nearly every other scene in the movie. While ‘80s nostalgia is understandably popular, it would have been nice if a few of these songs had been cut so the others would feel more special. The awkward humor of the previous films also makes a return this time around, even if it is a bit more restrained than before. Sometimes it works, but other times it’s just uncomfortably cheesy.
BUMBLEBEE is a prequel film that quietly acknowledges aspects of the main franchise, while openly ignoring the rest of it. For example, Sector 7, the government agency from the first film is accepted as canon, while the historical events depicted in THE LAST KNIGHT, such as Bumblebee helping defeat the Nazis in World War II, are directly contradicted. Honestly, the fact that Paramount appears to be as keen to forget about LAST KNIGHT as the rest of us is fine by me.
This is a perfect example of how to fix a meandering franchise. The action takes a backseat, while the characters are finally given the attention they deserve. At the end of it all, BUMBLEBEE is a story about a girl and her car – and it works.
BUMBLEBEE opens nationwide on Friday (12/21).