Bumblebee Review: A heartfelt addition to a franchise that had lost its way
A film that follows the same trajectory of Spielberg’s classic E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
The first fifteen minutes of Bumblebee had me fooled. It seemed every bit a Michael Bay movie like all the previous five films in the Transformers franchise, even though this is the first film he isn’t directing and is only serving as an executive producer. It opens with a frenetic CG-bolstered fight sequence between the Autobots (the good, peace-loving, shape-shifting robots) and the Decepticons (the bad, power-hungry ones), a proclamation that the universe is in danger, and that Earth holds the key and an Autobot has to save their race. Think of it as the Superman of robots. But what follows is nothing like any of the preceding films in the franchise, as the film then channels its other executive producer, Steven Spielberg.
Director: Travis Knight
Cast: Hailee Steinfeld, John Cena, Jorge Lendeborg Jr
After Bumblebee crashlands onto Earth spectacularly, he is cornered by US ranger and Sector 7 agent Jack Burns (John Cena) only for Blitzwing, a Decepticon, to show up, tear the place down, and be the one responsible for damaging Bumblebee’s voicebox, before getting taken down by our titular character. Bumblebee, exhausted by the fight, then transforms into a cute Volkswagen Beetle. This car eventually manages to find its way into the hands of angsty emotional loner, Charlie Watson (a fantastic Hailee Steinfeld), who befriends the alien, gives him his new eponymous name and tries to help out the alien, all the while trying to keep him away from the government’s clutches. If reading that paragraph reminded you of Spielberg’s classic E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, know that you are not alone. This film follows much of the same trajectory as that masterpiece.
Travis Knight made his directorial debut with the Academy Award-nominated Kubo and the Two Strings. Bumblebee is just his second directorial and he finely balances the character-driven alien stories of Spielberg with the glitzy, larger-than-life fights of Michael Bay. Gone are those fast edits that made the action choreography of these robots difficult to watch. Instead, Knight has taken the time to be gentle with the transformations, almost as if to remind us that this is a film based on a line-up of Hasbro toys. Gone also are the thumping sounds and screeches that dominated the Autobot fights. In comes the late 80s music headlined by The Smiths, which acts as a link between not just Charlie and Bumblebee, but also the audience and the characters on screen. In one particular sequence, a Sam Cooke number coincides with an emotional story of Charlie and her dad, and moves us to tears.
What is most impressive about Bumblebee are things we didn’t even realise we wanted. In a series that has so far only portrayed women as eye-candy, to make this film’s female protagonist a young adult, who, while having an ambition, is still conflicted enough to grow through the film, is a major step we cannot discount.
Similarly, the film also gets us to care a lot for Bumblebee, who is cute with the antics and at various times, reminds you of Pixar’s Wall-E. When was the last time you saw a coming-of-age story of both a robot and a human at the same time? The film is, however, not without its flaws. It recycles a lot of content from previous films. And the fights and cinematography, while not chaotic and overlong like in the earlier films, are not particularly impressive either.
Some characters are mere props and feel out of place in a film with so much depth. That said, amidst all the crash, bang, and wallop of Transformers, the franchise gets back its heart in the form of Bumblebee.