As somebody who has never seen a Transformer in their life, but has heard numerous terrible things about them, my anticipation for Travis Knight’s Bumblebee was very high - with the film already being hailed as the best Transformers movie by far. And with its vibrancy and vivacity, Bumblebee will make you fall in love with a robot with so much heart.
After escaping the war-torn Cybertron, Transformer soldier B-127 (Dylan O’Brien), lands on Earth to set up a base for the Autobot resistance. However, with a not-too-smooth landing involving a rival Decepticon and Government Agent Jack Burns (John Cena), he is left with no memory and no voice. No sooner is he found and dubbed Bumblebee by Charlie Watson (Hailee Steinfeld), a mechanic protégée still reeling from the sudden death of her father, than duo Decepticons Shatter (Angela Basset) and Dropkick (Justin Theroux) find their own way to the planet and begin the hunt for their yellow painted enemy.
Balanced is a perfect way to describe Knight's live-action debut. Its action is balanced in scale - the Transformers fights leave forests in their wake as well as the insides of homes. Its focus on the personal and the global threat of the robots hits the mark, and tonally there is a balance in leaning into the pulpiness of the franchise and keeping the spotlight on the emotional journeys of the characters of the film: there are big fights and big feels. But for all of its heartfelt nature, Bumblebee still manages to bring the laughs in hard and fast, leaving you with a consistent smile on your face. John Cena’s Agent Burns is, by far, the most fun of the film; with a knowing quip ready to fly, he crops up just often enough to have you in hysterics each and every time.
Hailee Steinfeld really is a tour de force as the hard-shelled Charlie - her love for cars and engineering stems from her relationship with her father and so, still struggling with his death, Bumblebee comes along at just the right time. Just as she does for him; scared and alone, this giant robot is brought down to human levels and Charlie can’t refuse to fix him. Their relationship really gives the film its heart and the audience something to root for, and Steinfeld effortlessly manages to maintain this performance, even when acting against the massive silent Transformer. Charlie’s emotional arc does at times border on the melodramatic with predictable turns reminiscent of, aptly, a Hughes coming of age classic, but it would be a challenge to not fall for this rebellious young teen and her E.T. evoking friend.
Set in 1987, Knight turns up the nostalgia to full force — a move that feels decidedly fresh, especially in consideration of Transformers history beginning at this time. This setting lends itself for a vividness in the movie’s visuals instead of relying on CGI smash-outs; a wander through the colourful coastal fairground with Charlie at Bumblebee’s wheel allows for far more interesting things to take the stage than any robo-battle could. Nowhere are the 80s vibes stronger, though, than in the stellar soundtrack incorporating songs from The Smiths to Simple Minds. These popular tunes are all woven together with a brilliant original score by Dario Marianelli who, coming from Knight’s directorial debut Kubo and the Two Strings, shows a great director-composer link being forged.
Bumblebee is a film that you would be hard pressed not to enjoy. Grounded by a compelling lead and her emotional ties with the big metal bot, the film has a genuine delightfulness to it that takes it to another level. It is uncynical, a visual joy, and one of the biggest surprises of the year.