To say the “Transformers” films have been underwhelming so far would be an understatement. A massive understatement. They have been God-awful, emblematic of everything people hate about big-budget blockbusters: they’re loud, dumb, too focused on special effects and have utterly nothing to say. It’s especially disheartening when the sole reason for their existence is to sell toys. So it is a huge relief that one of them stands up as something other than being truly terrible. “Bumblebee” tells a story, one we’ve seen before, but still, an actual story with characters, plot and an arc.
Directed by Travis Knight and written by Christina Hodson, the film takes place in the year is 1987. The Autobot Bumblebee has landed on Earth, chased by the villainous Decepticons. While in combat, his vocal circuits are destroyed and his memory lost. Disguised as a beaten up car, he is found by Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld), an 18-year-old who is struggling over the death of her father and a difficult social life. Together, they work with new friend Memo (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.) to escape the army led by Agent Burns (John Cena) and the Decepticons who have come to extract information from him.
The film employs a light-hearted tone right out of the 1980s, where a car represented freedom, parents were so lame and rock n’ roll still stuck it to the man. The plot is heavily borrowed from “E.T.” and “The Iron Giant”, utilizing the same disillusioned youth who befriends an alien creature and learns to love again. In difference to the other “Transformer” films, character is emphasized over plot which works better to tell a coming-of-age story.
The film is nothing groundshatteringly new. We’ve seen it all before. Beat for beat, you can see the setups, character arcs and revelations before they occur. It doesn’t decrease the fun and emotion of the film due mostly to the performance of Hailee Steinfeld and the attention paid to the characters. Even Agent Burns, rather than being a one-dimensional villain, has some zippy one-liners and an arc.
But it’s in comparison to the previous “Transformers” films that the perspective of “Bumblebee” changes.
Perhaps it hasn’t been emphasized enough, but the “Transformers” films are ungodly, horrendous, duplicitous, unmoving, nauseating, soul-crushing garbage. Anything that even resembles a story, no matter how unoriginal, feels like the Pristine Chapel next to a pile of excrement. So “Bumblebee”, by virtue of having a spine, a heart and a brain, reigns supreme over the franchise.
Why is this film so much better than its contemporaries? Hmmm. Well, the previous five films were directed by known hack Michael Bay. This film… wasn’t. Why is this so much better? We may never know.
For fans of the “Transformers” of the 1980s, it’s a nostalgic breath of fresh air after years of morbid blasphemy. Robots turning into cars and planes and blowing each other up finally feels fun, as it always should have.