In 2015, Paramount assembled a so-called “writers room” with the intention of mapping out the future of their ever expanding Transformers film franchise, nabbing such notable names as Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman and Daredevil showrunner Steven DeKnight. This was on the heels of the wildly successful fourth installment, Transformers: Age of Extinction, despite many deeming it the weakest of the bunch. So, regardless, Paramount was sitting pretty with a film series that catered to audiences around the world, with back-to-back installments raking in upwards of $1 billion. Well, then Transformers: The Last Knight was released in 2017, garnering similar reviews but making approximately 45% less revenue than its predecessor. In effect, that was their wake-up call, that the planet’s carrying capacity for these movies was dwindling. Sufficient to say, the proposed Transformers 6 was put on the back burner until they could reassess what profitability with this property could look like for them. However, one of the first projects to be spawned out of that writers room was a Bumblebee spin-off movie, a logical choice seeing as he’s a fan-favorite character. And with the aptly titled Bumblebee being released this December, one may find it a bit soon to go back to that well, only eighteen months having passed since the last one. But with Michael Bay stepping out of the director’s chair for the first time and Paramount cutting down on the budget considerably, it’s actually the perfect time for them to test the waters so to speak with some lower-stakes gambling. While Bumblebee looks to go down as the lowest-grossing installment in the series, it’ll inevitably be viewed as a moderate success for the corporate bigwigs, garnering a slew of critical and audience goodwill. While I may not be so quick to deem it the best in the franchise – I still view the first Transformers through thirteen-year-old nostalgia goggles – it is a definite step up for a franchise that seemed content mucking it up in the gutter of contemporary cinema, to put it lightly.
Bumblebee opens on the planet Cybertron, where the mechanical Autobot forces are losing the war against the evil Decepticons. The Autobot leader, Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen), dispatches Bumblebee (Dylan O’Brien) to establish a new home base on the planet Earth, where the remainder of their rebellion will potentially congregate should it become secure. Once there, Bumblebee is ambushed by a trailing Decepticon, whom Bumblebee manages to defeat but not before his voice box is destroyed. Damaged further, Bumblebee is forced to take the guise of a Volkswagen Beetle while he seeks repairs. The car eventually comes into the possession of eighteen-year-old Charlie Watson (Hailee Steinfeld), who soon learns of its true nature. As Charlie attempts to repair Bee’s memory core – among other things – the two develop a strong bond. However, danger lurks, as the Decepticons Shatter (Angela Bassett) and Dropkick (Justin Theroux) are able to pinpoint Bumblebee’s location. With the threat of them alerting the Decepticon army to Earth, Charlie and Bee must rise to the challenge and defend their home while it still is.
For months now – as soon as the plot synopsis leaked, really – there have been comparisons made with The Iron Giant, in more ways than one. Though largely the growing consensus has been that’s not really a bad thing, the aforementioned film being a staple in animation and enough of a departure from this that no one’s stepping on anyone’s toes. One only need to watch the previous Transformers films to know that a serious change in tone and style was greatly needed in order for the franchise to survive, and the cult classic Brad Bird feature isn’t a bad place to draw inspiration from. My one gripe with the execution of it all is that Bumblebee seems to be going through the motions of how it thinks this kind of narrative paradigm would go, without really striking out on its own and thinking for itself. Put in different terms, it’s like Bumblebee received the schematics for a ginormous K’Nex contraption – so long as we’re talking nostalgia, remember those? – and assembled it seamlessly, per the diagram. Impressive, even though it’s nothing off the menu. That said, the pieces it’s using to construct itself are so fundamentally solid and fresh relative to those of its predecessors’, that the film can’t help but feel like a breath of fresh air. I don’t know if this is the recipe to continually use going forward, but for now, it gets the job done.
Speaking of getting the job done, incoming director to the franchise Travis Knight absolutely slays it in his live-action debut. Assuming most people don’t recognize the name, he just came of his feature debut with the stop-motion animated Kubo and the Two Strings from Laika Entertainment. That being equal parts moving and technical, Knight more than proved himself capable of being able to make watching him playing with action figures – for lack of a better metaphor – cinematically exciting. So it makes perfect sense to simply let him do that on a larger scale, and the math behind that equation does not let us down. I naturally had my doubts anyway, seeing as this is indeed a Transformers movie, but it sure is fun when your cynicism proves unfounded, isn’t it? Never before have I been able to better follow the action set-pieces more than I did with Bumblebee, and while that mostly can be attributed to Michael Bay’s seizure-inducing directing and editing practices, one shouldn’t take away all the good work Knight has done here.
As much fun of a solo outing as this is, it’s not entirely clear where in the pantheon this film fits into the universe, both stylistically and representatively. It wouldn’t be totally inaccurate to label this a “soft reboot,” seeing as it doesn’t wholly tether itself to the larger canon but also doesn’t simply forget it, which I’m not really sure is a plus or a minus. Yes, the first five films are convoluted as all hell and needed to be on average thirty-three minutes shorter, but a more firm stance on the trajectory of Bumblebee in regards to what it wants to keep and what it wants to ditch would have been appreciated. That said, it should be mentioned just how much of a kick fans of the original Transformers TV series will get out of this one. If the Michael Bay films were a rough translation, this should be seen as a welcome return-to-form. Granted, I’m about a decade removed from the generation that’ll truly get the biggest takeaways from it, but I can still recognize and admire the familiar motifs and reverence for the source material when I see ’em.
I never thought I’d live to see the day that Transformers was good again, but here we are. Does it tread new ground narratively or break free from its own mold? Hell, no. But it remains a significant improvement over its predecessors and offers a fun, undemanding ride to moviegoers of all ages. Now if only they can fix G.I. Joe.
Final Score: 7/10