I had given up on the Transformers franchise. No other movie franchise had disappointed me more in the past decade or so than this has, and it was painful for me to walk away. After all, I grew up on The Transformers in the 80s, I had several of the toys, watched the cartoons with a passion, and even read the comics. Yet Michael Bay, he of the large robot battles, slow-mo walks, and non-stop explosions had progressively ruined something that was an essential part of my childhood over the course of five films that I had to walk away.
Thus, when I heard about a planned prequel to the first Transformers film from 2007, I don’t think anyone could blame me for being skeptical as long as Bay was directing. The first good news about the film was that Bay would only serve as producer here, handing directorial reigns over to Travis Knight. The second bit of positives revolved around setting the prequel in 1987, which meant classic versions of the Autobots and Decepticons would be presented instead of the sleek, modern versions over the past 12 years. True enough, Bumblebee has proven to be a great film, probably the best in the entire live-action Transformers franchise to date.
The Cybertronian wars have resulted in many defeats for the noble Autobots led by Optimus Prime. The evil Decepticons have torn the planet asunder as they seek to crush what is left of the resistance. One of Prime’s soldiers is B-127, and as Cybertron falls, he is tasked by Prime to flee to Earth and defend its people from the coming Decepticon forces. Crash landing in Southern California in 1987, B-127 inadvertently interrupts a training exercise by the secret government agency Sector 7 andCol. Jack Burns (John Cena). As the Decepticon Blitzwing disables his voice boxand memory core, B-127 hurriedly transforms himself into a Volkswagen Beetle.
As Charlie Watson (Hailee Steinfeld) prepares to celebrate her 18th birthday, she still misses her recently deceased father though her mother and brother seem to have moved on. She finds a Volkswagen Beetle in a scrapyard owned by her Uncle Hank, who gives it to her as a birthday present. Charlie tries to fix the car and is shocked when it transforms into a giant robot. With no means of communicating and no memory of his mission, the robot is dubbed “Bumblebee” by Charlie even as they uncover Optimus Prime’s transmission urging defense of the Earth.
DecepticonTriplechangers Shatter (Angela Bassett) and Dropkick (Justin Theroux) eventually arrive on Earth and convince Sector 7 that they are in fact the good guys hunting down the treasonous B-127. Meanwhile, Bumblebee accidentally trashes Charlie’shome while causing an energy spike that gets the attention of Sector 7 and the Decepticons. It’s up to Charlie, her family, and neighbor Memo (Jorge Lendeborg, Jr.) to rescue the Autobot and prevent the Decepticon duo from bringing their whole army to Earth.
To say that Bumblebee is the best in the Transformers franchise might be early hyperbole, but given how universally hated the last few Bay films were and given how this film actually seemed to have a coherent plot for a change, it might be true. Of course, the 1986 animated Transformers the Movie still stands head and shoulders above most in the eyes of many hardcore fans, but Bumblebee is a step in the right direction. Steinfeld plays the lonely outcast 80s teen pretty well, and there is an earnestness in her sadness over the loss of her dad and refusal to move on. The animation of the Transformers, particularly Bumblebee’s face, is quite amazing as well, actually making a 15-foot artificial lifeform sympathetic as it expresses sadness and helplessness.
Half the fun delivered by this movie is the 80s soundtrack and setting, as well as classic renditions of the title character, Optimus Prime, Prowl, Soundwave, Ravage, and many more. That soundtrack, with hits from Tears for Fears, Steve Winwood, Simple Minds, The Smiths, etc. really ground the movie and triggered the nostalgia that Director Knight was going for. High school movies were also a staple of the decade and the themes of bullying, persecution, and revenge that were pervasive then are also touched upon in Bumblebee, albeit with a robotic twist.
In other words, this was exactly the approach that was needed to invigorate some much-needed interest once more in this once-proud film series.