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Bumblebee proves Transformers movies can actually be resonant and emotional

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And even visually coherent!

Photo by Will McCoy / Paramount Pictures

It’s nearly impossible to separate the Transformers film franchise from the creative aesthetic of director Michael Bay. From the slow-motion flag-waving to the copious explosions and visually incomprehensible CG action, the series has become the ultimate expression of Bay’s idiosyncratic style. Audiences may love it — the movies have collectively made billions of dollars at the box office. Or they may hate it — the critical responses have been dire, but even the fans often complain bitterly over these films, while still hopefully turning up for each new one. Regardless, there’s no mistaking a Michael Bay fighting-robots flick for anything else.

But we live in the era of the expanded cinematic universe, where every studio is eager to adopt Marvel and Disney’s template for box-office domination. So just 18 months after Transformers: The Last Knight arrived in theatres, Paramount Pictures is hoping to broaden the definition of what a Transformers film can be. The origin story Bumblebee isn’t just a movie, it’s a trial balloon — a check-in to see whether Transformers die-hards will support a long, profitable run of cinematic spin-offs.

Bumblebee wasn’t directed by the bombastic Bay: Laika founder and Kubo and the Two Strings director Travis Knight steps in for his live-action feature debut. It doesn’t stars Megan Fox, Shia LaBeouf, or Mark Wahlberg: True Grit and The Edge of Seventeen star Hailee Steinfeld takes the leading role. It’s set in a nostalgia-heavy 1980s instead of the present day, and it doesn’t subject audiences to a punishing two-and-a-half-hour runtime, either.

But ultimately, those are just surface changes. The core difference is that Bumblebee strips out much of the franchise’s wannabe macho excess, replacing it with a Spielbergian story about the friendship that forms between a robotic alien and a teenage girl. It isn’t a flawless movie, and it nearly descends into self-parody at times, but after a decade of Bay’s rock-’em sock-’em battles, Bumblebee nevertheless comes across like a mini-revelation: Transformers movies don’t need to be terrible.

The film opens up by taking a step back from 1987 Earth to the Transformers’ home planet of Cybertron, where civil war has broken out. On one side are the nefarious Decepticons; on the other, the self-proclaimed “Autobot resistance.” Realizing that the battle is lost on their home world, Autobot leader Optimus Prime (voiced by Peter Cullen) tells one of his soldiers, B-127 (Dylan O’Brien), to head to Earth and protect the planet until the rest of the Autobots can escape and regroup there.

After landing, B-127 (eventually renamed Bumblebee, because what origin story is complete without a naming scene) runs into Agent Jack Burns (John Cena), who is part of an elite military force named Sector 7. Burns immediately perceives the giant talking robot as a threat, and those concerns appear to be validated when a Decepticon pursues Bumblebee, nearly killing the Autobot, and permanently damaging his ability to speak.

When Charlie Watson (Steinfeld), a young woman struggling to come to grips with her father’s death, procures a beat-up Volkswagen Beetle from a local junkyard, she thinks she’s just landed her first car. She eventually discovers that the car is Bumblebee in disguise. When the Autobot reveals himself, Charlie is caught between her new alien friend, Agent Burns, and a pair of Decepticons that are trying to take out all Autobots once and for all.

If the idea of an alien making friends with a kid from a broken home while government agents wait in the wings calls to mind E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, that’s because Bumblebee basically is E.T., albeit with more fights, and a much less cuddly alien. Screenwriter Christina Hodson (Unforgettable, the upcoming Harley Quinn spin-off Birds of Prey) tosses aside the franchise’s condescending pattern of using its female characters as accessories, and instead frames the entire story through Charlie’s eyes.

Charlie won’t give her mother’s new boyfriend a chance no matter how hard he tries, and doesn’t entirely know how to fit into the world after her father’s death. Her friendship with Bumblebee becomes a way for her to assert her control over her life, and to overcome her crippling grief. It’s straightforward storytelling, but it’s effective — particularly because Steinfeld is able to add real emotional heft to scenes where she’s playing opposite a giant CG robot.

Image: Paramount Pictures

The film focuses more on that core relationship than on globe-trotting adventure, and scaling back is an effective tactic throughout the story. It’s clear from early on that Knight isn’t interested in the bombast of earlier movies, which introduced dozens of nearly indistinguishable Transformers that blurred together in all the sheer visual chaos. Instead, the opening Cybertron battle in Bumblebee focuses on just a handful of classic Transformers, with characters like Soundwave and Shockwave showing up with simplified designs that hew closely to the original iconic toys, rather than the overwrought monstrosities seen in previous films.

Nostalgia is a clear selling point in this regard — the movie makes the most of its retro setting, with copious use of The Smiths, appearances from Mr. T cereal, and other 1980s pop-culture callbacks. But it also comes across as a matter of confidence. Michael Bay’s Transformers flicks often felt bloated and overstuffed, as if they were trying to justify their existence by throwing as many things as possible at the audience. Bumblebee, on the other hand, focuses on just telling the best story it can, as if Knight is happy to let the performances and a softer touch carry it forward. It’s the kind of movie that introduces a potential suitor for Charlie in her neighbor Memo (a disarming Jorge Lendeborg Jr.), but is comfortable not resolving that relationship with a predictable romantic contrivance. The characters’ presence and friendship are the point, not a tossed-in romance.

Some of the franchise’s other bad tendencies still bubble up in the film, though. While Charlie and Bumblebee have an emotionally affecting relationship, the movie still suffers from tonal swings, particularly around John Cena’s portrayal of Agent Burns. It’s hard to intuit exactly how the character of Burns is intended to come across. He’s so full of bravado and pseudo-military swagger that he seems like a satire of the usual flavor of machismo that permeates Bay’s filmography. But there’s never enough of a nod or a wink to make that intent clear, and in the end, it seems like Burns is just periodically popping in from some bad Syfy movie to drop awkward one-liners.

Image: Paramount Pictures

Bumblebee also succumbs to its franchise DNA during its third-act climax. In spite of the character-focused story, there’s still a point where Earth’s survival hangs in the balance, and the only thing that can stop it is a bunch of robots punching each other. But even in this, Knight’s more restrained approach is apparent. The action is cleaner, the choreography more coherent. He worked as a stop-motion animator before making the leap to directing, and the discipline that medium requires bleeds through here. After five Transformers movies where it was frequently impossible to tell what was happening on-screen, Bumblebee finally makes Transformers action compelling, and lets the audience actually care about the fate of the robotic characters.

This may all come across as an argument that Bumblebee is better than the other Transformers films simply because it isn’t a Michael Bay film. While that’s no doubt part of what’s going on, it’s also far too reductive. Bumblebee is a legitimately solid movie that demonstrates how a good story, strong performances, and talented direction can make even the most outlandish premises work. (It’s no surprise that Warner Bros. has signed Hodson on for its in-development Batgirl film.) And for Paramount and its Transformers universe ambitions, Bumblebee is a best-case scenario, demonstrating that the franchise can shift gears and expand in new directions, and broaden its demographic appeal at the same time.

Consider it an unintended consequence of cinematic universes. For a decade, Transformers has been tied to Michael Bay’s creative vision, and anyone who didn’t find that vision resonant and compelling was out of luck. But in the name of cashing in even further, Paramount reached beyond the template, and ended up with a story that’s legitimately good. Who would have thought?