Bumblebee and all the images you see in this review are owned by Paramount Pictures
Directed by Travis Knight
The thing about Transformers, at least for me, is that it’s only ever existed as the Michael Bay movies. I never watched the original series, any of its spin-offs, and I’ve only played one of the games, so if nothing else this movie has a rather low bar to clear if it wants to be considered “good”. Now that said, it’s got some heavy competition right now what with the new Spider-Man movie not just being GOOD but PHENOMENAL, and there are plenty of others out right now that this isn’t gonna stack favorably against if it’s ONLY trying to be better than what Bay was putting out. Still, it’s got a lot going for it what with Hailee Steinfeld AND the recently launched into the mainstream John Cena filling out the cast along with the Laika animation guy stepping in for Bay this time around. Does this prequel manage to take this tired and overblown franchise in a fresh new direction, or is the engine underneath it still the same despite the shiny new coat of paint? Let’s find out!!
Back in the long ago days of the late eighties (when Sony Walkmans walked the Earth), the war for Cybertron was reaching its peak as the Decepticons had pushed the Autobot rebels off the planet with little hope of taking it back. The leader of the Autobots, Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen), has tasked B-127 (Dylan O’Brien) with scouting a far off planet that may serve as their new base of operations so they can regroup and finally stop the Decepticons once and for all; a desperate plan to be sure, but its not like anyone else is coming up wit ha better one. So B-127 speeds off to Earth but was followed by a Decepticon warrior! Oh no! The ensuing battle leaves the Decepticon dead, but it leaves a few humans worse for wear including Super Solider from Sector 7 Jack Burns (John Cena) as well as B-127 ending up heavily damaged (even losing his voice in the process) and… I guess robo-hibernates for some time to recharge his batteries. Some time passes (not sure if it’s months or years) and B-127 is found in a junkyard by Charlie Watson (Haille Steinfeld) who takes him home and manages to get him running again. He wakes up, shows himself to be a robot to Charlie albeit it with no memories which were all damaged in the fight, and… I think he accidentally sets off some sort of tracking beacon that two Decepticons (Angela Bassett and Justin Theroux) a few planets away seem to have heard which conveniently gives us antagonists to fight against in the third act. Until then, Charlie names B-127 Bumblebee and tries to teach him how to blend in the human world while also taking him for joy rides, prank wars, and emotional character arcs for both her and her new robot buddy who’s not sure who he is or what his place in this strange world is. Will Charlie and Bumblebee learn to deal with their traumas and find a new lease on life by beating up robots and taking bullies down a peg? What will John Cena do when he finds out the robot that nearly killed him is still functional, and will it involve the Five Knuckle Shuffle? Wait a minute… finding a robot in a junkyard that was meant to fight off a hostile alien force but got lost along the way… isn’t this the plot to Megas XLR?
This is actually pretty darn good! It’s certainly the best Transformers movie I’ve ever seen (keeping in mind that I never saw the original animated film) and it’s the first one that got my attention as a non-Transformers fan. I don’t have nostalgia for the G1 models, but the way the characters look in this is leaps and bounds better than the over designed monstrosity of the other films. It’s story isn’t anything groundbreaking, but someone finally realized that the self-serious nature of the Michael Bay films was a detriment and instead found a solid middle ground between sincere family fun and a somewhat self-aware explosion fest. I don’t think this is some great leap forward for the genre like Into the Spider-Verse was for the superhero films, but it’s certainly a sign that someone at Paramount wants to take this in the right direction and enough talent was thrown at this to make an inherently silly concept into something that actually works instead of yet another bloated miasma of lowbrow humor, unintelligible CGI nonsense, and a clear disdain for anyone foolish enough to have paid money to see it. Sure not THAT much less commercial than the other films, but it at least knows WHY people want to see this movie instead of cynically paying the bare minimum of lip service until the dang robo-horse was beaten to death!
I’m gonna actually start with what’s wrong with this movie because talking about that first will be a good set up for what works about this movie, and for the most part the problem is that, well… it feels like two movies. Two DECENT movies (one I liked a bit more than the other), but the filmmakers are still struggling to meld together a robot adventure with a human coming of age story line. I’d say that it’s more pronounced here than in the other films, but that’s more or less a backhanded compliment to the Bay-formers because that felt consistently awful all the way through. Here it flip-flops between engaging character moments with Bee and Charlie, and a solid version of the action films that the other Transformers films were trying to be. Both have their strengths, but they don’t mesh too well together and the film really does struggle to make Charlie relevant to the robot story line once that becomes the main focus. And yeah, there are a few things here and there in both story lines that aren’t all that great which I’ll get to once I start talking about the two parts of this movie, but thinking of where we started and where we’ve been for a decade now, it’s better at being two movies than any of the films were at being one.
Now for me, the best parts of this movie are the robots which I think is a testament to the original designs of these characters because even as a non-fan I can find SO much to enjoy from these as opposed to the ones in the Bay films. They are more sensibly scaled for one as I’m pretty sure they were the size of buildings in robot form yet somehow reduced to car size when transformed, and while that may sound like a continuity issue at best, the fact that they aren’t QUITE as gigantic (or at least don’t feel that way) mean that they can more effectively exist alongside the smaller humans. Not only that, but the designs are simplified without losing any degree of effectiveness or expression. I’m pretty sure I heard this on a Simpsons commentary once, but in animation if you draw a character with fewer lines, then each individual line conveys that much more expression. I think that applies to this movie as well since we aren’t so distracted by the individual whirring pieces of metal that the performance, as well as the action, doesn’t get lost in the process. That first battle Bumblebee gets into when he lands on Earth is so much more engaging and filled with tension than anything in the five other movies, and while there’s certainly a decent amount of writing on display I think a lot of it has to do with the simplified designs that make each movement, strike, and robo-ability have that much more impact. The only real downside to the robot heavy portions of the film is that they kind of peak at that point and there really aren’t many more “action” scenes until the third act which is… fine, but doesn’t have as much impact as that initial brawl. I like it! It’s fun and it even manages to still kind of LOOK like the other transformers films but only in the ways that were actually pretty decent. I’ve noticed that Bay’s film have a lot of “rolling” and heavy movement to get across how massive these characters are, and that mentality carries over here even though they are smaller and aren’t as busily designed. It just goes to show that the Bay movies had SOME potential in them, and how consistently the just wasted it.
I guess that only leaves the human parts of this which, I’ll admit, I didn’t find as much fun as the robot stuff. Hailee Steinfeld is great here and is continuing to prove what a great actor she is, but that whole issue of trying to stuff a human story into a robot war story crops up here and a lot of the scenes (not all of them!) feel just way too insignificant and aimless to comfortably coexist with a THE WORLD IS IN DANGER story line happening just over the horizon. I do like a lot of the scenes with her and Bumblebee which manage to wring out a surprising amount of emotion despite one of them being a big CG effect, and the movie would certainly lose a lot of its heart if they pushed Charlie to the margins. That said, did we really need the Mean Girls subplot? What about the guy she kind of sort of likes but just drops off the movie entirely? Heck, even this character named Memo (Jorge Lendeborg Jr) who’s supposed to be the comic relief just feels utterly extraneous to the movie, and I think the filmmakers agree with me on that because they purposefully side line him at the end so that he doesn’t get in the way of the climax. Honestly I would have loved it much more if it was JUST Charlie as the main human character and they replaced the bullies, the side kick, and even the goofy family with a few more Autobots that landed nearby. Sure, it might have pulled a bit TOO much focus from Bumblebee who’s the star here and definitely earns that title, but all this extraneous weight surrounding Charlie just kind of drags down the best parts of her story and the best parts of Bumblebees. THEIR scenes are the highlight of this movie, maybe even more so than the action which as I said peters out a bit at the end, but there’s still too much goofing around with everything else for my liking and it just makes the whole thing longer than it needs to be. Oh, and before I forget, John Cena is a lot of fun in here and should have been in it just a LITTLE bit more. I don’t want him to take over the franchise the same way Wahlberg did after his daughter was “conveniently” removed from part five, but maybe just a few more intense glares from him and an extra joke or two. He also has the best line in the entire movie; maybe even the entire franchise. You’ll know it when you hear it!
I guess when all is said and done, this gets about a B for actual quality but certainly an A for effort. I think we MIGHT be overestimating the greatness of this film just a tad considering how much better it is than the other films, but then again I could be missing something that everyone else is seeing. I think maybe I’m not giving the Charlie story line enough credit for what it does just because I wanted to see more robot fights, but in any case I still enjoyed this quite a bit and I do recommend you go out and see it if you have the chance. It’s not groundbreaking, but considering what came before it didn’t really need to be. Heck, if it WAS groundbreaking we might all have suffered serious whiplash in the theater for how quickly this franchise turned around!