I will readily admit – the news of a (at the time, potential) TRANSFORMERS spin-off film was met with quite the eye roll from yours truly. As evident from my many reviews (or rants, as some would categorize them) on this franchise, I’m not exactly its biggest fan. So to say that I went into BUMBLEBEE with low expectations would be a severe understatement. Having said that – my initial reaction as the credits began to roll was one of, well, at least it wasn’t terrible. Yet, as I walked out of the crowded theater and into the parking lot, the realization began to hit me, I…kinda like this.
Charlie Watson (played by Hailee Steinfeld) is on the verge of her 18th birthday; nevertheless, life hasn’t been the same since the abrupt death of her father some time earlier. As a side effect, she has already begun closing herself off from family and friends. Finding solace at a local auto body shop, she ingratiates herself enough with the owner over time that, as a birthday gift (and to her surprise), he lets her keep that old, beat-up, yellow 1967 Volkswagen Beetle he has sitting in the back. She excitedly drives the car back home, where she ultimately discovers that this is no ordinary VW Beetle – and it has quite the story to tell!
I think it was the character of Michael Scott on THE OFFICE that originated the phrase K.I.S.S. – Keep It Simple, Stupid. While this applied primarily to sales pitches for potential clients within the context of that show, I feel like the people behind BUMBLEBEE (specifically, director Travis Knight) made that their mission statement – and as a result, produced a film that is not only coherent and character-driven, but a whole lot of fun as well. One of my biggest complaints with TRANSFORMERS: THE LAST KNIGHT (and much of the franchise overall) was how story and character were sacrificed in exchange for flashy CGI special effects. What made it worse was the fact that said CGI was either mediocre or just downright terrible; to this day, I still cannot tell you exactly what went on during the climactic battle of the previous film, as everything just seemed to blend in after a while, with no point or purpose (this was a similar complaint I had with VENOM’s third act as well, as mentioned on a previous FORCED PERSPECTIVE episode). In BUMBLEBEE, everything just looks and feels crisper and smoother. The story is even given proper attention. This, in turn, carries over to the characters, and we are made to feel for them as we follow them on this journey. By the time that final battle commences, we are on the edge of our seats, rooting for the good guys to triumph…and why is that? Well that’s easy – because they kept it simple.
A screenplay is only as strong as its characters, which can only be properly brought to life by strong actors – and in its leads, BUMBLEBEE truly shines. In particular, Hailee Steinfeld continues her streak of great performances with her outing as our human protagonist, Charlie Watson. Her sense of vulnerability, her coldness towards her life since losing her father, and just her general angst make her a sympathetic character to rally around. As she realizes her new car isn’t really a car after all, we see the character’s softer side shine through, and her interaction with Bumblebee takes many forms – from goofy and silly, to vital story exposition, to serious and emotional. Her fish-out-of-water routine rivals that of Shia LeBeouf in the 2007 film – but what makes Steinfeld’s performance stand out is the fact that her character is not constantly played for laughs like Sam Witwicky was; this is a character that is allowed to be emotionally vulnerable, and that, in turn, makes the audience gravitate towards her that much more. Jorge Lendeborg Jr. portrays Memo, the male lead opposite Steinfeld, and while they do have good chemistry on screen together, he’s not really allowed to do much other than be comic relief, which is disappointing but understandable as it is Charlie’s story. John Cena portrays the human antagonist, Sector 7 Agent Jack Burns, who has a bone to pick with Bumblebee for, as we find out, the wrong reasons. John Ortiz, Pamela Adlon, Jason Drucker, and Stephen Schneider round out the (human) supporting cast.
If a strong screenplay with strong characters portrayed by strong actors make a well-rounded film, then proper CGI and special effects are just the icing on the cake (and the cherry on top as well). This brings us to the Transformers that are in the film. Fans of the Generation 1 Transformers will have no trouble identifying the characters that show up in the film’s opening on the planet Cybertron – which I won’t give away, but there are some deep cuts there. After the story shifts to Earth, the film follows the titular character for its majority as Bumblebee (voiced by Dylan O’Brien) tries to make contact with his leader, Optimus Prime (voiced once again by the great Peter Cullen). In his way are two Decepticons – Shatter, a new character created for the film (voiced by Angela Bassett) and Dropkick (voiced by Justin Theroux) – that will do whatever it takes to stop Bumblebee in his tracks. Again – going back to how the film keeps the narrative simple, it really was a benefit that its story really only required the presence of three Transformers for the majority – Bumblebee, Shatter, and Dropkick. Thus, the film was allowed to fine tune the CGI and make every frame and every pixel count, allowing the film’s CGI to really stand out as some of the best work of the year instead of the eyesore that its predecessors have produced. But what really makes this film stand out from its brethren is its climactic showdown – an action scene that was well-shot, produced, and easy to follow. The previous films – TRANSFORMERS: THE LAST KNIGHT in particular – try to fit so much onto the screen that it all comes off as a mishmash of junk that can only be considered nothing more than disaster porn. Here, with the minor amount of Transformers needed, everything just looks smoother, brighter, and more engaging. It also helps that the story leading up to the ending justifies its edge-of-your-seat emotional atmosphere.
In regards to me personally, BUMBLEBEE has been the biggest surprise of the year. A film that I all but dismissed upon its announcement is now one I consider one of the best of 2018. A huge kudos to director Travis Knight – an admitted TRANSFORMERS fan – and his team for setting this franchise, which has strayed so far for so long, back on what appears to be the right track. It just goes to show you what happens when a director is hired who a.) is familiar with and b.) respects a franchise’s source material. Instead of trying to outdo Michael Bay, Knight keeps his film laser focused on its titular character, the humans he encounters, and his crucial excursion. What manifests is a film that has an entertaining story, a three-dimensional (human) protagonist to aid the (Transformer) hero on his journey, and truly amazing visuals to accentuate these positives. Without question, BUMBLEBEE is my favorite TRANSFORMERS film to date, and I’d say it has a good chance to become yours as well. Recommended.
2018 • 114 Minutes • United States
Color • English • Paramount Pictures
Cast: Hailee Steinfeld, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., John Cena, Dylan O’Brien, Angela Bassett, Justin Theroux, Peter Cullen