Updated: Feb 7, 2020
When I was a kid, I loved the Transformers. Talking alien robots who could turn into cars? Awesome! I watched the show, saw the animated movie and played with the toys. However, when Michael Bay made the live-action Transformers in 2007, I did not see it. I also passed on its four sequels. Maybe I outgrew a series about giant robots punching each other that was adapted from a toy line? Regardless, I came into the spin-off prequel Bumblebee with an open mind, if somewhat low expectations. As it turns out, it is kind of fun. It did not inspire me to seek out the rest of the franchise but, as far as big dumb action movies go, it is okay.
For those not versed in series mythology, the title character is one of the heroic Autobots, who are losing a war with the villainous Decepticons on their home planet of Cybertron. In a desperation move, Bumblebee is sent to Earth to hide from the Decepticons and wait for his fellow Autobots to show up. He ends up befriending eighteen year-old Charlie, helping her get over the death of her father while she tries to keep him safe from the military and the Decepticons.
Bumblebee is a mix of coming-of-age drama and sci-fi action. The former is a lot more interesting than the latter. The action is a bunch of CG explosions and loud noises. That aspect is certainly what is expected from the Transformers franchise, even if it does not fit tonally with the rest of the story. The stuff concerning Charlie and Bumblebee’s friendship is no more original, but enough care was taken with it to make it work. Their relationship is bittersweet and gentle, so it has to be pushed aside every time the fighting starts. The decision to make Bumblebee’s origin story partially about a different character is a strange one. You can feel the tug-of-war between his violent, hyperactive spectacle, and her sensitive teen dramedy.
The Charlie plot, specifically the performance by Hailee Steinfeld, is the draw for someone like me, who rolls his eyes at endless explosions. I need to be invested in the characters to care about what happens to them once the danger starts. The odd thing here is I cared about Charlie, but she generally disappears during the action scenes, so I was still not into them. Bumblebee is a double-feature where both halves run at the same time.
Charlie’s half, which plays on nostalgia for 80s coming-of-age sci-fi movies (it is set in 1987), is slight, yet enjoyable. Steinfeld, who was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar at the age of fourteen for True Grit, plays the character like she has no idea she is in an action plot. It reminded me of The Edge of Seventeen, where she was a lonely teenage girl whose life is changed by a new friendship. That is a really good movie that actually develops her story. But a surprising amount of the same notes are played here. Charlie is not merely a plot device; she is a real person with real problems. It brings weight and immediacy to what is otherwise just adults playing with extremely expensive toys.
Bumblebee (109 minutes without the end credits), like the majority of multiplex-filling blockbusters, is the type of product that sells itself. When consumers hear the phrase “sixth Transformers entry,” they immediately know if they are going to see it. This is exactly what you would assume, but it is also a little bit more. It is sort of sweet and funny in between all the explosions. People who want to see giant robots fighting might get bored in the middle, but they will be mostly satisfied. People who want to see a teenager overcoming her grief will, well, probably watch something else. As someone not inherently interested in mindless violence, I can say there is not so much of it that it completely overwhelms the quieter parts.
3¼ out of 5
Hailee Steinfeld as Charlie Watson
John Cena as Agent Burns
Jorge Lendeborg Jr. as Memo
Pamela Adlon as Sally Watson
Stephen Schneider as Ron
Jason Drucker as Otis Watson
Dylan O’Brien as Voice of Bumblebee
Angela Bassett as Voice of Shatter
Justin Theroux as Voice of Dropkick
Directed by Travis Knight
Screenplay by Christina Hodson