- Script and setup (particularly the first ten-fifteen minutes)
- Hailee Steinfeld
- The ode to 1980s pop culture
- John Cena could've had more to do
- Jorge Lendeborg could've have been given way more than the dorky comic relief
It seems every studio is coming around all at once to the sense of the solo movie scenario. Warner Bros. has Aquaman this weekend and Hasbro, in concert with Michael Bay and Paramount, has Bumblebee.
In 1987, Bumblebee is sent to Earth in the wake of the war on Cybertron to be its protector and pave the way for the arrival of the Autobots to come. Landing in California, he meets with resistance from the army and Decepticons in hot pursuit. Battle damage to his voice and memory cells drives him into hiding disguised as his usual Volkswagen Bug design. Until plucky teen Charlie Watson (Hailee Steinfeld) discovers him in a junkyard, that is. After driving him home as her new car, the two develop a poignant friendship and hijinx ensue.
Bumblebee is written by Christina Hodson, the screenwriter at work on Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) and the in-the-works Batgirl movie. Her work on Bumblebee’s screenplay is promising for the other projects. She wants to make action movies in the vane of Terminator 2 — shoot ’em ups with big explosions and strong female characters. With this Transformers prequel, she succeeds with an effective less-is-more, character-driven approach. Action set pieces bookend the picture so they aren’t overdone or overblown as Michael Bay is wont to do. That’s a breath of fresh air.
The rest of the film plays out like a teen drama-comedy with some ET and Pete’s Dragon elements in the mix. When Charlie isn’t acclimating Bee to this strange planet and its people, she’s either protecting him or they’re on the run from government forces working with Decepticon agents.
Charlie is a moving and spirited character played wonderfully by Hailee Steinfeld. She’s a kid with a summer job making corn dogs in a funny hat who just wants a new car, only to get more than she bargained for. Well-written main characters have a simple generic want but wind up fulfilled by an unmet need — like a towering robot vehicle who befriends them and helps them cope with a tragedy, in this case, the sudden death of Charlie’s dad. Steinfeld is always excellent in this role. Her performance in Edge of 17 (2016) is still very underappreciated.
The biggest selling point of Bumblebee is the casting of John Cena as army commander Agent Burns. However, he’s not in much of the movie. In fact, he doesn’t do much except fire weapons, shouting orders, and say what everyone is thinking. (“Why are we trusting them? They’re called Decepticons.”) He plays the “Arnold” action-hero archetype to show up and chew scenery, not much else. Narratively, everything could’ve functioned without him.
There are also family members, including a stepdad and a little brother, and a friend-zoned love interest (Jorge Lendeborg, Jr.) that only add some conflict and light comedy.
A product of 1980s pop culture and a toy line, the film is a nostalgic 80s smorgasbord. Remember Alf? Everyone is obsessed with that show — except Charlie obviously. Charlie’s taste in music is decidedly trendy; she listens to The Smiths, Motorhead, and anything alternative or angsty.
But it gets way more meta: Bumblebee embraces its setting and adopts the tropes of 80s teen films and television. You can count on two-dimensional mean girls to antagonize Charlie (and for her to get revenge via egging houses). Her crush is the hunky popular guy who incites her shyness. Her closest friends are the nerdy type and her (literally) corny job comes with a dumb hipster manager.
Then there is Cena’s lantern-jawed stock characterization already mentioned. He plays a typical patriotic boy scout action hero/foil. Though not morally blind or ambivalent, he toes the line and cares most about following protocol and fighting for the country. But Cena manages to play up the cheese and give Burns some complexity, so he isn’t merely a macho stereotype. A throwback, sure, but not a completely satiric one.
As a whole, the picture pays homage to the best sci-fi content the decade had to offer, from the likes of ET and other Spielberg movies to Short Circuit and Transformers: the Movie itself — especially in its opening moments.
Bumblebee does everything to make the Transformers franchise great again and will remind you what you love about these robots in disguise. Simultaneously, it’s a fun prequel, properly written and directed, adding another layer to the series cinematic canon that works better than the last two or three films.