In 1987 on the edge of the universe, the Autobots and Decepticons are locked in a furious civil war over the future of Cybertron. Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen) sends Bumblebee to Earth to establish a new base. The battle damaged Autobot forms an unlikely friendship with a young mechanic Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld) with the Decepticons hot on their heels and hellbent on World domination.
Yes, Bumblebee is the sixth instalment of the Transformers film franchise. Yes, the sixth… and if you’re over the age of twelve and not a boy (not to generalise here, but I haven’t met too many girls into Optimus Prime) you’ll be rolling your eyes and saying “Please, no, not again!”. Yeah, I get it, after a decade’s worth of director Michael Bay’s cement mixer style of maximalist action, bro-ish humour and robo-patriotism, well, it has all worn a bit thin. But much like a Transformer, Bumblebee has transformed the franchise from a robotic smackdown into a touching teen-comedy about a girl and her Autobot.
We meet Optimus Prime and his Autobot crew in the last throes of their rebellion against the evil Decepticons in the day-glow machine city streets of Cybertron. The Bayhem is in full effect, a tightly choreographed robotic slugfest rages on-screen… Yeah, it’s the standard action onslaught of rocket blasts, laser swords and metal fisted uppercuts. But the action has a more nostalgic and blocky feel to it, as the Transformers have been redesigned to look like their counterparts in the original 1980s cartoon series. Very handy, as Optimus sends Bumblebee (voiced by Dylan O’Brien) on a last ditch solo mission to late-80s Earth to basically chill-out and wait until reinforcements arrive.
Well, things don’t go smoothly for Bumblebee, he crash lands into the most alpha soldier on the planet, S7 Agent Burns (WWE superstar John Cena). More Bayhem ensues, and then, the Deceptions show up, by which point the Bayhem is starting to pulverise any goodwill left in the billion dollar grossing children’s toy film behemoth. Then, new director Travis Knight grabs hold of the reins, and dials everything down a bit. A rush of needle drops (almost rivalling the Suicide Squad) from Tears For Fears to Rick Astley are the soundtrack to our heroine’s life, Charlie (Steinfeld), a miserable teenager: dead dad, crappy job, no car. It’s fair to say she’s an attractive outsider, with a punk-ish charm, and just a few daddy issues. A little too cliche, perhaps. And yet, Knight and screenwriter Christina Hodson make the Reagan era teen-comedy work, liberally stealing from the genre master John Hughes – The Breakfast Club (1985) is literally on repeat throughout the film.
The plot is straight forward enough: Charlie takes home a trashed VW Beetle car with honeycomb dripping from its wheel arches. Guess what? It’s a Transformer. Charlie and Bumblebee’s touching friendship is the highlight of the film – her teaching Bumblebee about music, and the Autobot’s utter distain for The Smiths is a joy to watch. Knight brings a gentle humanity to Bumblebee’s hard and metallic features (unthinkable in the hands of Micheal Bay), and there is a very human parallel between the girl and the towering machine centred round missing fathers and finding your own place in the world, again not something you would expect. Sadly, John Cena, neither villain or hero is simply left to deal with the Decepticons (it feels like he’s in another film) who need to find Bumblebee for some reason, why I don’t really know… It’s a bit of a let down, John Cena is a hulking and likeable action-man, relegated to cleaning up after Dropkick who loves to blast civilians and S7 Agents into slime.
Steinfeld is following in the footsteps of previous Transformer leads Shia LaBeouf (I’ll always have a soft spot for The Beef) and Mark Wahlberg, holding her own against the brick wall of CGI and pyrotechnics with humour and heart, definitely missing from the last couple of sequels. Knight proves without question that the Transformers franchise can be more than just outlandish robots going toe to toe, and maybe a few girls might start digging Optimus Prime because of it.
Bumblebee is a charming 1980s themed Transformers adventure, smaller, sweeter and with just the right amount of Bayhem to keep the hardcore fans of the on-going robot franchise happy and thoroughly rocked in their seats.
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