Review: Bumblebee

Distributor: Paramount Pictures

Director: Travis Knight

Writers: Christina Hodson

Composer: Dario Marianelli

Starring: Hailee Steinfeld, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., John Cena

Genre: Action, Adventure, Sci-Fi

Transformers is one of the few movie franchises that has been driven by a single director. While Michael Bay does have his fans, many have lamented about the diminishing quality of his films in this series. It may have taken six movies, but Bumblebee will finally reveal what more can be explored now that it is in the hands of another director. Travis Knight has a sizeable filmography in the field of stop motion animation, so many critics and fans alike are curious to see what plans he has for this franchise. Can this franchise make a comeback? Or is it a case of too little, too late?

Content Guide

Violence/Scary Images: Lots of robot on robot violence, with limbs being destroyed, squished or otherwise made useless. Some robots are killed. Younger members of the audience may find it distressing to see their favorite robots being harpooned, beaten, tortured, and otherwise treated badly. A human is seen being shot by lasers and vaporized into a splash of gloop. Many soldiers are killed off screen in action, mostly due to explosions. A character is injured and requires a sling. There is some gun usage and nail-biting car chase sequences with many close calls. Teenagers are shown jumping off an ocean side cliff as a dare.

Language/Crude Humor: Only mild obscenities such as “stupid” or “idiot” are used. However, God’s name is used in vain about two dozen times.

Drug/Alcohol References: None.

Sexual Content: No overt sexual content. Some teenage girls wear tight fitting garments and low cut shirts. One teen girl wears a one-piece swimsuit and her nipples can be seen through the fabric. Teenage boys are seen shirtless. Though the film doesn’t go out of its way to objectify its characters or to titillate the audience. A teenage boy is portrayed as having a crush on a girl of the same age. They share a kiss on the cheek.

Spiritual Content: The story is grounded on the concept that there exists another planet containing sentient life forms.

Other Negative Content: Characters frequently defy the orders of traditional authority figures, such as trespassing or becoming involved in classified government business. Vandalism of property is undertaken as part of a revenge plot. It gets out of hand, and a lot more damage is done than what was originally intended.

Positive Content: The movie deals with the topic of grief and one’s inability to express oneself or communicate. In the process of helping Bee to find his voice, Bee, in turn, helps Charlie to overcome her crippling need to connect.

Review

As you may have heard already, Bumblebee is one of the best movies in the Transformers franchise. But what does that even mean? Considering how lowly the others have been rated, to be the one of the best of the bunch isn’t exactly a compliment or a high achievement.

While it may be derided in current times, the first Transformers movie really made a splash in a pre-MCU world. Michael Bay’s action-drenched, CGI-laden extravaganza can be attributed to kicking off the “spectacle cinema” trend. Light entertainment paired with fun action, the story really encapsulated the spirit of the popcorn-munching Hollywood blockbuster, with a formula that appealed to a wide demographic.

Scarred with the impact of 2007’s writer’s strike, the direct sequel in the franchise never attained the same magical brilliance of the first. The later films didn’t fare much better, where instead of exploring fresh ideas, the scripts were purposefully kept within the same moneymaking formula, causing Bay’s films to be synonymous with tons of explosions, non-stop action, sexy women, racist stereotypes, and an expensive overuse of CGI. Long gone were pesky things such as pacing, dramatic tension, internal journeys, and character development. It seemed as though Bay doubled-down on his signature style, creating a caricature of his own artistic expression.

Creatively bankrupt, it is difficult to see where Michael Bay could have taken the series next. This is the main reason why Bumblebee is generating as much praise as it is–it’s the film the fandom deserved two movies back. It’s amazing to see how much a fresh pair of eyes can bring to a franchise.

Travis Knight has shifted the story into another sub-genre. Thankfully the objectification of women, unnecessary drug references, and dog humping jokes have disappeared. Those horrid inclusions are instead replaced with a tender story, with some inspiration from the franchise’s cartoon origins. There are still action sequences, though they are nicely paced in amongst a rewarding storyline.

The plot centers around a teenage girl, Charlie. Dealing with the recent loss of her father, she seeks to continue fixing the vintage car that both she and her dad were working on before his untimely death, in order to reconcile her grief. During a trip to the local impounded car lot, she crosses paths with Bumblebee. Injured from a battle and no longer able to communicate, Bumblebee finds solace in Charlie, and both of them help each other with their internal journeys whilst simultaneously fighting external sources of conflict–the Decepticons.

It’s a sweet story that’s nicely centered on just a handful of characters, bringing forth a completely different vibe compared to Bay’s offerings. Hailee Steinfeld does a marvelous job as the leading lady of this film. While she proves herself capable of bearing the brunt of the movie’s focus, some credit needs to also go towards the writing. A lesser script would have upped the references to Charlie’s gender–giving itself a pat on the back for featuring a female that’s also a fantastic mechanic. Thankfully Bumblebee takes a more mature and less cringe-worthy approach by not broaching the topic at all. By doing so, Charlie’s interests come across as unremarkable and refreshingly normal, instead of beating the audience over the head, pointing out the mechanically-inclined female as though they’ve invented a progressive unicorn. Since Charlie isn’t conveyed as a freak show or political statement, her character is wonderfully grounded with a journey that’s enjoyable to follow.

That said, the story does mirror the first film, Transformers, quite heavily. Both Charlie and Sam Witwicky stumble across Bumblebee whilst searching for their first car. Granted, it’s the most likely way for a human to cross paths with a transformer, yet given that Bumblebee and Transformers share a number of story beats in addition to this, it makes this latest film feel like a mere rehash of the first.

This might be because Bumblebee is attempting to serve as both a prequel and a reboot. It lovingly nods to Transformers, yet it messes up the timeline of the other films while doing so. Then again, was anyone really following (or caring about) the plot of the other movies? Even so, Bumblebee constantly feels like it’s retreading the same ground, albeit through the lens of a different sub-genre.

We’ve seen this type of movie before; the “hidden beastie” story. It’s where a teen/pre-adolescent comes across a rare creature that must be protected from adults/authority figures. However, the teen inevitably fails in that goal and therefore must free the friendly monster before going their separate ways. You know the story. It’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, The Water Horse, The Iron Giant, Pete’s Dragon. It’s a well-worn trope.

The biggest problem is that while Bumblebee is a great Transformers film, in the wider realm of cinema, it’s a movie that doesn’t offer anything new. There are better stories in its selected sub-genre. While it’s infused with fresh direction, it’s still a dull reflection of the first film of the franchise and merely mediocre as a whole.

However, the opening few minutes of Bumblebee harkens back to the spirit of the cartoons, which begs the question as to whether it’s time for the franchise to release a film that’s set on Cybertron. The movie provides the opportunity for further movies to be produced as an offshoot to this story, though it’s difficult to see what they will offer that hasn’t already been covered by Michael Bay. Ultimately it’s still a wonderful, heartfelt film that will please fans and is (thankfully) suitable for families (although there are some sequences with a higher level of violence). It’s certainly worth a watch. Be sure to stay tuned during the credits.

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Juliana Purnell

After obtaining a Bachelor of Dramatic Arts, Juliana Purnell has enjoyed a successful acting career, working within theme parks, businesses, and on film sets. She has also taken on crew roles, both in film and theatrical productions. When Juliana isn't working, she enjoys watching movies of all genres at the cinema, writing, and playing with Samson, her pomeranian.

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