Movie Review: Bumblebee
By Ben Gruchow
January 2, 2019
There are two movies at work in Bumblebee. One of them is a prequel of sorts to the run of Michael Bay Transformers movies from 2007 to 2017, chronicling how the entry-level protagonist from that series came to Earth, and it is not very good. The other movie is a soft reboot of the entire series, telling a story about a teenage girl and her first car, and it is very good indeed. It is a testament to the writer and director, and to the studio, that the soft reboot is allowed to occupy the majority of the movie’s runtime and result in not only the best entry in the Hasbro cinematic universe, but the first of those films to be actually, honest-to-God good, viewed all on its own.
The teenage girl is Charlie Watson (Hailee Steinfeld), eighteen years old, living unhappily at home and working concession at the local fair. The reasons for her unhappiness, apart from being taunted by the local mean girls, are pretty universally understandable in their additive contributions: her father died some time ago, her mother’s new romance has moved in, her job sucks, and she seemingly has no friends. All the myriad little indignities are just dressing on top. The one that starts this film is her lack of a car and the family’s inability to afford one; Charlie and her dad were restoring a classic car out in the garage, but he died before it was finished.
She’s trying to wrap it up on her own, and in the course of harvesting parts for it from the local junkyard, she happens upon an old and rusted Volkswagen Beetle. She gets the engine working, and the crusty old junkyard owner (Len Cariou) lets her keep it as a birthday gift. We already know, of course, that this is not a car but a Transformer in disguise; we’ve already seen Bumblebee crash-land on Earth in a prologue, before having his voice synthesizer removed and his memory banks erased. Charlie’s discovery of her new car’s true nature doesn’t take long, and soon we begin down a similar narrative path containing stories about Autobots, Decepticons, battles, a coming war, and Cybertron, with Charlie and her neighbor/coworker Memo (Jorge Lendeborg Jr) along for the ride.
Similar in content, yes, to its sequels/parent entries, but we are in a different universe as far as form. The previous films were written largely by Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, and Ehren Kruger (I say largely because I’m not sure the fifth film can be ascribed to human beings) and Michael Bay directed all five. For this one, writer Christina Hodson and director Travis Knight have eschewed most of the scope and mythology, paring their film down to one robotic protagonist and two robotic antagonists, formulating a tactical conflict based on starting a war, instead of finishing one. In doing so, they’ve crafted a friendly sci-fi action fantasy that ice-skates right around most of the narrative liabilities that plagued the earlier movies: the idiotic narrative, the banal and hyperactive dialogue, the hectic pace, the frenetic editing, and the sweaty gold/teal ugliness applied to the color timing to keep up with the emotional temperature.
The core of Bumblebee’s appeal lies in the interaction between Charlie and the robot that turns up in her garage, which is attributable to a couple of things: Knight’s insistence (together with DP Enrique Chediak) on framing the things we see in a way that makes it possible for us to see them is certainly one factor at play. Another is the editing by Paul Rubell, which helps constitute the first time this franchise has really demonstrated an understanding of how a cut can let a moment flow from one to the next without calling attention to itself. Still another is the production and set design: 1987 may or may not be your idea of a timeless or evocative period, but Charlie’s house feels like the right fit in terms of space, lighting, and intimacy.
The biggest single contributing factor, though, is Charlie herself. Steinfeld is a natural as a teenager who’s covered past trauma and upheaval with a thick skin, so effectively displayed in 2016’s The Edge of Seventeen. Her work here is not quite in the same league as that film—but that’s okay, because the material here doesn’t call for it, and she slips so effortlessly into the wavelength of what the movie does call for that we don’t really notice how she imbues Charlie with all sorts of little sidelong glances and tremors and tensions. Then the screenplay calls for her character to vent her feelings, in a rather effective pair of dramatic exchanges (one with Bumblebee over a home video, one with her mother late in the film) that handily outdo anything the franchise had thus far reached for in terms of catharsis, and I was impressed by the way Steinfeld was able to play to the level of the screenplay without seeming constrained by it in her delivery.
Steinfeld is the movie’s magnetic center; not to be totally marginalized is Bumblebee himself. The CGI work here, informed by expressive cues and body language, is often an outright delight to behold—which is frankly revelatory in its own right, as a manifestation of what these creations are capable of in a big-budget studio fantasy. The character scenes involving these two, which mostly amount to the Autobot doing the wrong things at the wrong time in the wrong place, are an infinitely friendlier and more appropriate type of humor than what we’ve become accustomed to in the Bay films (I have not forgotten the director’s defense of the racist stereotypes in 2009’s awful-in-every-other-way-too Revenge of the Fallen by asserting that the film was “good clean fun”, but I would very much like to). This is not merely lowered expectations talking, and the midsection of Bumblebee displays enough deft instinct for the timing and space of slapstick and physical comedy to slip right through those defenses anyway.
Were the entire movie occupied with this material, we’d be looking at the strongest sci-fi fantasy of its type since Pete’s Dragon all the way back in 2016. It honestly makes a pretty valid claim to that title, as it is, although the Transformers stuff works to neutralize some of the appeal. Despite what I implied earlier, the plot that drives the last third of the movie isn’t truthfully bad; the dual antagonists, voiced by Justin Theroux and Angela Bassett, don’t do anything remotely new as far as strategy or tactics, but the filmmaking allows them to do it with much more clarity and panache than we’ve seen. The action and combat sequences (which are mostly backloaded) are well-constructed, make spatial sense, and in their stronger moments allow some tension and scale; one low tracking shot of Charlie in the foreground, trying to evade destruction wrought by warring robots in the background, is just about the most perfect this series has ever been at pairing spectacle with narrative. All of this just pales next to the character material.
It is, all of this considered, still the most unexpected success story of the fall season. Regardless of whether or not there was any late-stage retooling in response to the collapse of its parent series, Bumblebee is a film that descends from a series best summarized as endless, fragmented convulsions of sensory assault that feels distinct and whole on its own. It does so, unsurprisingly, by throttling back on pyrotechnics and handing control over to a director with primary instincts for guiding a story through its character beats with conviction. The filmmakers here understand how the technical elements serve the narrative, and how the success of the latter augments the former.
3.5 out of 5