Bumblebee (2018)

Bumblebee first published by Sight & Sound, March 2019

Review: Directed by Travis Knight (Kubo and the Two Strings, 2016) Bumblebee is a prequel, (mostly) preceding the events of the five live-action Transformers films made by Michael Bay between 2007 and 2017, and telling the origin story of how B-127 escaped from the war-torn planet of Cybertron on a mission to establish Earth as the future home of the exiled Autobots. There are also aetiologies for how the loving, loyal Transformer came to lose, and in part regain, his voice, how he acquired the name ‘Bumblebee’, and how he comes to have the form (by the beginning of 2007’s Transformers) of a Chevrolet Camaro, despite being a yellow VW Beetle in his various Eighties incarnations. There are inconsistencies with Bay’s series – for example, here B-127 lands on Earth in 1987, decades too late to fight Nazis during the Second World War (as he did in Transformers: The Last Knight, 2017). Nonetheless, this reversion to the Eighties takes us back not only to the franchise’s origins in the Hasbro line of toys and their associated animated TV series (both launched in 1984), and to the animated feature The Transformers: The Movie (1986), but also to a range of pop cultural references from around that decade. For much as heroine Charlie Watson (Hailee Steinfeld) is using spare parts from a scrap metal yard to rebuild a car, and much as Bumblebee, his voicebox broken, communicates by scanning the radio airwaves and ‘sampling’ appropriate songs and quotes, so too this film appropriates bits and pieces from Herbie Goes To Monte Carlo (1977), The Breakfast Club (1985), The Thing (1982), E.T. – The Extra Terrestrial (1982), TV’s ALF (starting 1986) and a whole mixtape of Eighties tunes to weave its back-to-basics story of angsty teen coming-of-age and alien infiltration.

Having just turned 18, and still reeling from the death of her beloved father, Charlie is the emotional crux of this film (and the franchise’s first female protagonist). Her struggles and general alienation make her the perfect human counterpart to Bumblebee, who is himself isolated and lost. Together they rebuild their damaged identities, renew their sense of purpose, and make saving the world from Decepticon invasion just another rite of passage in a world full of hostile bullies (like John Cena’s government agent Jack Burns, who finally makes the obvious observation that perhaps the Decepticons’ very name ought to be a red flag to their devious intentions). Inevitably, Bumblebee showcases what has always defined the Transformers brand – epic-scale meta(l)morphic vehicular battles – but, by featuring far fewer extra-terrestrial participants, Christina Hodson’s screenplay has a tighter focus on the human characters (and on Bumblebee’s own human/canine qualities), and offers far more coherent spectacle than the ‘Bayhem’ maximalism of the previous franchise titles. At times very funny, Bumblebee is still at heart a big ol’ B-movie, but less bumbling and bombastic than its post-dated predecessors.


Synopsis: ‘Brighton Falls’, near San Francisco, 1987. As Decepticons take over the Transformer planet Cybertron, Autobot leader Optimus Prime sends B-127 ahead to secure and protect Earth as a place of future Autobot exile. Crash-landing, B-127 immediately enters a skirmish with Jack Burns and his soldiers, and with Decepticon pursuer Blitzwing who, before being destroyed, removes B-127’s voicebox and damages his memory. On her 18th birthday, Charlie Watson, still grieving the death of her father, takes an old VW Beetle home from the scrapyard, and reawakens the disguised B-127 (also inadvertently sending a location signal to his Decepticon pursuers Shatter and Dropkick). Renaming him ‘Bumblebee’, Charlie gives the Transformer a working car radio, through which he learns to express himself. Charlie’s neighbour and admirer Memo finds out about Bumblebee, and rides in him with Charlie.

When Shatter and Dropkick reach Earth, they claim to be peacekeepers pursing B-127, and trick the authorities into letting them connect with the US’ satellite system. The Decepticons help Burns and his men capture Bumblebee. Charlie and Memo break into the military air base where Bumblebee is being held, and revive him. Charlie and Bumblebee race to the docks where Shatter and Dropkick are trying to use satellites to summon a Decepticon army.  En route, Charlie’s family (mother, younger brother, mother’s boyfriend) help impede the military’s pursuit of Bumblebee. Bumblebee fights and destroys first Dropkick and then Shatter while Charlie disarms their signalling device. Charlie says farewell to Bumblebee, who adopts the form of a Camaro. 

strap: Travis Knight’s spin-off prequel is still at heart a big ol’ B-movie, but less bumbling & bombastic than its post-dated predecessors.

© Anton Bitel