3 stars (out of 4)
A new Transformers movie is here. For the past 11 years, the meaning behind that sentence has ranked up there with “The wind chill makes it feel like 2 degrees.” Don’t need it, don’t want it. But Bumblebee, a would-be prequel, is most definitely not a bombastic and soulless monster. Not only is it the best film in the franchise by far, it stands alone as a genuinely fun ‘80s throwback that runs on all action-flick cylinders.
Oh, sure, you’ll see big shiny robots fighting each other in outer space. The prologue is set on the planet Cybertron, where the good Autobots lose a battle against the Decepticons in a civil war. Optimus Prime (the voice of Peter Cullen) orders the Autobots to retreat. This is the reason why a soldier named B-127 is sent to Earth. The year is 1987, and our hero is alone and unable to speak. He takes the identity of a beat-up Volkswagen Beetle to hide his identity. CGI, etc. CGI, etc. CGI, etc.
Bumblebee works because it dares to tap into a new dimension in this franchise: Legitimate emotional reactions. We humans like to refer to them as feelings!
A high-schooler girl named Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld) finds our B-127. She’s an auto expert still mourning the death of her dad. And like any introverted teen worth her salt in 1987, she wears lots of heavy black eyeliner and lives for The Smiths. In her local junk shop, that yellow bug catches her eye. She takes it home to her suburban garage. That’s where she learns that this car can transform into a robot! Not the scary kind. It has a harmless round face and bulging, curious-looking blue eyes. It waves to her and wants to know her name. She decides to name him Bumblebee. Props to the film’s technical advisors who equipped “Bee” with delightful and well-defined facial expressions.
The heartwarming friendship between this angsty girl and her alien-robot-car is authentic. Seriously. He has a fleshed-out mischievous personality, almost like that of an adorable rescue puppy. And their bond has surprising resonance. Many of the most enjoyable sequences in Bumblebee, in fact, feature Charlie and “Bee” learning each other’s quirks. Though he spits out a cassette tape of Rick Astley’s pop gem “Never Gonna Give You Up” (blasphemy!), he does try to get her to come out of her shell to her classmates. He also uses clever musical cues to communicate with her. In turn, she gives him pointers on how to hide his identity from her suspicious mom (Pamela Adlon).
Audiences who grew up on ’80s flicks such as E.T. and even Mac & Me know that adults will eventually break up the good times. Cut to John Cena as an intimidating military officer who views Bee as a dangerous threat and wants him captured immediately. (His initial introduction to the Transformers at the start of Bumblebee resulted in mass destruction, so he’s understandably mistrustful.) Two evil Decepticons (voiced by Angela Bassett and Justin Theroux) that touch down to Earth in a firestorm add to the chaos. The action scenes are bright and not terribly violent, making them ideal for the younger crowds.
The robot conflicts aren’t nearly as effective as the human ones. Steinfeld, the 21-year-old pop star who already showed impressive acting chops playing a teen outcast in The Edge of Seventeen, credibly sells her budding connection with a CGI creation. She’s an empathetic force, transforming her own model-like looks a gangly yet headstrong figure. (Best to not dwell a subplot involving on her past diving achievements; a Transformers movie is the right venue to delve into parental loss and PTSD.)
Girls who actually came of age in 1987 didn’t have the opportunity to see females save the day in big-budget action movies. Elliott rescued E.T. Luke Skywalker wielded the Lightsaber. Indiana Jones took care of the snakes. John McClane helped the hostages in Nakatomi Plaza. High school teens were, for the most part, relegated to overcoming jerks. Just watching a heroine drive around in her beloved bug and smiling big feels like an accomplishment. Hello, yellow!
Bumblebee opens in theaters on Friday, December 21
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