Bumblebee is the Transformers film we’ve all been waiting for. Whatever you think of his films, the Michael Bay era is finally at an end. Travis Knight‘s announcement as director allowed fans some cautious optimism that the excellent Kubo and the Two Strings director could work restorative wonders for the Transformers franchise. Knight and writer Christina Hodson did not disappoint in the slightest. A week after its release, the film maintains an impressive 93% on Rotten Tomatoes.
Its box-office performance, however, has been overshadowed by the coinciding major film releases of Aquaman and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Let’s take a look at why Bumblebee is a fantastic reboot of the Transformers franchise, and why you should consider supporting it on your next movie night. SPOILER WARNING: This article freely discusses the content of the film and will, therefore, contain minor spoilers. If you haven’t yet seen the film and want to avoid all spoilers, go see the movie already!
The First Three Minutes
If anything in this movie deserves an ode, it’s the first three minutes. The film begins on Cybertron with the Autobots losing the battle against the Decepticons. Optimus Prime orders the evacuation of the planet to regroup on Earth once Bumblebee has established an outpost. The scene begs comparison to the original ‘84 Transformers: Generation 1 series, animated in a style reminiscent of the 2010 War for Cybertron video game. The scene is absolutely gorgeous, and the bots are all gloriously recognizable.
Gone are the chaotic, pointy jumbles of drab metal. These bots have an updated Bay-esque detail to them but are otherwise shaped, colored, and patterned in their classic designs. Cameos prominently include Optimus, Ratchet, Arcee, Wheeljack, Brawn, and Cliffjumper on the Autobot side. And on the Decepticon side, all of the Tetrajet Seekers, Coneheads, Soundwave, Ravage, and Shockwave. Seriously, you just want to tell the theater to hit pause and spend an hour looking through every frame for more characters. It’s glorious, and over entirely too quickly. None of them return for the movie, but the potential for future films looks very, very bright.
A Transformers Love Letter
There are two kinds of Transformers fans: those that like the human characters, and those that wish they didn’t exist. I personally fall into the latter — I’d be perfectly content with a Transformers series with nothing but Cybertronian characters. Bumblebee, however, caters to the former. Don’t let that scare you away. The film is 90% human characters, and yet I really didn’t mind. Bumblebee isn’t even among my favorite Cybertronians, but the characters in the film, including Bee, make it so enjoyable that I forgot to care.
In sharp contrast to the Bay films, Bumblebee takes itself seriously, but not so seriously that it can’t have a bit of charming, wholesome fun. Gone are the crass, idiotic jokes and eye-rolling stereotypes of the Bay films. The main characters of Bumblebee are genuine, and the villains, though simplistic, make ‘camp’ a good word again. Though the plot revolves prominently around the protagonist, Charlie, her story parallels with Bee’s as the two come together to create a love letter to the original Transformers franchise.
Think, very loosely: a middle-class, platonic The Girl Who Loved Powerglide. This is the first film produced by Hasbro’s Allspark Pictures studio, perhaps signifying a desire by Hasbro to be directly involved in maintaining the integrity of their franchises from now on. And it shows. Suffice to say, there’s finally a major homage to Stan Bush’s The Touch.
Wholesome Quirky Family Fun
The film is set in 1987 and really goes to town with ‘80s pop culture references, right down to feeling like an ‘80s coming-of-age series like The Wonder Years (or more recently, The Goldbergs) with a robot car. Charlie, the protagonist, struggles to cope with the death of her father. Her mother, seemingly moving on with a new marriage, only exacerbates the situation. Helping Bumblebee becomes a therapeutic turning point for Charlie as she heals and comes into adulthood.
Her mother, a well-meaning-but-obtuse step-father, and pesky little brother are often points of contention, with conflicting personalities, interests, and an inability to communicate and understand each other. As the movie progresses, though, it becomes clear that they’re each managing life in their own way. The family grows and comes together to support Charlie as best they can in a way we all wish every family could. I mean, really, who doesn’t wish their family would be supportive enough to engage in a hilariously awesome family-station-wagon car chase to rescue them from a massive government misunderstanding? It feels charming and genuine and wholesome in a way in which it didn’t seem Hollywood could produce these days.
A Girl And Her Car
The highlight of Bumblebee was, surprisingly, the central female protagonist, Charlie, played superbly by the talented Hailee Steinfeld. In extremely sharp contrast to the ridiculously polished ladies of the Bay films, Charlie is a real person. She’s gloomy, punkish, hardworking, caring, focused, and mature, but in genuine emotional pain.
She doesn’t cave to peer pressure, and even dodges romantic interest from the sweetly-awkward Memo throughout the film to live at her own pace. (There’s no kiss scene!) She engages with her environment maturely and intelligently, all the while dealing internally with her grief and emotions. She’s even more so the hero than Bumblebee himself at times, facing down the military and Decepticons to rescue the Autobot on her own.
Respecting Women And Car Culture
Best of all, she embodies car culture without needing to gratuitously lean over the hood of every nice car. Believe it or not, there are plenty of ladies out there adept at mechanics without necessarily being pinups. Charlie’s relationship with her father revolved around restoring a first-generation Corvette on the weekends. After his death, she continues to work on the car to finish what they started and remain close to her father.
This meant a lot to me personally since I grew up a rebellious tomboy with a ‘67 Volkswagen Beetle project car in the garage. But for whatever reason, I was never invited to participate in the way a son might be expected to. Watching Charlie was like watching myself fulfilling a personal dream. And I hope this film inspires other girls out there to get a little dirty under the hood too.
Where Shia LaBeouf’s first interaction with Bumblebee was largely comical, Steinfeld’s is reverent. Charlie turns 18 and wants a working car but can’t afford one. When the ‘67 Beetle shows up at a junkyard she frequents for Corvette parts, she’s confident in her abilities enough to take on the challenge. Charlie respects the car when no one else will, and only sees potential without needing to degrade it with jokes. She works for what she wants, and single-handedly gets the car running. When Bumblebee reveals himself, she steps up to make several repairs on him herself as they bond throughout the film.
Throwback To The ’80s Villains
If there’s a weak point in this film, it’s the villains. That said, they are easily justified. A Decepticon remarkably similar in design to classic Starscream pursues Bumblebee to Earth, where he confronts the Autobot. This character is actually officially titled ‘Blitzwing,’ so there’s hope Starscream proper could still appear in the future. Bumblebee obliterates Blitzwing, but the fight heavily damages him. He enters into a mechanical coma until Charlie repairs him. Two new, essentially throw-away Decepticon triple-changers named Dropkick and Shatter then track Bumblebee to Earth looking for Optimus Prime.
While Dropkick is likely a fun reference to the G1 Dropkick drones, these two ultimately feel like leftovers from the Bay movies. Though they have a purpose, a majority of their screen time involves looking badass as muscle cars in Bay-esque driving scenes. There’s nothing particularly interesting about either of them apart from the fact that they’re triple changers. That said, the film is largely about the relationship between Charlie and Bumblebee. It’s therefore not a bad thing that the film lacks a truly large villain. Higher ranking, recognizable Decepticons would be wasted on a film where they are not the central focus. Even so, the film pays more respect to the Decepticons than any of the previous films.
They’re Called Decepticons, Afterall
Rather than presenting the Decepticons as brainless brutes, Dropkick and Shatter are actually deceptive. They negotiate tongue-in-cheek with Sector 7 claiming to be peacekeepers searching for a Cybertronian war criminal hiding on Earth named B-127, a.k.a. Bumblebee. They need access to human satellites to search for him and offer access to advanced Cybertronian technology in return.
The human ‘villains’ include Bay’s government agency, Sector 7, represented by John Cena’s Agent Burns, and a scientist named Dr. Powell. Dr. Powell heavily romanticizes the idea of making first contact with an alien species. He therefore naively insists that they trust the Decepticons. Agent Burns warily remarks that they’re called Decept-icons, after all. But since the film is set toward the end of the Cold War, his higher-ups pressure him to accept. To deny them would risk the Decepticons taking their technology instead to the Russians.
When explained thusly, the villains seem perfectly fine. In actuality, though, they come across as a bit simplistic and silly, especially on the part of Dr. Powell. The Decepticons are fine, but throwaway. Dr. Powell is understandably excited by such an enormous discovery. However, he comes across as more of a zealot than a top scientist. John Cena did an amazing job with Agent Burns, but the character is a very cliche ‘80s action film, G.I. Joe sort of macho military character. (When’s that crossover happening again?)
At the end of the day, though, this actually rather accurately represents the traditional episodic villains from the original Transformers. And thus I don’t consider them detractors from the film. They are simplistic and hammy and campy and that’s okay. That’s exactly how most of the villains we loved were, if we’re completely honest about our favorite ‘80s cartoons.
Of course, the biggest perk of Bumblebee is that it brilliantly sets up for a whole new Transformers universe. And this time it’s one worth looking forward to. The film was initially called a ‘soft reboot,’ but it’s arguably much fresher than that. The film ends with Bumblebee joining Optimus for a gorgeous cameo drive across the Golden Gate Bridge. For those attached to Bumblebee in the Bay Movies: Yes, he does ultimately take on the ‘67 Camaro guise at the very end. In addition, there is a scene with five or so presumably Autobots arriving from space in balls of fire. The next movie will have immense potential for a larger Autobot cast, and more familiar Decepticons.
The humans were enjoyable, and I hope Charlie returns to future films. But I am hopeful that the future movies will pay greater respect to the more complex Cybertronian plots of the recent IDW series. I would love to see a far more intelligent, manipulative Megatron than depicted in the Bay movies. A more dynamic Starscream a la his Transformers Prime characterization would be amazing too. And I would literally give anything for a faithful representation of Prowl and/or Ultra Magnus, among others. The best thing is the sky’s the limit. We’re back at square one, and anything could happen. It’s officially great to be a Transformers fan again.
Have You Seen Bumblebee Yet?
If you haven’t, get out there and support it. Show Hasbro that there still is a market for Transformers when the content is treated with integrity. If you have seen it, what did you think of the film? What are you hoping for in future Transformers films?