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In a better, truer cinematic universe, Travis Knight would have been in charge of the Transformers franchise all along. For this prequel/spin-off, the sixth in the series, the director gets under the hood of Michael Bay’s pumped-up blockbuster machine, and strips it down to something succinct, fun and sweet-toned. Hitherto – with its two-and-a-half- hour runtimes, mindless plots, jive-talking robots and Victoria’s Secret casting–the series seemed to have been scripted by an AI that had done its deep-learning on Donald Trump’s Twitter feed. Instead, Knight (Kubo and the Two Strings) and writer Christina Hodson offer up a heartfelt, old-school, almost ET-esque story (albeit with the full CGI trimmings) of a teenage girl and her faithful protector: in this case, her Volkswagen Beetle-cum-alien footsoldier.
Amid the relentless “Bayhem” of the preceding five films, characterisation wasn’t exactly a strong point. Bumblebee – the dinky yellow sidekick Transformer who befriends Shia LaBeouf at the start of the first film and speaks in snippets of FM radio – was perhaps the only viable option for a spin-off. Knight restores Bumblebee to the VW design rejected by Bay for looking too much like Herbie, and strands him on Earth in 1987 with orders to set up a refuge for the Autobot rebels trying escape war on their home planet Cybertron. After a run-in with the military, he winds up with his memory wiped in a San Francisco junkyard being eyed up by Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld), a klutzy, Smiths-loving goth misfit still finding her path after her dad’s death.
While Knight and team duck origin-story slavishness that has dogged so much recent franchise work, they succeed in reviving the playful Saturday-morning-serial spirit of the original 80s Transformers. Steven Spielberg remains executive producer, but this is the first in the series to have any of his lightness of touch. Set in vintage Spielbergian suburbia, Bumblebee teases similar comedy from it, as when Charlie’s mother borrows her new ride and fails to notice the giant robot arm poking out of the boot. The character design is both more reverential to the original and state of the art, with a tactile clanky heft that Bay’s hectic sequences skated over. The Transformers’ chain-link faces are especially impressive and expressive; nice to know we’re in the hands of film-makers interested in what’s going on in closeups, even for robots.
The film is predictably heavy on the retro sauce – from cassette desks to corndogs, Cray supercomputers and Breakfast Club snippets. And Charlie’s coming of age is a little too automated to deliver a full emotional payoff. But the action sequences are quirky, agile and in a couple of cases, when Bumblebee trashes the family home and a high-school rivals’s car, refreshingly open to the idea small-scale destruction can be just as satisfying. Knight keeps up a welcome self-awareness throughout: after the Decepticons link up all earthly communications to form an unprecedented and yet strangely familiar global network, one military bigwig comments that perhaps their name should have been a “red flag”.
Whether these new glimmers of sentience in the franchise will reverse its recent downwards-bound box office – let alone launch the Hasbro cinematic universe being touted a couple of years back – remains to be seen. But this retooling is snappy and wholesome enough to suggest we might still be watching in our self-driving cars.
•This article was amended on 11 December to correct the spelling of Cray computers.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Bumblebee review – Transformers spinoff dumps ‘Bayhem’ for old-school spirit | Film