Everything you need to know about this latest Transformers is contained in a multi-car pile-up. Near the film’s finale, a desperate pursuit sees a car hurtle towards a four-way junction. It skids to a stop inches from the bumper of an oncoming lorry, while cars from either side — displaying a keen observation of DMV-regulated stopping distances — screech to a similarly timely halt, leaving both paintwork and insurance premiums intact. It’s considered, restrained and genuinely amusing (“I saw this on Miami Vice!” quips the dad behind the wheel). Total Bayhem, though, it most certainly is not.
As every six-year-old at play eventually discovers: mindlessly smashing toys together is never as fun as imbuing them with personality, and in Christina Hodson’s playful screenplay we’re presented with a robot protagonist brimming with inner life. Knight’s experience at Laika comes to the fore here, years of painstaking stop-motion lending an eye for expression as Bee takes in the world around him. Wide-eyed wonder and childlike naivety radiate from a machine stripped of both memory and voice (the reasons for which are finally depicted here). It’s a sensibility balanced perfectly by Steinfeld’s Charlie, still raw from the death of her father. Bumblebee enters her life when she needs him most and the relationship is believable and touching — an ’80s pairing of child and creature that (deliberately) conjures Elliott and E.T.. This partnership is the film’s beating heart and draws us in as the pair’s bond deepens — she training him like a giant, five-ton puppy and he filling the void left yawning by her loss.
Triple-changer double act Dropkick (Justin Theroux) and Shatter (Angela Bassett) embrace their roles as sneering antagonists, dispatching civilians with insouciant sadism (“I like the way they pop”). But it’s John Cena, as walking side of beef Agent Burns, who proves the most flat-out enjoyable, hurling macho epithets as all ’80s villains should, while cocking a knowing eyebrow at his uneasy alliance with Bee’s hunters: “They literally call themselves ‘Decepticons’,” he deadpans. “That doesn’t set off any red flags?”
Out in the gutter space of Michael Bay’s mind where robots rule and Transformers are conceived there’s a war going on. Optimus Prime, the head honcho of Cyberton, thinks the time might be right to find a safer home base. He chooses Earth because it’s half hidden by growing green stuff (don’t ask how or why) and so sends a couple of trusted bots to check it out.
Also in situ is a VW Beetle that can do the Trans party trick of turning into a superbot, or a fast car for those speed freaked homo sappies who run the show. Thankfully this little guy who drives the machine is different. He’s not a natural fighter. He likes to hide in the junkyard, California, 1987, where an old bloke who collects wrecks fixes up the VW and brings it over to his garage where his teenage granddaughter Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld) falls in love with it and makes it work and then loves the robot who lives inside. She calls them Bumblebee.
Here comes E.T: The Reboot, disguised as a rom-com. Charlie and Bumblebee have something going that means a lot in this place where machines matter and softer emotions have always been a kiss away from a punch in the head, Steinfeld attacks the conflicts and contradictions with courage. She’s not afraid of looking like an idiot in Bumblebee’s embrace.
When things get heavy and Optimus Prime turns up and there’s little shelter for sweet sanity, Charley has family probs to deal with and Bumblebee hits the road. To Bay or not to Bay that is the question. Will the concept of Transviolence outshout the delicate moves of the little car on the deserted highway?
Charley’s personality which is strong without being obtrusive completes the circle. Bumblebee is made in the Spielberg style, a mixture of sentimentality, big eyes and a character that finds its own dimension which is warmer and less demanding than you might expect.
From an electrifying prologue depicting the fall of Cybertron (in which we’re treated to a rapid-fire line-up of fan favourites, ripped from the cells of the 1984 cartoon), it’s clear Knight has a deep-seated affection for Transformers, hitting every nostalgic note with a virtuoso’s ear. It’s made that much easier by placing the property in its natural habitat, surrounded by clunky Walkmen, Mr T cereal boxes and John Hughes movies, set to a playlist of classic ’80s bangers.
In the end, it’s not from Bay but rather the movie’s other big-name producer that Knight has drawn inspiration. Steven Spielberg’s DNA feels baked into Bumblebee, resulting in an ’80s movie not just in setting and aesthetic but also sensibility — a high-octane concept Transformed into an Amblin love letter. Knight has served up a gleeful romp with wit, warmth and a whole lot of heart. It’s taken six movies to get here, but we finally have a Transformers film that’s more than meets the eye.