WARNING: The following article contains spoilers for Bumblebee, in theaters now.
Paramount Pictures' Transformers films have focused on building a massive mythology and creating even bigger battle since they first smashed into theaters in 2007. But after more than a decade, the live-action franchise has scaled back, to focus on a single robot in disguise and the young human who befriends him, rather than the never-ending war between Autobots and Decepticons.
Directed by Travis Knight (Kubo and the Two Strings) from a script by Christina Hodson (the upcoming Birds of Prey), Bumblebee is the heir to beloved films like E.T. the Extra Terrestrial and The Iron Giant, and contains a massive heart beneath its sci-fi action trappings.
More Than Meets the Eye
Bumblebee has been a major player in the Transformers franchise since the 1984 debut of the original animated series. His popularity only increased when he was featured as one of the primary Transformers of the live-action film series. Bumblebee is the first one of his kind we see in the franchise, and this new prequel explores introduction to Earth, which consist of getting chased, shot at, harpooned, and then having his vocal systems destroyed by a Decepticon.
It's not a great first day, and he shuts down. But after he's found in a junk yard by Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld) and reactivated, Bumblebee becomes something far more engaging. Effectively given amnesia by the damage to his memory core, he reveals a childlike innocence and curiosity, and quickly befriends Charlie, who keeps the Autobot a secret as she reintroduces with to the world, represented by 1987 California.
The film goes through many of the same tropes as films like E.T. Charlie and Bumblebee have no real understanding of each other's world, whether that's her home life, and her continued grief following her father's death, of the scope of the civil war that's ripped apart Cybertron and spilled onto Earth.
Unlike even the original Transformers film, the human protagonist doesn't end up all that involved in that intergalactic conflict. Instead, she helps Bumblebee to regain his sense of self, and stops a radio signal from being sent to the waiting Decepticon forces. For a majority of the film, neither of them even knows about primary antagonists Shatter and Dropbox, who are pursuing Bumblebee.
The scope of the war may be on a universal scale, but the film doesn't focus on the battles occurring in some other galaxy that somehow include robot dinosaurs and King Arthur. Because of that, it's able to instead focus on the relationship between Charlie and her new robotic friend, and make the film better resonate with the audience. The eventual arrival of those larger elements then has greater impact, because we care about the characters. Unlike the previous installments of the series, Bumblebee uses the massive action only when the characters have been thoroughly fleshed out, so that the stakes are greater and more personal.
Against The World
Bumblebee is evocative of those earlier films in more than just having a buddy from space arrive and form a friendship with a young human. There's the family that doesn't understand the child, and the dearly departed father whose absence is heavily felt. There's even notably a military presence that wants to contain and destroy the alien "threat." As with E.T. and The Iron Giant, that forms most of the conflict of the film. But Bumblebee does one better, and actually explores the men who would be terrified of giant robots.
John Cena's Agent Burns is one of the most compelling versions of that stock character. He's introduced to the Autobot and Decepticon war by watching his allies become collateral damage. His fears are somewhat justified, if still short-sighted. And by focusing on those character beats that define all of the major players in the film, it manages to be more than just another riff on something like The Iron Giant. The characters find out there's more to themselves, and each other, and that growth is actually earned. Agent Burns sees firsthand that Bumblebee is something more than he thought, and he even salutes a fellow soldier at the end of the film when he allows the Autobot to escape capture.
The other films in the Transformers franchise fail to explore what the characters feel, as they're far more concerned with the fighting. It's part of the reason why most of the other installments are so soulless; they rely upon pure spectacle. But Bumblebee embraces the humanity at the core of this giant robot, and that helps to turn the newest Transformers film into a genuine modern classic.
Directed by Travis Knight from a script by Christina Hodson, Bumblebee stars Hailee Steinfeld, John Cena, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., Pamela Adlon, Jason Drucker, Abby Quinn, Rachel Crow, Ricardo Hoyos and Gracie Dzienny.