“Any fortune to be found from flogging a dead horse?” you may ask. Well, in Hollywood, anything is possible. With so many franchises and connected universes taking up the screen space in the multiplexes, even those who have jumped the shark can always find a way back. Last year, Transformers: The Last Knight limped its way to a global haul of $605 million, the lowest of the five-movie series, showing again that quantity doesn’t always equal quality. That was never going to be the final chapter, however, and rather than continue down the same path, we take a new one — rewinding to an origin tale with the focus on fan favourite, Bumblebee. Get the Rick Astley cassettes at the ready: we’re heading back to the future of 1987.
Robots In Disguise
The Robots in Disguise are back again for the latest instalment in the film franchise set amongst the never-ending battle between the Autobots and the Decepticons on Earth after Cybertron’s fall. Bumblebee delves deep into the origins of one of the most adorable of the transforming good guys, telling the tale of how and why he came to be on Earth.
Directed by Travis Knight, this film is just as much about excessive CGI as its predecessors — though it certainly approaches this aspect differently with animation genius Knight at the helm. He takes care to imbue Bumblebee with so much charm in his actions, his movements, his facial expressions that you’re Johnny-fived from the off. And yes, the film has more than a touch of Short Circuit about it, not to mention E.T. (Spielberg is Executive Producer). But where Bumblebee ultimately succeeds is in its story and characters, both of which are far more fleshed out, heartwarming — and, crucially, real — than anything that has gone before.
“But we want to see big robots fighting!” we hear you cry. Rest assured, there’s plenty of that right from the off. Throwing us straight into the bedlam, Knight and co drop us at the start into wartorn Cybertron, with seemingly thousands of good and bad Transformers fighting it out for control of the planet. As you would expect, Optimus Prime, looking more reminiscent of the cartoon version of the characters than we have seen before (Hallelujah!), is fully immersed in the chaos, trying to keep his kin alive as more and more Decepticons descend on them. Bumblebee is by his side through the chaos, but it’s clear that Cybertron will fall, and even though ‘Bee is sent to the relative safety of Earth, he is followed. More mechanical mayhem ensues, only this time John Cena’s Army General and his squad are caught in the crossfire.
Fans have criticised how the robots have been realised in the other films — it’s like they’re impenetrable and almost weightless — but here, for the first time perhaps since the opening film, they feel real. It feels like there are serious consequences for both humans and Transformers, who are feeling the pain of war, both emotionally and physically. This adds so much depth to the film, part of a franchise in which depth has previously been hard to come by.
Story First, Pandemonium Second
As the series has gone on, Transformers has become less and less interested in the characters that inhabit the story and more on the aforementioned robot-on-robot death matches. Which, while entertaining for the first couple of films, has become decidedly one-note. So much so, in fact, that their much-criticised helmer Michael Bay has handed off the reins to see if someone else can inject some new life into the series.
Knight, who made the beautiful Kubo and The Two Strings in 2016, has brought some balance back to the series, fleshing his film out in the right way with character and story as its axis, rather than extravagant set-pieces. There are those moments too, of course, but it’s our investment in what’s going on at ground-level that’s most interesting here with a narrative that’s both a coming-of-age film but also one about acceptance, family and, above all, the power of friendship.
Star Power Illuminates
It’s with that stronger story, from writer Christina Hodson, that the film has been able to attract another eclectic mix of talent, and, as with the other films, we have an equal amount of star wattage in the form of Oscar nominee Hailee Steinfeld and WWE superstar-turned-actor John Cena. Both bring a refreshed energy.
Previous instalments have been crying out for some fresh blood through the story, and not just in the background. Steinfeld, who broke through in True Grit, has been making waves in more comedic roles of late — namely The Edge of Seventeen and Pitch Perfect — but she brings real gravitas to the screen as the whip-smart and unpredictable Charlie. Cena, meanwhile, is fresh from a barnstorming turn in Blockers (one of 2018’s best comedies) but here is asked to put his comedy muscle (mostly) aside for a straighter role as the conflicted Agent Burns, a man who operates by a code but who begins to question his government’s choices (we know the feeling).
If the series is going to continue in this vein, there may be life in the old dog yet. However, if franchise champion Michael Bay takes his eye off the ball — he’s still on board as producer here — and we start to revert back to type, then the franchise could be in danger of malfunctioning completely. As it stands, Bumblebee is an impressive, if slightly rusty around the edges, Transformers film that is energetic, funny, thoughtful and soothingly nostalgic (without feeling forced), and it could well spawn its own sequel. Which would be sweet.
Bumblebee opens in the US on December 21 and Australia on December 20; in the UK, you can see preview screenings on December 15, 16 and 20 before its wide release on December 24.