Dir: Travis Knight. Starring: Hailee Steinfeld, Justin Theroux (voice), Angela Bassett (voice), John Cena, Peter Cullen (voice), John Ortiz, Jorge Lendeborg Jr. Cert PG, 113 mins
Bumblebee is a considerable upgrade on the previous films in the Transformers series. That is largely because, for once, it pays as much attention to the human protagonists as to the gigantic Hasbro toys around which the franchise is based. The new film has its share of apocalyptic battle scenes involving the clunky, oversized robots but it is far more intimate in scale and tone than its predecessors. Director Travis Knight and London-born screenwriter Christina Hodson are clearly using Transformers to pay affectionate homage to Eighties brat pack teen movies and even to Disney films featuring Herbie, the Volkswagen beetle. They fill the film with references to British music of the era too, with The Smiths and Tears for Fears to the fore. In Hailee Steinfeld’s Charlie, the mixed-up Californian adolescent who befriends the autobot, they have a far more likeable protagonist than the grunting, macho, gun-toting hero played by Mark Wahlberg in earlier episodes.
As the film opens, Cybertron (the home base of the Autobots and their leader Optimus Prime), has fallen to the “bots” arch rivals, Decepticons. One bot called B-127 is sent to a “well-hidden planet called Earth” to hide out. This poor little metallic mite is attacked on arrival by US military forces and badly beaten up by a Decepticon, which severs his vocal cords. Barely surviving, he transforms himself into a clapped-out yellow Volkswagen and lies very low.
It is 1987 somewhere near San Francisco. Charlie (Steinfeld), an unhappy 18-year-old, buys the car and is predictably startled when it/he turns itself/himself into a gigantic yellow robot. She can see that he is damaged. He makes a buzzing sound, which is why she nicknames him Bumblebee. It’s at this point, the film turns into an unlikely buddy movie. The girl and the Volkswagen are outcasts together and soon form a very close bond. She is struggling to get on with her family and is finding solace by listening to Morrissey and Simple Minds. He is bruised, battered and a very long way from home. She sets out to protect him at all costs. “People can be terrible about things they don’t understand,” she notes as she nurses and repairs him.
The filmmakers sketch in Charlie’s family life in such colourful and lively fashion that we briefly forget we are watching a Transformers film at all. She was once a champion diver but has given up the sport since the death of her father. She has a close but turbulent relationship with her scatty mum (Pamela Adlon) but can’t hide her resentment of her stepdad. Nobody much likes Charlie other than her nerdy neighbour Memo (Jorge Lendeborg Jr) who has a very big crush on her and wants to ask her out.
While Charlie is coping with the trials of a troubled American adolescence, Decepticons are heading to Earth to try to destroy Bumblebee. The filmmakers show an admirably light touch in the way they combine a traditional teen rites of passage story with the portentous sci-fi elements you expect in any Transformers tale. Matters can get surprisingly nasty. The Decepticons, who turn themselves into souped-up sports cars when they arrive on Earth, are very vicious indeed when it comes to torturing their enemies. They have a plan to wipe out the Autobots for good and are ready to destroy the planet in the process if that is necessary.
Thankfully, even in the big, fiery set-pieces, Bumblebee never loses its humour or its lightness of touch. John Cena (the former professional wrestler turned movie actor) gives a tongue-in-cheek performance as the hardbitten government operative, out to destroy the robots. At the most fraught moments, the filmmakers will throw in jokes or ironic observations. For example, the human scientists, still stuck in an analogue era, are astounded when they discover Decepticons have their own version of the internet, “an interconnected web of information!” Bumblebee learns to communicate with the humans by continually switching the dial on the car radio to songs which express his mood or needs.
Much about the film is still formulaic. The Back to the Future-style Eighties references and all the nostalgic music could be seen as a cynical ploy to keep parents happy when they take their kids to the film. The scenes involving battles between the Decepticons and the Autobots are little different from similar set-pieces in other Transformers films. What gives this episode some buzz, though, is Steinfeld’s livewire and affecting performance as the mixed-up teenager who befriends the Volkswagen. Like Dorothy with the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz, she proves to her metallic friend that he can still have feelings even if he doesn’t have a heart.
Bumblebee is released in cinemas on 20 December
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