Arts movie review

Bumblebee lives up to the buzz

The ‘Transformers’ prequel brings a freshness and wonder back into a tired franchise

Directed by Travis Knight
Screenplay by Christina Hoffman
Starring Hailee Steinfeld, Dylan O’Brien, John Cena, and Jorge Lendeborg Jr.
Rated PG-13, Now Playing

If you’re anything like me, you’ve never seen a Transformers movie in your life. And if you’re as out of touch with the franchise as I am, perhaps the synopsis of Bumblebee — a teenage girl on the cusp of adulthood reviving an old Volkswagen Beetle and finding herself in the process — sounds to you less like a sci-fi robot flick and more like an experimental indie film. Unaware that the “Bumblebee” referenced in the film’s summary is in fact an established Transformers character and not merely an old car with a cute name, the first five minutes of Bumblebee came as something of a shock to me. Needless to say, my expectations were a wild mismatch to the epic giant robot battle playing out on screen. I first wondered if I was in the wrong theater, then steeled myself for the ensuing two hours of what I was sure would be mindless CGI action sequences and vague misogyny.

I was pleasantly surprised.

Bumblebee treads the line between the familiar and the otherworldly. On the planet Cybertron, a civil war between the Autobots and the Decepticons appears to be concluding. The Autobot resistance, led by Optimus Prime, is on the verge of defeat, and its members must evacuate their planet in order to flee the Decepticons. Optimus Prime deploys robot B-127 to establish an Autobot base on earth, but the evil Decepticons will stop at nothing to ensure their enemies’ destruction. After nearly succumbing to his injuries from a battle with Blitzwing in the opening scene, we see B-127 transform into an unassuming yellow Volkswagen Beetle which, like B-127, has seen better days.

Meanwhile, Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld) is your typical 17-year-old girl, working a summer job on the boardwalk, fighting with her mom, and begging for her own car while tinkering with them in her spare time. The audience quickly learns that Charlie’s teenage angst largely stems from grief and resentment caused by the death of her father and her mother’s remarriage. Her endless hours in the shop are a way for her to feel connected to her father, as it was something the two of them used to do together. Even the movie’s soundtrack, which consists mainly of badass-sounding classic rock, is a hallmark of Charlie’s inability to let go of the past — many of the songs are straight from her dad’s tapes. Bullied by the girls at school, ignored by her dream guy, and misunderstood by her family, Charlie stands on the cusp of adulthood confused, lonely, and utterly lost. That is, until Charlie comes across a decrepit yellow Volkswagen Beetle and makes a deal with the owner of the shop: if she can get it running, it’s hers. After discovering that her new car is in fact an enormous robot from another planet, she and the newly renamed Bumblebee must save the earth from invading Decepticons and find a way to salvage the resistance.

For me, what made the movie was that I cared deeply, almost from the outset, about the characters in Bumblebee. It was a character-driven story, which prevented it from being another bloated installment of an overdone franchise. It was easy to sympathize with Charlie from the beginning. She wasn’t perfect, and it was clear that her grief was causing her to act unreasonably; she was unnecessarily rude to her loving mother and well-meaning stepfather, she made countless reckless and irresponsible decisions, and she kept secrets from her family — but the fact that she often made the wrong call or behaved in frustrating ways only served to make her more relatable. Her friendship with Bumblebee is perhaps my favorite part of the film — her role as a teacher and babysitter of this deadly alien killing machine made for some truly hilarious interactions and an interesting dynamic. Bumblebee is the only one who understands Charlie, but as the film progresses, we sense that perhaps she’s getting a little too attached to the first person who has truly understood her since the death of her father, and we dread their inevitable parting. At the same time, her adventures with Bumblebee and the fumbling, loveable boy next door, Memo (Jorge Lendeborg) allow her to grow and move on. We as the audience watch her overcome more than just her grief as she gains confidence in herself, takes leaps of faith she never could before, and repairs her relationships with her family. While there’s not necessarily anything wrong with a simple action movie for action’s sake, such films often fall short to me because they lack the realness and relatability of fleshed-out and believable characters with fleshed-out and believable relationships. Epic giant robot fights where the fate of the earth hangs in the balance are a lot more exciting to me when the stakes include the fates of people I have come to care about. Otherwise, I find my viewing experience becomes a surface-level appreciation of the cool CGI and fight choreography, not the emotional affair that I feel the climax of a film should be.

Another merit of this film was its treatment of the female characters. Granted, as I mentioned earlier, I have not seen the other Transformers films, but I’ve heard the criticisms and seen other films of its kind — Bumblebee belongs to a franchise and a genre often criticized for treating women as sexual objects who seemingly exist only to pose as love interests to male protagonists. Bumblebee could not have subverted these tropes more strongly. Charlie took charge of her own destiny in this film, and while she learned and benefited from her friendships with Memo and Bumblebee, so did they, in equal measure. She was never sexualized, never scantily-clad to serve as eye-candy for the audience, and the extent of her romantic interactions was Memo’s minor schoolboy crush, which accordingly received minor screen time. Instead, the film spent time developing Charlie’s core familial and platonic relationships, which better facilitated her personal development throughout the movie.

Ultimately, Bumblebee felt less like a Transformers movie and more like a coming-of-age story of friendship and personal growth, set in the Transformers universe, with some awesome battle scenes and high-stakes civil wars thrown in for good measure. Whether or not you’re typically the type of person to enjoy Transformers, this film has something for you.