11 years of Michael Bay since 2007 and five good-to-atrociously bad Transformers movies later, this is finally something that I’m sure most of us have been waiting for: a live-action Transformers movie that stays faithful to the classic 1980s Transformers: Generation 1 animated series.
Although this sixth instalment of Transformers franchise is technically not a sequel but rather served as both prequel, spinoff and a soft reboot altogether, it hardly matters anyway. At least Travis Knight, making his first live-action directorial debut following his Oscar-nominated Kubo and the Two Strings (2016), manages to steer the franchise into the right direction after that much-maligned debacle of last year’s Transformers: The Last Knight. This goes on to prove that Michael Bay no longer calling the shots (he only served as a producer) is actually the wisest decision Paramount Pictures has ever done to their decades-old franchise.
As evidently stated in the title itself, Bumblebee (voiced by Dylan O’Brien) follows the titular yellow robot-in-disguise, who is sent to Earth by Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen) in the midst of a war between the Autobots and Decepticons on planet Cybertron. From there, we meet Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld), a rebellious teenager who happens to be so desperately wanting a car of her own. She finally got her wishes when her uncle (Len Cariou) gives her a beat-up 1967 yellow Volkswagen Beetle from his scrap yard as a birthday gift. Soon, Charlie discovers that the car she brought back home turns out to be a robot-in-disguise. Both of them eventually become friends and of course, in a true Transformers mould, two Decepticons — Shatter (Angela Bassett) and Dropkick (Justin Theroux) — arrive on Earth to hunt Bumblebee down.
Gone are the incomprehensible, epilepsy-inducing shaky-cam aesthetics and the hyperactive editing style that plagued Michael Bay’s Transformers: The Last Knight. Instead, Travis Knight favours all of his action set-pieces are crisply shot and edited that allow us to enjoy every moment of its elaborate choreography. The opening sequence is practically a dream come true for die-hard Transformers fans: an extended prologue involving a thrilling-staged war sequence between the Autobots and Decepticons on Cybertron. That scene alone even give us a few glimpses of Optimus Prime and yes, Soundwave in action as well.
All of the technical credits here are top-notch, particularly for the CG robots that seamlessly integrated with the live-action background. The Bumblebee itself is a scene-stealer who can be both sympathetic and engaging at the same time. Hailee Steinfeld delivers a decent performance as Charlie while John Cena continues to prove himself as a worthy comedic actor (yes, I’m not kidding).
As for the plot, Christina Hodson’s screenplay seems to be trying so hard to ape the classic Amblin formula populated by Steven Spielberg (who also served as one of the executive producers here) back in the 80s. Even the emotional bond and friendship between Charlie and Bumblebee almost remind me of Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), which is actually a nice touch.
However, the execution itself isn’t as polished as I expected. Don’t get me wrong, the chemistry between Steinfeld’s Charlie and the computer-generated Bumblebee are there. But somehow most of the emotional moments that try to inject into this movie here feel more manufactured and manipulative than rightfully earned. Some of the humorous moments tend to feel either awkward or misses the mark but at least they don’t get as vulgar and juvenile like the one featured in Michael Bay’s Transformers movies.
The movie is also heavy on 80s nostalgia, given the fact it takes place in 1987. The song selection is well-picked, ranging from Steve Winwood’s “Higher Love” (easily the best soundtrack moment in this movie) to Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”.
Although Bumblebee is a little rough around the edges, I’m glad that the Transformers franchise is now heading in the right direction.