It took us over ten years, but hell, we finally got a great live action “Transformers” movie. The only thought that came to mind while I was watching the opening ten minutes of “Bumblebee” was: Why didn’t we get this in the first place? Why did Sony opt for such a moronic, nonsensical, incoherent mess of a franchise, rather than deliver what is easily the best live action representation of the franchise I’ve seen so far. Everything in “Bumblebee” is the antithesis of what Michael Bay’s movies were, right down to the lack of racial stereotypes, and the jingoism. Granted, there is a meat head military hero with John Cena, but that’s a miniscule nitpick in a movie that’s just such a great experience from beginning to end.
A spin off and prequel to the Bayformers series, “Bumblebee” chronicles the war set on Cybertron where the Decepticons are waging war against the Autobots. Soldier Bumblebee is sent by Optimus Prime to Earth to establish a base for the Autobots. There, he lands in year 1987 in a large sea side town, where Bumblebee is now on the run from the American military. While masquerading as a Volkswagon, he meets Charlie Watson. Charlie is an aspiring mechanic still getting over the death of her father who discovers the war torn and scarred Bumblebee and learns of his mission. As the two bond, they have to do battle with two Decepticons that have landed on Earth and are seeking out their enemy with the help of the military. Deceiving the military, they hope to set up a beacon to call their fellow Decepticons to the planet.
It almost feels like Sony took all of the blueprints for Bay’s Transformers movies and just went in the total opposite direction the whole way. If this is the beginning of a series where we get to follow fellow Transformers, then “Bumblebee” is off on the right foot. Travis Knight’s prequel is heartfelt, sweet, fun, action packed, makes the Transformers the primary characters, and what do you know? We actually get a prologue that’s set on Cybertron that drowns us in to the world of the Transformers and their conflict. There’s also a stellar soundtrack that’s instrumental to the overall narrative. I wish this had been the groundwork laid for the entire series back in 2007, as “Bumblebee” touches upon what makes the series so appealing. What’s even better is that the Transformers actually look like their original designs without resembling walking action figures in the process.
Rather than the mess of pixels and scrap metal from the original movies, their designs are simplistic but visually dynamic. Bumblebee also has a lot more heart and soul in this installment, turning him in to someone who is a soldier that manages to learn about the richness of humanity and what kind of world he’s inhabiting before the war on Cybertron expands. The writers work hard to connect the threads to the original movie series, such as how Bumblebee lost his speaking ability, but none of that really feels relevant in the grand scheme of the narrative. “Bumblebee” excels, even if you’ve never seen a single Bay “Transformers” installment.
That’s mainly because Bumblebee is given such strength of character and depth, all the while paired with an entertaining protagonist. Hailee Steinfeld is at her usual best, playing a tragic heroine still clutching to the memory of her father, who manages to gain some sense of purpose with her friendship with Bumblebee. Steinfeld is not only worth rooting for, but she progresses so naturally that it never felt like the writers were leaving things in the air for more movies. Let’s face it, there will be more “Transformers” movies, but “Bumblebee” stands on its own, apart from its predecessors as a faithful and pretty fantastic “Transformers” installment.