It shouldn’t be hard to make an entertaining Transformers movie. No one expects high art from a deathless, toy-derived series about shape-shifting robots from outer space locked in an epic battle between good and evil but the movies should at least be fun.
The Transformers movies have budgets in the hundreds of millions. They have casts full of ringers happy to accept a big payday like John Turturro, John Malkovich, Frances McDormand, Thomas Lennon, Anthony Hopkins, and Stanley Tucci. They have Steven Spielberg, the most successful man in the history of film, as an Executive Producer and roots in a Mattel toy line and 1980s cartoon series that Gen Xers like myself feel a deep connection to that has everything to do with childhood nostalgia and little to do with its actual quality.
So. So. So...why are 2007’s Transformers, 2009’s Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, 2011’s Transformers: Dark Side of the Moon, 2014’s Transformers: Age of Extinction and 2017’s Transformers: The Last Night so tedious and defiantly un-fun?
The easy answer is that they were all directed by Michael Bay, whose bigger, faster, and more aesthetic resulted in movies that were deafeningly loud and borderline incoherent with bloated two-and-a-half-hour runtimes and sprawling casts full of robots and human beings that it was difficult to even keep track of, let alone care about. The Transformers movies got predictably and justifiably negative reviews from critics, audiences, and fans alike but they made money so Michael Bay kept getting handed the keys to the franchise even though, objectively speaking, the movies all sucked and everybody hated them.
But, five years ago, in December 2018, a new Transformers movie had a bold proposition: a Transformers movie that didn’t suck. The movie was Bumblebee and five years later, it actually does hold up shockingly well.
The first step towards correcting the franchise’s myriad problems involved ejecting Bay from the director’s chair in favor of someone with an actual vision for the material beyond making a lot of money.
Bay was replaced by Nepo Baby Travis Knight, the son of Nike founder Phil Knight, a former rapper who performed under the name “Chilly Tee”, the head of stop-motion animation studio Laika, and a stop-motion animator turned director following up his acclaimed, Oscar-nominated 2016 debut Kubo and the Two Strings.
Knight and screenwriter Christina Dodson (Birds of Prey) were inspired less by Bay’s clattering abominations than Brad Bird’s The Iron Giant and the Spielberg-fueled wave of Reagan-era classics about mildly traumatized latchkey suburban kids having fantastical adventures with space aliens, time travel, ghosts, and other fantasy and science-fiction conceits. Instead of a clearly embarrassing Shia LaBeouf, or an equally unenthused Mark Wahlberg Bumblebee has as its charismatic lead an actress who seems to want to be there in Hailee Steinfeld as Charlie Watson. She’s a mildly traumatized eighteen-year-old whose beloved grease monkey dad died unexpectedly of a heart attack, leaving her with a love of all things cars and a hole in her heart that can only be filled by friendship with a lovable shape-shifting German automobile from beyond the stars.
Steinfield channels Joan Jett as an androgynous badass and die-hard Smiths fan who forms a close bond with the titular warrior from outer space after he lands on Earth after fleeing his home planet of Cybertron in 1987 California. Bumblebee gives its anthropomorphic metallic hero a tragic backstory in which his voice is ripped out by a psychotic foe and he loses his memory. It works because the film has a surprising emotional heft and depth unlike all of the live-action Transformers movies that come before it. [Editor’s note: the 1986 animated film Transformers: The Movie has more emotional heft than most movies. Period.]
Instead of under-serving a seemingly endless series of heroic Autobots and nefarious Decepticons Bumblebee does justice to a single Transformer by making him more human, likable, and complex than all of the humans in the other Transformers movies combined.
He’s a Spielbergian man-child from beyond who is a skilled warrior in battle and a proud soldier in his world but a clumsy puppy on earth who inconveniently happens to weigh thousands of pounds and consequently can do considerable accidental damage.
Instead of giving us an endless assortment of Decepticons to not care about Bumblebee focuses on the memorable twosome of Shatter (Angela Bassett) and Dropkick (Justin Theroux), triple-changers (that means that they have two distinct vehicular modes in addition to their robot forms) who luxuriate in outsized villainy and haughty contempt for the puny man-animals they manipulate to their own ends and obliterate with a ray gun when it suits their needs.
Bumblebee has the smallest budget of any Transformers movie but that works in its favor because it forces the filmmakers to focus on telling the story of one warrior robot car well instead of the story of many, many warrior robot cars badly.
Instead of the bloated runtimes of the five Transformers movies that preceded it Bumblebee clocks in at well under two hours. Knight and Dodson’s action scenes stress coherence without sacrificing excitement or spectacle.
Unlike the Transformers movies before it, Bumblebee operates under the principle that epic battles are much more satisfying if you care about the characters fighting and can actually see what’s happening. Bumblebee understands that 1980s nostalgia is at the core of the franchise’s appeal, particularly for its original audience, so it lovingly layers on period detail and includes neat Easter eggs for fans like a snippet of Stan Bush's “The Touch.”
As my fellow Gen Xers undoubtedly already know, “The Touch” is a transcendently tacky power ballad from the soundtrack to the 1986 feature film spin-off of the Transformers TV show that was later memorably used in Boogie Nights as the song Mark Wahlberg records in a coked-up haze. Bumblebee does just about everything right, including foregrounding the music of iconic mope Morrissey, resulting in a wildly overachieving science fiction blockbuster with humor and heart.
It showed a path forward for an exhausted franchise. This year’s Transformers: Rise of the Beasts, which comes out on home video on October 10th and is a direct sequel to Bumblebee, learned some, but not all, of Bumblebee’s lessons. Rise of the Beasts is wisely directed by someone younger, hungrier, and more talented than Michael Bay in Creed 2 director Steven Caple Jr. It takes place in 1994 New York for bonus nostalgic fun and has a great hip-hop soundtrack and likable young leads. But, it’s not near as solid and down-to-earth as Bumblebee.
The Transformers series isn’t slowing down. Next is an animated film entitled Transformers One that will explore the origins of the Transformers and the relationship between Optimus Prime and Megatron and a possible G.I Joe crossover hinted at at the end of Transformers: Rise of the Beasts. Those both sound like big departures from Bumblebee. Knight and Dodson’s lovely look at a girl and her shape-shifting robot from outer space may, unfortunately, turn out to be an outlier in the series rather than a sign of what’s to come.