It only took six attempts over the course of a dozen years, but someone finally made a really good Transformers movie. As it turns out, adding just one believable human character that we could actually identify with and root for made all the difference. Weird, right? But more than that, Bumblebee actually goes so far as to put that whole pesky business of warring alien robot factions on the back-burner to more thoroughly explore the relationship between an angry, grieving teenage girl and her new best friend. The fact that her friend happens to be a gigantic shape-shifting war machine is almost beside the point. He could just as easily have been a squishy little big-eyed alien or a goofy, warm-hearted Bigfoot (to point to two obvious points of inspiration). Yeah, Bumblebee is essentially E.T., which is as stunning in its simplicity as it is jaw-dropping that series producer/director Michael Bay and company hadn’t thought to do this before now.
The film’s 1987 setting allows the film to fit into its proper place within the broader Transformers series mythology, but it also makes the case that those other films may as well have never happened. Writer Christina Hodson and director Travis Knight have managed to sneak a personal, heartfelt piece of work in front of audiences who just wanted to see some robots smash each other into spare parts, which amounts to being a minor miracle in that it gives this franchise a reason to keep existing. Namely, by telling smaller, human-sized stories that allow the big, eye-popping action sequences to hold as much emotional weight as everything else.
Hailee Steinfeld, as Charlie, is such an improvement over previous human characters in the series that I almost forgot that the most recent Transformers featured Mark Wahlberg investigating King Arthur and Transformer-worshipping secret societies (seriously). Charlie’s brokenhearted hard edges compete with her young adult optimism to form a character that never could have existed during the Bay era of films. She’s bad at her amusement park job, loves The Smiths and Elvis Costello, gets kicked around by the mean girls and wants a car for her 18th birthday. Her working-class mom (the great Pamela Adlon) instead gets her a pink flowery bike helmet. An annoying little brother and dorky stepdad are a constant hassle. She’s still grieving the loss of her father and doesn’t know (or pretends not to) that the kid next door has a crush on her. She lives in her own head, and it’s rarely a very pleasant place to be.
In the stranded and mute Bumblebee, she finds something of a fellow wounded soul. They teach each other to take control of their own fates, to stand up for themselves, and they have each other’s backs, even when it seems as if no one else on Earth cares or even knows they exist. It’s all very standard coming-of-age stuff, absolutely, but done with such care and depth of feeling that John Hughes (or maybe his cooler, more blackhearted counterpart Savage Steve Holland) would be proud. The film’s attention to detail in its period setting, musical choices, set design and even the very ’80s-movie depiction of the cartoonish big bad military goons all add up to a complete and clear vision from the filmmakers. Again, all this for the Transformers prequel. It never had to be any good. Bumblebee is great.