Everything you need to know about this latest Transformers is contained in a multi-car pile-up. Near the film’s finale, a desperate pursuit sees a car hurtle towards a four-way junction. It skids to a stop inches from the bumper of an oncoming lorry, while cars from either side — displaying a keen observation of DMV-regulated stopping distances — screech to a similarly timely halt, leaving both paintwork and insurance premiums intact. It’s considered, restrained and genuinely amusing (“I saw this on Miami Vice!” quips the dad behind the wheel). Total Bayhem, though, it most certainly is not.
After presiding over five orgies of destruction, Michael Bay steps back to a producing role for this plucky prequel, vacating the director’s chair for Kubo And The Two Strings’ Travis Knight. Where wanton destruction is concerned, Knight is keenly aware that less is more, and while Bay demolished cities with abandon, he carefully rations out the violence to make each blow count.
Charlie and Bee's partnership is the film’s beating heart.
As every six-year-old at play eventually discovers: mindlessly smashing toys together is never as fun as imbuing them with personality, and in Christina Hodson’s playful screenplay we’re presented with a robot protagonist brimming with inner life. Knight’s experience at Laika comes to the fore here, years of painstaking stop-motion lending an eye for expression as Bee takes in the world around him. Wide-eyed wonder and childlike naivety radiate from a machine stripped of both memory and voice (the reasons for which are finally depicted here). It’s a sensibility balanced perfectly by Steinfeld’s Charlie, still raw from the death of her father. Bumblebee enters her life when she needs him most and the relationship is believable and touching — an ’80s pairing of child and creature that (deliberately) conjures Elliott and E.T.. This partnership is the film’s beating heart and draws us in as the pair’s bond deepens — she training him like a giant, five-ton puppy and he filling the void left yawning by her loss.
Triple-changer double act Dropkick (Justin Theroux) and Shatter (Angela Bassett) embrace their roles as sneering antagonists, dispatching civilians with insouciant sadism (“I like the way they pop”). But it’s John Cena, as walking side of beef Agent Burns, who proves the most flat-out enjoyable, hurling macho epithets as all ’80s villains should, while cocking a knowing eyebrow at his uneasy alliance with Bee’s hunters: “They literally call themselves ‘Decepticons’,” he deadpans. “That doesn’t set off any red flags?”
From an electrifying prologue depicting the fall of Cybertron (in which we’re treated to a rapid-fire line-up of fan favourites, ripped from the cells of the 1984 cartoon), it’s clear Knight has a deep-seated affection for Transformers, hitting every nostalgic note with a virtuoso’s ear. It’s made that much easier by placing the property in its natural habitat, surrounded by clunky Walkmen, Mr T cereal boxes and John Hughes movies, set to a playlist of classic ’80s bangers.
In the end, it’s not from Bay but rather the movie’s other big-name producer that Knight has drawn inspiration. Steven Spielberg’s DNA feels baked into Bumblebee, resulting in an ’80s movie not just in setting and aesthetic but also sensibility — a high-octane concept Transformed into an Amblin love letter. Knight has served up a gleeful romp with wit, warmth and a whole lot of heart. It’s taken six movies to get here, but we finally have a Transformers film that’s more than meets the eye.