Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (March 19, 2019)
Pointless discussion of the day: how should we classify 2018’s Bumblebee? An extension of the Transformers cinematic universe that launched in 2007, does Bumblebee offer a prequel, a spinoff, or a reboot?
I’d probably vote “all of the above”, though I admit “reboot” seems like a stretch, as I see no reason to believe the series’ producers hope to start from scratch. Bumblebee clearly shows strong signs of prequel and spin-off, though.
Set back in 1987, the Autobots retreat during a battle with the enemy Decepticons. Autobot leader Optimus Prime (voiced by Peter Cullen) sends B-127 (Dylan O'Brien) as an advance scout to Earth, a location the Transformers hope to use to regroup.
However, B-127 crash-lands and finds himself beset by foes both terrestrial and Decepticon. These leave him severely damaged and unable to speak, so he takes refuge in the form of a Volkswagen Beetle.
Newly 18-year-old Charleen 'Charlie' Watson (Hailee Steinfeld) finds herself at a crossroads and seems unsure of what to do with her life. She boasts good auto repair skills, though, and when she finds the car into which B-127 transformed, she tries to fix it.
Eventually Charlie discovers B-127’s secrets. Renamed “Bumblebee”, she and the mute Transformer bond and deal with threats from the Decepticons and the US forces.
Though I largely dismissed the view of Bumblebee as a series reboot, the notion remained in my head because of the franchise’s decline in fortunes. Whereas each of the first three films made between $319 million and $402 million in the US, 2014’s Age of Extinction stumbled to $245 million, and then 2017’s Last Knight plummeted to a relatively woeful $130 million.
Internationally, the franchise fared better, and Age of Extinction actually became the second-biggest Transformers flick when we accounted for worldwide sales. Last Knight didn’t do great in that domain, though, as its $605 million made it the weakest of the bunch. That’s still a lot of money, but since Last Knight barely earned half of Age of Extinction’s grosses, the studio must have felt concerned.
When in doubt – start over! Again, Bumblebee doesn’t represent a clear reboot, as it really hews closer to the spinoff/prequel side of the street, but I won’t be surprised to see future Transformers efforts follow its lead.
Maybe. Despite obvious hopes that Bumblebee would reinvigorate the franchise, it didn’t soar at the box office. It took in a limp $127 million US and $459 million worldwide. Because it cost less than the last few Transformers flicks, it turned a profit, but not much of one.
Bumblebee did beat the rest of the franchise in one domain, however: critical acclaim. Of the five prior films, only one – the 2007 original – cracked 50 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. The other four ranged from 35 percent to a woeful 15 percent, and three of the five remained mired in the teens.
On the other hand, Bumblebee earned a remarkable 93 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. I didn’t think anything attached to Transformers could ever rate above 60 percent, but Bumblebee garnered raves.
I wish I could figure out why. As much as I wanted to love Bumblebee, I found it to become a fairly mediocre tale that wore too many inspirations on its sleeve to impress.
Maybe that’s part of the reason the critics liked it so much. With its 1980s setting and obvious influences from era flicks like ET the Extraterrestrial, Bumblebee plays into the wheelhouse of all the critics weaned on that period of films – and I suspect that encompasses a lot of them.
Heck, it includes me, as I spent my teens in the 1980s. I loved a lot of the movies that Bumblebee echoes, so it should’ve been right up my alley.
Something about Bumblebee just fails to click, though. At no point do I think it teeters toward the “bad movie” realm, but it lacks the real charm and excitement it needs.
In terms of story, Bumblebee bears a decided resemblance to the 2007 Transformers. Both feature teenaged protagonists who bond with Bumblebee and become part of the battle against the Decepticons.
The two films differ mainly in terms of scope and tone. Whereas Transformers opted for many more robotic characters and bigger battles, Bumblebee keeps things fairly small-scale – well, small-scale for this kind of film. After the prologue, we don’t see fights that include more than a handful of Transformers, so these feel a little more personal than the enormo-tussles of the prior films.
In addition, director Travis Knight gives Bumblebee a very different tone than what Michael Bay provided for Transformers. Whereas Bay tended toward flashy visuals and wacky comedy, Knight keeps things more grounded and natural – again, as grounded and natural as a movie about battling alien robots can be.
I suspect this served as one of the reasons critics embraced Bumblebee: it lacked the usual glib Bay feel. I genuinely think movie writers want to enjoy the Transformers series, but Bay’s style over substance filmmaking choices make it tough.
Without Bay in charge, Bumblebee can find a greater level of humanity. Actually, Bay always attempted emotion in his Transformers films, but he couldn’t pull off these choices, so the movies came packed full of cheap sentiment.
Knight manages to create a more genuine sense of emotion. He doesn’t invent any wheels, and he leans toward the Spielberg side of the street, so don’t expect subtlety, but at least Knight gives us a movie that doesn’t feel as contrived and phony as Bay’s.
Bumblebee also benefits from a lead actor who can pull off the sentiment without mawkishness. Steinfeld creates a likable teen who feels reasonably natural, and she manages to connect with Bumblebee in a believable manner.
With this variety of positives on display, why does Bumblebee leave me semi-cold? Mainly because it never really manages to form its own identity.
As I alluded earlier, Bumblebee clearly embraces its 80s influences, and it can come across like ET as directed by John Hughes. There’s a lack of real creativity on display.
In addition, the story feels vaguely coherent at best. Major plot domains go missing for long periods of time, and the whole thing never quite connects in the most logical way.
None of these factors make Bumblebee a bad movie, and as noted, it works better than any of the prior Transformers flicks. I just think it lacks the life and spark it needs to become better than average.