|Hailee Steinfeld in BUMBLEBEE (Paramount Pictures (c), photo by Enrique Chediak)
★ ★ ★ ½ ☆
Well, here’s a Christmas miracle: after a decade of increasingly puerile heartlessness, the Bay/Spielberg Transformers franchise finds a heart. Hailee Steinfeld leads this 80s-set prequel as Charlie, a budding mechanic who discovers the titular robot in a junkyard. Disguised as a rusty Volkswagen Beetle, ‘Bee’ is on the run from a war on his home planet, Cyberton, and tasked by resistance leader, Optimus Prime, with finding the freedom-fighting Autobots a new home.
Though placed chronologically before Michael Bay’s own efforts, this serves as a soft reboot/retelling of the 2007 original, with Steinfeld taking up the Shia LaBoeuf role (albeit with a total absence of masturbation jokes). Charlie is a far more sympathetic character, however, and allowed more motivation than Sam Witwicky’s simple quest to get laid. A once promising diver, she’s retired to the garage, obsessed with a broken corvette that she and her recently-deceased father used to cherish.
Steinfeld brings lovable wide-eyed wonder to Charlie, providing not only this franchise’s first fully-rounded character, but one which young audiences can admire and sympathise with (her mother fusses needlessly, her stepfather is embarrassing, her brother steals their affections, and so on). When she sees Bee metamorphose from motor to mech for the first time, her closely-guarded sadness begins to transform (sorry) into something much closer to hope. One immediately feels echoes of E.T. and The Iron Giant which continue to emerge as the two form a delightful double act.
Christina Hodson sneaks more than one fish-out-of-water cliché into the screenplay, but that crucial presence of genuine pathos sets this prequel light years beyond what we’ve come to expect. The scenes of Bee attempting to navigate the family living room or learning to hide in plain sight are gems of physical comedy, and all based in the burgeoning emotional bond between teen and titan. Even John Cena (carving a great slice of ham in the undemanding role of ‘generic special forces man’) is gifted a neat moment of empathy.
Perhaps more surprising still are the scenes of robo-rough-and-tumble. Director Travis Knight – whose last film was the wonderful animation Kubo and the Two Strings – knows how to make proper use of space in an action sequence, electing to pull the camera back and slow down the editing pace. A hectic opening skirmish on the robot homeworld – a landscape not short on spikes, girders, and other untidy metalwork – is still more tangible than anything glimpsed in the series thus far (a relief to those fearing the scrap metal orgies of episodes past). Our combatants have also been reduced in number by a factor of ten, and redesigned to more closely resemble the iconic action figures.
Painted in bright, primary colours, their retreat to the crash-bang-wallop of child’s play is symbolic of what this franchise should have been from the start. The heroes are heroic, the villains are villainous, the music is a joyful 80s mixtape, and at no point does Optimus Prime turn into a murderous zealot. Rejoice!
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