Bumblebee: Transformers spin-off has heart and – gasp – feminism

Review: Travis Knight has made one of the most pleasant surprises of the movie year

Hailee Steinfeld in Bumblebee

Film Title: Bumblebee

Director: Travis Knight

Starring: Hailee Steinfeld, John Cena, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., John Ortiz, Jason Drucker, Pamela Adlon, Stephen Schneider, Angela Bassett

Genre: Action

Running Time: 109 min

Wed, Dec 19, 2018, 05:00

   

One of the biggest (and most pleasant) surprises of the movie year arrives as the minute hand closes in on New Year’s Day. Okay, the utter loveliness of Bumblebee is not a total shock. Travis Knight, the director, has already had a critical smash with the delightful animation Kubo and the Two Strings. The persuasive trailer allowed further opportunities for optimism. But this is still a spin-off from Michael Bay’s notorious, synapse-eradicating Transformers series. No other movie franchise has deafened and bewildered with such abandon. To deliver such a handbrake turn so late in the race requires nifty driving skills. The contrast is, you might say, like Knight and Bay. 

Travis and his team have settled on a familiar structure for their story. Bumblebee could hardly be closer to ET if, rather than serving merely as executive producer, Steven Spielberg had actually directed the thing. The excellent Hailee Steinfeld – great comic timing and a convincing teenage sulk – stars as Charlie, a troubled teenager in the Bay Area during the 1980s. She argues with her mum and her sincere stepfather. She has problems at school. She works for small change at a hot-dog stand and for smaller change at a local garage. The story properly kicks into (ahem) gear when her nice boss at the last establishment allows her to drive away a bashed-up VW Beetle on her birthday. In a funny, creepy scene, Charlie slips beneath the vehicle and finds a pair of eyes staring back at her. The car clanks itself into Bumblebee – the most adored of the Autobots – and we’re off and away.

Stubborn enthusiasts for the series will be pleased to hear that Bumblebee fills in details about the arrival of the Autobots and Decepticons to our planet. Cutting at a less frenzied pace, allowing greater lucidity than before, Knight does eventually bring us to a climactic punch up amid exploding fireballs. But the current film spends most of its time working comedy and pathos from Charlie’s engagements with those around her.

Spielberg will have thought a little about the unfortunate little girl and Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein monster when directing ET, but the latter film’s innovation was to allow the odd alien to repair everyday domestic damage. Charlie, once a talented diver, has never got over the death of her dad, and Bumblebee is here to fill a gap and point her towards healing. This stuff can land with a clunk. Happily, Knight develops the relationship gradually and balances mawkishness with irreverent humour.

Some of these jokes will strain viewers already much-tested patience for 1980s nostalgia. Nobody is holding back here. From the opening seconds, the soundtrack is alive with Reaganite hits. Veterans of the era might wonder at the eclectic nature of Charlie’s taste – she likes The Smiths and Rick Astley? – but there’s no sense that we’re going for verisimilitude. As is often the case in such retro-adventures, the characters seem to half-know they’re living in the past and they indulge themselves accordingly. What else but a John Hughes film could provide Bumblebee with clues as to how these mysterious humans communicate? It’s all played at a heightened level that allows little time for cynicism.

More than anything else, it is Steinfeld’s performance that sells the movie. She belatedly allows humanity into the series and – after the horrid objectification of female bodies in earlier episodes – hollows out some welcome feminist space.

You generally see this sort of dramatic turnaround only in sport. We wish it great prosperity in the new year.

Opens December 24th