For anyone dreading another Michael Bay explosion-fest, don’t worry. Other than a brief opening battle sequence, Bumblebee is mercifully free of the military porn that defined the five previous movies in the Transformers film franchise and, with a PG rating, follows a more family-friendly format. Set in 1987, Bumblebee follows the title character (briefly voiced by Dylan O’Brien) as he’s sent by Optimus Prime (voiced by Peter Cullen) on a secret mission to Earth. There, Bumblebee goes into hiding from the military and the Decepticons by taking the form of a VW Beetle.
Meanwhile, a teenager named Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld) is saving up to buy parts for her first car. When she discovers the Beetle in a junkyard, she takes it home, not realizing it’s a robot in disguise.
Josh: The opening was the obligatory cool robots fighting each other battle scene and I felt like I was watching a Saturday morning Transformers cartoon. It wasn’t trying to be some gritty war movie with kids’ toys. I thought it set the tone really well as more of a fun movie.
Arley: The images and scenarios are drawn more directly from the original cartoons. The opening brought me back to that old school Transformers animated movie. The previous Michael Bay Transformers movies were trying to be so slick and modern, with all the noises they make, that it’s such a disconnect from the cartoon. This one — it connects even with the soundtrack. The first half was full of those fun pop hits.
Josh: This was The Love Bug plus The Iron Giant plus like Short Circuit. Totally an ’80s movie, from the setting, to the music, to the cars, and even the basic plot structure. Understandable, because Transformers are ’80s toys.
Arley: I think it’s cool that the franchise has developed all the way to this movie, from being a vehicle to sell toys. As far as Transformers movies go, this is easily the best one, which isn’t saying a lot. But even without the other movies, this is still a pretty good movie in its own right — as kind of a superhero action movie.
Josh: This is also a family movie, and kids aren’t going to get any of the ’80s references, so it’s providing a lot of fun things for parents and older audiences to appreciate at the same time that kids are like, “Ooo, cool! A giant robot that changes into a muscle car that changes into a jet!” (Which was kind of my reaction, too.)
Arley: Well, I’ll remind you that the little kids in the theater kept going, “OOO BUMBLEBEE!” because he has this cute face.
Josh: Lots of appeal on a lot of levels. Which is hard to balance and I think this movie did that really well.
One of the best aspects of the film is its characters, and the mostly strong performances that bring them across. Equal time is spent on the human side of the story as on the CGI robots, giving well-rounded backstories and development arcs.
Josh: Charlie was a great protagonist: she was competent, cute, sassy, smart. She had a lot of different skills that came into play later in the movie, and they were set up far enough in advance to not feel cheap. They were earned and they were relevant to her backstory. Her motivation was clear the entire movie. There wasn’t any time where I stopped and asked, “Wait, why is she acting this way?” Her character development was given to the audience without being heavy-handed.
Arley: I agree with everything you said, but there’s this element with her relationship with her mom (Pamela Adlon), a kind of tension that I felt was kind of trite and kind of a tactic to win the teen vote. I’m not saying it was terrible I’m just saying it was obvious.
Josh: I found it believable. I’ve known girls like that. With relationships like that. It was maybe a chance to give her a little bit of rebel spirit without becoming an unsympathetic brat. And I like the actress who plays her mom. I’ve seen her in Californication and she’s the voice of Bobby from King of the Hill, which are two completely different characters so it’s always amusing to see what she’s doing next.
Arley: I think she did a solid job in her role. Even though her moments were all kind of expected, she committed to them well. I could get lost in her role of being stuck between the life she wants with this new dude and dealing with her kid acting out and not understanding. I felt bad for her. I actually felt more bad for her than I did for Charlie —
Josh: Cause you’re an adult.
Arley: — and I think that speaks well to the way she played her role. She sold her case to me. I bought into her struggle.
Josh: I think this speaks to the scale of this movie. The “big action” scenes in this are smaller threats to the family, to the house, to the car. Not, “The aliens are blowing up Chicago!”
Charlie is dealing with the grief of losing her father while the rest of her family — her mother, her brother Otis (Jason Drucker), and stepfather Ron (Stephen Schneider) — seemed to have moved on without her. The only person she can share her secrets with is her neighbor, Memo (Jorge Lendeborg, Jr.).
Josh: I liked him. He was nerdy — he had space shuttle posters. I think the official term is “adorkable.” I mean, they were both kind of dorks but he was very earnest.
Arley: They had the obligatory romantic subplot.
Josh: Charlie wasn’t following it. She didn’t even notice that a romance was happening ’cause she was so distracted by everything else that was going on, which MAKES SENSE.
Arley: He was a non-aggressive, non-dominating, male romantic figure. His character arc has two prongs: one is he wants to get noticed by her, which he eventually does. The other is that he wants to be more of a hero, which he feels like he does at the end. Even though he doesn’t really do much, his character feels like he accomplishes something, which is good. He was a good, likeable character.
In a Transformers movie, of course, many of the characters are cartoonish. Living action figure John Cena plays the typical military man, Agent Burns, who does what is expected of the role in these movies. Cena is, himself, following the same kind of muscle guy career arc as other professional wrestlers and bodybuilders — Arnold, or the Rock, for example — who start with wordless action roles (often as the bad guy), then move into comedy, then aim for more serious, leading roles. In an interview about Bumblebee, Cena said he always wanted to play a conflicted character, but Agent Burns still lacks the depth that many of the other characters have.
While Charlie deals with her family problems and lack of social status, the Decepticons land on Earth to hunt down Bumblebee and find the location of Optimus Prime. They are relentless, Terminator style; they transform from muscle cars to military aircraft; and they pop humans like water balloons. There were only two, which seemed an appropriate scale of response, but even just two of them forced Bumblebee to get creative in order to defeat them because he was outmatched.
Josh: I guess we have to talk about Bumblebee, cause he’s a character, too. I don’t really have anything to say about him. He’s more of a prop for the human characters to bounce off of, especially because he’s voiceless.
Arley: He does have a bit of an arc, though. He’s given a responsibility, rendered powerless, then finds his strength and voice again. Pretty simple, but it worked fine. It’s solid enough. They did what they set out to do, and they did it well. No surprises in that arc.
Josh: It’s not too cheesy.
Arley: Which is saying something.
Josh: There’s a lot of good writing going on here. I like how they keep the freakout of discovering a giant robot to like twenty seconds max instead of dwelling on all the possible reactions and emotions. Trust your audience to go along with you if you continue on with the story. The movie gave Charlie’s background info quickly and efficiently, like when she touches the picture of her dad in the morning, you know in a fraction of a second that he’s dead and she misses him.
Arley: It’s a mix of bad and good writing. There are a lot of coincidental or random events that happened as major plot points, like the power surge, Bumblebee’s memory loss, and him hiding in the junkyard where Charlie conveniently finds him.
Josh: It’s like there are two different movies being mashed together: the story of Charlie and all her blah blah blah which was good writing, and then the story of Bumblebee and his blah blah blah which is convenient writing, with plotholes where the two storylines don’t quite mesh.
Arley: The bullying subplot was trite, unnecessary, and could have been edited out.
Josh: The fact that you’re nitpicking that level of detail in a Transformers movie I think speaks to the overall quality of this film. In any of the other ones, you wouldn’t be able to notice a slight dip in the writing because everything is such a whirlwind of nonsense. Holding it to a different standard. To the standard of an actual movie.
Arley: I liked the animation. Gregory Norman Bossert.
Josh: Directed by Travis Knight who did the excellent Kubo and the Two Strings.
Written by: Christina Hodson
Starring: Hailee Steinfeld, Jorge Lendeborg, Jr., John Cena, Jason Drucker, Pamela Adlon, Stephen Schneider, Ricardo Hoyos, John Ortiz, Glynn Turman & Len Cariou, with the voices of Dylan O’Brien, Peter Cullen, Angela Bassett & Justin Theroux.
ARLEY SORG, Associate Editor, grew up in England, Hawaii, and Colorado. He studied Asian Religions at Pitzer College. He lives in Oakland, and usually writes in local coffee shops. A 2014 Odyssey Writing Workshop graduate, he is soldering together a novel, has thrown a few short stories into orbit, and hopes to launch more.
JOSH PEARCE, Assistant Editor, started working at Locus in 2016. He studied creative writing at SFSU and has sold short stories and poems to a variety of speculative fiction magazines. Born and raised in the Bay Area, he currently lives in the East Bay with his wife and son and spends way too much time on Twitter: @fictionaljosh. One time, Ken Jennings signed his chest.
While you are here, please take a moment to support Locus with a one-time or recurring donation. We rely on reader donations to keep the magazine and site going, and would like to keep the site paywall free, but WE NEED YOUR FINANCIAL SUPPORT to continue quality coverage of the science fiction and fantasy field.
©Locus Magazine. Copyrighted material may not be republished without permission of LSFF.