Over five – five – movies The Transformers series became a trifle dense. Although the series, based on a line of children’s toys, in no way demanded convoluted mythology or po-faced darkness, its makers foisted them on it anyway, over running times that came aggressively close to three hours. The idea of a spin-off movie is faintly exhausting, threatening to add whole new strings of complication. ‘Bumblebee’, though, is the best thing that has ever happened to the franchise. It’s exactly what a Transformers movie should be: funny, action-packed and under two hours.
This is a ‘soft reboot’, meaning it is still technically connected to the rest of the series but basically ignores it. It does so by setting the story in 1987. The Autobots and Decepticons are locked in battle on Cybertron (if you don’t know what any of that means, this may not be for you). Head Autobot Optimus Prime sends his best soldier, B-1287, off to Earth to escape the Decepticons and wait for the rest of his crew. When he lands on Earth, B-1287 gets in a fight with a persistent Decepticon, loses his voice box and memory and transforms into a yellow VW Beetle, before powering down and lying dormant in a junkyard. He’s found in that junkyard by Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld), a lonely 18-year-old who misses her dead dad and continues his passion for repairing cars. Christening her new car Bumblebee, Charlie discovers he’s more than an old banger and together they begin an adventure to save the world.
The 1980s setting is very deliberate, giving the film the opportunity to step hard on the nostalgia pedal, aiming for something like the early films of Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis. It’s a world where kids and aliens become firm friends, governments form dastardly, but stupid, plans, and almost nobody gets really hurt. Director Travis Knight (‘Kubo and the Two Strings’) has absolutely nailed the tone, neatly meshing the small-town quaintness of Charlie’s hometown with the infinite possibilities of alien arrival, and making Bumblebee an ET-esque innocent, albeit one that weighs several tons. He gets spirited performances from Steinfeld and Jorge David Lendeborg Jr. as Memo, the geek next door who fancies Charlie from afar, then from a bit closer. John Cena is self-mocking as a cartoonish military baddie. It tells its story with brisk simplicity, never tempted to make it more complex than ‘good guys vs. bad guys’. The action sequences, featuring truly extraordinary CGI, have a sense of excitement that Michael Bay’s in the previous films never really did. He created a lot of spectacle but it was quite cold and heavy. Knight’s sequences are full of jokey detail and creative zip.
Knight has made, on a much smaller budget, the best Transformers movie so far. And it’s not even a close contest. It’s made to be seen by a young audience, but if you’re old enough to remember bashing heroic plastic trucks into evil airplanes, this will bring that same feeling of simple joy rushing back.