The resilient Transformers series gets its first “universe”-expanding spin-off with the prequel film Bumblebee. After bringing his distinctive audiovisual overload to five straight Transformers films, Michael Bay turns over directing duties to Travis Knight, and the difference shows: Bumblebee is less aggressively macho, more woman-friendly, and more spatially coherent than any Transformers film before it. But in moving away from the paroxysms of Bay’s dissociative style, the series loses the very thing that most defined it.
Bumblebee is set in the 1980s, which makes almost too much metatextual sense, given that the period represents the Transformers franchise’s original heyday. On the mechanical planet of Cybertron, the Autobots have been defeated by the Decepticons. As the Autobots retreat, their leader, Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen), sends his loyal soldier B-127 (Dylan O’Brien) to the secluded planet of Earth to prepare for the group’s reassembly.
Arrived on Earth but stricken with the mechanical equivalent of amnesia and disguised as a VW Beetle, B-127 is discovered in an auto yard by Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld), a moody teenaged gearhead who redubs the robot Bumblebee. Charlie quickly bonds with Bumblebee, who’s been rendered mute by an encounter with the Decepticons, seeing in him something like a surrogate for the father she recently lost to a sudden heart attack.
The plot is nothing if not familiar—Charlie discovers a hologram SOS from Optimus stored in Bumblebee’s chest, Star Wars-style, and hides the confused, childlike alien from her mother (Pamela Adlon), E.T.-style—but in a departure from the Transformers mold, the story here is relatively modest, told with what counts as restraint. The regularly paced action sequences we might expect of a PG-13 blockbuster are small-scale affairs rooted in Charlie’s life as an awkward teen. Knight mostly saves the explosions for the climax, as Charlie and Bumblebee defend each other against the two Decepticons (Angela Bassett and Justin Theroux) who’ve tracked B-127 down.
Certain elements carried over from the wider Transformers universe nevertheless work against the film’s cultivation of a sincere tone. The way every character articulates both the make and model of Bumblebee’s car form—it’s a “VW Beetle,” never a Bug—brings back into view the corporate synergy that’s the sine qua non of a multimedia brand based on a line of toys and used to advertise cars. There’s also an ultimately unnecessary B plot focused on a secret service agent named Burns (John Cena) and his mistaken pursuit of Bumblebee as a hostile alien—a plot which, in its overtly anti-intellectual, hawkish themes, is a carryover of the series’s unapologetic militarism.
Despite these flaws, Bumblebee is nearly successful at crafting a coming-of-age tale in the vein of the ’80s-era teen adventure films to which it’s clearly indebted. It makes good on at least some of the sins of a series that’s been all about, on the one hand, transforming commodity fetishes into embodiments of epic morality and, on the other, transforming human women into commodity fetishes. But it also exudes some of the tediousness of a reformed sinner who decries hedonism, trying hard to convince us that it now believes in something. Better than Bay ever could, Bumblebee finds space for real human emotion in a world dominated by sentient corporate logos, and while this rediscovery of the human in the machine makes the film easier to watch than its precursors, one may wonder if that actually makes it better.