is the live action Transformers
movie I have been waiting to see since 2007. After the five previous Michael Bay-directed entries emphasized sex, racism and low brow jokes, here is a movie that goes right to the heart of the story, has a gentle sense of humor, and likable characters. Bay gave us preposterous world-shaking stakes, as well as clunky and jerky giant robot battles that never seemed to end. This latest film is quieter and gentler, but still able to deliver on action and thrills. In other words, this is the direction these films should have been going in since the beginning.
Michael Bay is still attached as a producer, but director Travis Knight (Kubo and the Two Strings
) and screenwriter Christina Hodson (Unforgettable
) have wisely pretty much tossed the entire saga up to now aside, and started fresh. This is essentially a prequel film, allowing the filmmakers to strike out on their own. And rather than focus on a wide variety of giant robots, and their eternal struggle, the movie decides to focus on just one little alien robot outcast, and his relationship with a human teenage girl who feels like an outcast in her own society. Yes, we've seen this plot before in movies like E.T.
and The Iron Giant
, but it works within the universe of these characters. This is a more personal and intimate movie, or at least as personal and as intimate as you can get when one of your main characters is a towering robot who changes into a 1967 Volkswagen Beetle. It's also leaner and much more tightly edited, running at just under two hours. Considering the last few movies were pushing three hours, this is almost like a gift from the Heavens.
The movie kicks off in a familiar fashion for these movies, with a massive battle being raged between the heroic Autobots and the evil Decepticons for control of the planet Cybertron. The Autubots are being forced to pull back, and their noble leader Optimus Prime (voice by Peter Cullen) orders his troops to escape and regroup at a later time. One of Prime's soldiers, a little yellow robot named B-127, is sent to Earth to scout the planet, and contact his fellow Autobots once he feels it is safe for them. The robot lands on our world, and has the extreme misfortune of running into some military soldiers led by the suspicious Agent Burns (John Cena), who immediately sees the alien visitor as a threat. His troubles continue when two Decepticons, Shatter (voice by Angela Bassett) and Dropkick (voice by Justin Theroux), follow him to Earth and try to destroy him before he can complete his mission, and wind up destroying his electronic voice box, so he can no longer speak.
The frightened robot is forced to go into hiding, passing himself off as a junked car, until he is discovered by the tomboyish Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld), who has a passion for fixing cars, and doesn't fit in with the teenage crowd at her school. Charlie finds the robot in the form of a Volkswagen Beetle, fixes him up, and quickly learns his secret when he is forced to reveal his identity in front of her. She names him Bumblebee, and the two bond over the fact that they are both outcasts. She teaches him how to use radio signals and music to express what he's feeling, since he can't talk, and he in turn teaches her how to overcome the pain of losing her beloved father a few years ago, and to move on with her life. If this all sounds cheesy (or possibly insane), it is, but the way the movie handles the material is kind of sweet, and it ropes you in with a knowing sense of humor and a surprising amount of heart.
is set in 1987, and it constantly likes to remind you of that fact. There is of course the soundtrack, made up of popular hits from the era, as well as the numerous references to The Breakfast Club
, and Mr. T cereal. This is all pretty stock, as is the plot itself, which asks the question of can a machine designed for war learn to love and respect life? I assume anyone who has seen the aforementioned The Iron Giant
already knows the answer to this question, but the movie gets a lot of support from the lead performance by Hailee Steinfeld, and the relationship that she builds with the CG robot. Steinfeld has long been one of our most talented young actresses, since she came into the spotlight with 2010's True Grit
. But here, she shows an uncanny ability to create a realistic and heartfelt performance when a majority of her scenes are spent talking to something that wasn't there on the set. She is constantly believable, likable, and creates a much more genuine human lead than we usually see in Transformers
Even the lead robot is much more sympathetic than we expect. Bumblebee is a funny and adorable reluctant hero, and the movie seems to share his view that it would be much better to play on the beach or explore a forest than to engage in explosive Sci-Fi battles. As I mentioned, this is a much quieter film that wants to explore the building relationship between this unlikely pair. But, when it's time for the special effects to completely take over, the movie is equally strong, featuring cleanly edited battles that are easy to follow. And because this movie actually bothers to create emotional stakes for these battles (a first for the franchise), we find ourselves actually caring about Bumblebee as he blasts at Decepticons and tries to keep Charlie safe. Am I saying that this is a deep or powerful movie? Certainly not. But, when Bumblebee snatches Charlie up into his arms, and runs away from danger to protect her, it actually manages to have an impact on the viewer.
has a lot of inspirations, and it's easy to spot them, as the movie does little to hide the fact that this is essentially one big nostalgic 80s movie. But the filmmakers know better than just to fall back on familiar names or references, and gives the film an actual heart and knowing sense of humor. My only wish is that future films in the series use this as their template, and that jaded fans who felt bilked by the earlier movies will give this one a chance. I understand if you're suspicious. So was I. But I walked out pleasantly surprised.