‘Cause I’m bringing you back to life
And I know that you’re gone, but I swear that you’re here
It’s a feeling that won’t disappear
And you’re bringing me back to life
I was looking for something that I couldn’t find
It’s a feeling you give me inside
Back To Life by Hailee Steinfeld, the film’s theme song
I will never not be a fan of Transformers. It’s a multi-faceted thing, too; not only were the toys a car, an action figure and a puzzle when other inferior brands were at best one of those things, the idea of a franchise that saw the clash of robotic titans for the fate of multiple worlds was something that was – and is – incredibly intoxicating to me.
Not only that, but the story was interpreted and reinterpreted over the years to form the beating heart of my love of all things reimagined. It’s Transformers, but they all turn into beasts! But they’re fighting over Pokémon-style little Transformers! But they’re a lowly repair crew fighting impossible odds! No matter how many times we see them come back again and again, it’s a franchise I’ll always have a spot in my heart for. It’s phenomenal. Animated, Prime and More Than Meets the Eye are absolutely fantastic works that are highly recommended.
Bottom (Marky) Marks
Let it not be overstated, then, that the live-action Transformers films were the closest I’ve ever come to losing that love. The most recent film, The Last Knight, was so overstuffed with ideas and crass humour that I need to write things out in bullet point form to process things:
- It starred Anthony Hopkins, who calls a policeman a dickhead before threatening the Prime Minister with a watch
- This watch canonically killed Hitler
- Bumblebee fought Nazis in World War 2
- We meet a World War 1-era Transformer who has “robot dementia”, played for laughs
- Merlin was friends with Transformers, and they were part of the Knights of the Round
- Excalibur was a Transformer artefact
- Stonehenge is an access point to murder Planet Earth
Look, it was shit, okay? In a franchise rife with already crazy sci fi concepts, in a universe where a sinister lieutenant turns into a tape deck, in a decades-spanning media empire whose own wiki can’t take too seriously, The Last Knight was the zenith of ludicrous bullshit, and taking my closest work friends to see it – while still fun to rag on the film – was still very embarrassing for me. My favourite thing wasn’t a laughing stock, was it?
Yes it was. It had a beginning and an end and I died for all three hours in between.
But now we have Bumblebee. And the tables have turned.
Float Like a Butterfly
Bumblebee starts with a scene animated on Cybertron, depicting the very final battle between the Autobots and Decepticons before they all leave for a new world. Optimus Prime sends Bumblebee – then known as B-127 – off to Earth, to scout out the planet and defend it from Decepticon threats.
From the very word go, this sequence is gorgeous.
The characters are actually recognisable, for one. Wheeljack, Arcee, Soundwave, Ravage, all appearing and instantly recognisable. Shockwave strides forwards and – in his classic British accent – orders the attack. It’s like an episode of the original cartoon come to life on the big screen, and honestly that it took us 10 years to properly get something like this in cinemas is incredible to me.
You might think it’s a bit hypocritical that I prefer that the G1 designs are being used here when I’m such a huge fan of reinterpretation. The truth is that the live action Transformers designs were – emphasis on were – great. I loved the giant, muscular-looking Prime design and a green Ratchet. Reading that the film’s staff were seriously thinking about things like scale – which led to things like Starscream having more gorilla-like proportions because, well, planes are enormous, were interesting alterations that made sense to give a more grounded science fiction atmosphere.
But towards the end of the original films’ run, it increasingly became clear that newer characters were not actually reinterpretations, but were in fact just completely new characters with the classic names slapped on. Hot Rod, almost indelibly a brash red robot with a bright future – is now inexplicably a black and orange time-controlling warrior who speaks in a French accent. Basically the only aspect of the character that was preserved was his name.
So not only are the robots here recognisable as their classic selves, they are still lovingly redesigned for the film, featuring complex mechanical parts but still the large, chunky boys and girls we all remember. It’s the best of both worlds, and it is wonderful.
Puttin’ on the Blitz
Bumblebee crashes down to Earth, and immediately gets into a confrontation with a Sector 7 training party before encountering Blitzwing, a huge Decepticon lieutenant who makes a huge impact in his limited screentime:
Bumblebee: “I’ll never talk!”
Blitzwing: “Hmm. Then let’s make it official.”
*Blitzwing tears out Bumblebee’s voice box*
Traditionally Megatron is the one to have done this in film canon, so this is the first clue we have that while this film has numerous ties to the previous live-action entries, it’s something entirely fresh and new. As Bumblebee, gravely wounded from his battle, enters emergency stasis lock – his memory circuits fading – he scans a nearby VW Beetle.
Blitzwing himself breaks the mold I mentioned above, looking for all the world like G1 Starscream, right down to the head shape and his red and white colours when Blitz is historically purple and beige. Since the only other Decepticons who appear in the movie are original characters, that makes him the singular exception to the authentic redesigns that exemplify this movie.
It feels a lot like a holdover from the film explicitly being a reboot, with a last-second name swap to preserve the old movies’ canon in the event of having to tie things back in. He goes unnamed in the film itself, so the jury’s out on who he’s really supposed to be. Perhaps if we have more entries in this new franchise, we can retcon this dude into Starscream like “Devastator” became Brawl in the 2007 original.
Sting Like a Bee
We’re then introduced to Charlie Watson, recently-turned-18 grease monkey played by Hailee Steinfeld. Charlie is such a breath of fresh air as a character; she’s resourceful, intelligent and determined, and totally oppressed under a seriously dysfunctional family that’s trying their best to move on after the loss of her father while Charlie herself is stuck in an emotional rut.
And then she encounters a small Volkswagen Beetle which she fixes up and drives home, before scooting underneath to take a look at some components before finding a robot head…
You hear that? They actually made a kibble joke! It’s almost like this movie has awareness of the franchise or something.
Charlie – and her friend Memo who joins the party shortly afterwards – are the sort of human characters we need in Transformers. Gone are the Shia LaBeoufs and the Megan Foxes who have basically no agency of their own. These characters make actual decisions, use their talents, and leave the soulful impact on the Transformers that forms a huge part of the mythos. There are more than a few pangs of The Iron Giant here – including a scene that is basically lifted wholesale from the latter movie’s script – and it all has so much energy to it.
You Got the Touch
This film has heart. No, actually, it’s got spark. Gone are the complicated overblown casts and budgets of the previous films. This is a strong, character-driven piece, with a named cast you can count on your hands.
There’s a strong feeling I get that this film has been as much inspired by Transformers Animated as it was G1. Specifically its lesson that less is more – battles matter when they’re between significant characters. One combatant is more emotionally resonant than a thousand.
Shatter and Dropkick, the two new Decepticons introduced into this film, exemplify this more than any other. They’re intimidating. They have real chemistry with each other, recognisably cold and calculating and hot-headed and violent respectively. And yes, there are only two of them. Megatron himself takes a serious back seat to the affairs, existing only as a greater threat, an impossible destroyer.
Because that’s the kind of scope that Bumblebee needs to have – he’s only a scout, so two no-name Decepticons are more than enough of a world-ending threat for him.
Bumblebee is the Transformers film I’ve always wanted. With the stellar IDW comics coming to an end, we get a movie that refreshes the franchise’s – and arguably cinema itself’s – worst product into something that’s filled to the brim with action, character, laugh-out-loud jokes and Transformers references galore.
Its Rotten Tomatoes score is, at the time of writing, 93% – which, as if to prove this, is more than the scores for Revenge of the Fallen (19%), Dark of the Moon (35%), Age of Extinction (18%) and The Last Knight (15%). COMBINED.
The sting is back in the tail.