Remember the ’80s?? E.T.? The Smiths? Stuff blowing up? It’s all here in Bumblebee, a Transformers prequel in which the conceptually confused robot/alien/bumblebee/VW Beetle (you could call it a hybrid) crash-lands on Earth and is salvaged by teenage mechanic Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld), while a pair of Decepticons (Angela Bassett and Justin Theroux) give chase with a really big net.
Bumblebee may not be the best Apoidea movie of recent years (Ant-Man and the Wasp), nor is it the worst (Jupiter Ascending). It is however the best Transformers movie by far, which is like being the best Brexit secretary in terms of how low the bar is. By avoiding racism and sexism, director Travis Knight surpasses the previous films (and Brexit secretaries) and re-contextualises how bad Michael Bay was as a director. This time the man who put the “bro” in “Hasbro” serves as producer, and you can see his grubby fingerprints all over the tacked-on robo-violence at the start and end of the film.
The overlong middle section is essentially an ’80s dog movie, where the dog is a giant robot bee. This friendship is (I can’t believe I’m saying this) competently handled, with top-tier CGI and a likeable lead (another first for the franchise) in Steinfeld. But over 2 hours these Spielbergian scenes turn from retro to rote: Bumblebee accidentally smashes up Charlie’s house while she’s at work (why doesn’t she drive him there?), joins in toilet papering her rival’s house, and helps her face her fear of diving like her father used to do, combining Spielberg’s dead dad obsession with the gymnastics bit from The Lost World.
Meanwhile the Decepticon plot is all but forgotten, until the climactic action sequence involving the obligatory electrified tower that must be stopped from doing whatever it’s doing. The stakes are unclear, but as Alfred Hitchcock said: “If it’s got robots punching each other on it then it must be important.” Throw in an awkward romantic subplot and a selection of ’80s hits (as a DJ Bumblebee gives Christine a run for her money), and Bumblebee feels closer to what the original Transformers movie should have been. It only took them 6 films but they finally got it… well, not right. But salvageable.