Just when you thought the “Transformers” saga was over (hence the title of 2017’s “The Last Knight”), Paramount decides to jump back in. “Bumblebee” is a spinoff – and prequel – to Michael Bay’s clank on clank, toy inspired action franchise.
This time, the director is Travis Knight. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because he’s the Laika Animation CEO who directed 2016’s masterful stop-motion animated epic “Kubo and the Two Strings”. Knight’s decision to transition to live-action – and specifically this project – is not transformative, but it sure is baffling.
Hailee Steinfeld stars as Charlie, a high school senior and aspiring mechanic. She’s still mourning the loss of her dad, who died of a heart attack a few years earlier. Her mom has moved on with a new man. On Charlie’s 18th birthday, the owner of the junk yard where she gets spare parts gives Charlie a rusty old yellow Volkswagen Beetle that mysteriously ended-up on his property. She soon discovers that her car is the Transformer Bumblebee. He came to Earth to set-up a base where he and the other Autobots can plan their counter-attack against the evil Decepticons.
The two become fast friends – and the rest of “Bumblebee” consists of Charlie protecting “Bee” and “Bee” protecting Charlie against both the Decepticons who come to Earth and the US military forces, led by John Cena’s Agent Burns.
This movie is as dull and unnecessary as it sounds. The screenplay, by “Unforgettable”’s Christina Hodson, is basically “ET” in the “Transformers” universe. Just call it “Bee-ET”.
Being a prequel, it’s set in 1987, and so Hodson force-feeds tons of 80s pop culture references into the story, from “ALF” to “Mr. T” to “Miami Vice”, along with over a dozen songs from that era. Intended to be amusing, they are not.
Only 21, Steinfeld has established herself as a quality actress. But here, it’s as if she’s stranded in the middle of an ocean with no life preserver. She has to carry “Bumblebee” on her shoulders, since at least half of the scenes in this movie consist of her talking to the robot (and they go nowhere). And the interactions with family members and a next-door neighbor are at the bad sitcom level.
Cena has a long way to go to match the on-screen success of his fellow WWE wrestler (turned blockbuster movie star), Dwayne Johnson. Here he delivers plenty of low-brow, corny one-liners. But he’s not the only one. It seems that everyone is this small SoCal town has a comedy writer. None of them are good at it.
As for the Transformer moments in “Bubblebee” – they are few and far between. There’s a opening battle and a climactic battle, but hardly any “metal on metal” action in between. On one hand this is a blessing, except for the fact that the alternative – endless scenes of hijinks between this teen girl and iron giant – are equally intolerable.
Like most of Bay’s “Transformers” installments, I could’ve easily walked out of “Bumblebee” midway through with no regrets. Here’s hoping you don’t get stung.