As has been reported, what we're watching with BumbleBee is a franchise in the process of making a much-needed, sorely overdue three-point turn. Under the direction of Michael Bay, the Transformers movies became bywords for the long, loud and leery, deploying a set of boys' toys as prime opportunity for a form of cinematic willywaggling. These films came at us every other summer with talk of the biggest budgets and explosions, and the most extravagant waste of talent, and still people kept signing up for them; the rationale was apparently that so long as there was money in it, there was no reason not to keep going big. That trend may have exhausted itself with 2017's The Last Knight, the first entry in the series to recoup less than its mammoth budget on home soil, and so - by way of a Christmas miracle, and with a hint certain social-media hashtags have penetrated Bay HQ - the series has now been turned over to the fairer sex. BumbleBee finds screenwriter Christina Hodson coming up with a pared-down (sub-two hour) prequel, in which a solitary indie chick (Hailee Steinfeld) gains a new friend and adventures besides after taking possession of a battered mustard-yellow Beetle - the resting appearance, devotees will already know, of the heroic Autobot sent to Earth to establish a base in the fight against the Decepticons.
What follows is a very canny throwback to what our family movies were in the days before giganticism became the dominant aesthetic, and a reminder that one of the series' executive producers - and a silent partner until now - has been one Mr. S. Spielberg. Hodson sets the film in 1987 (around the time of the Transformers cartoons) and sets out a copperbottomed plot (plucky kid meets otherworldly creature) which did for everything from E.T. to Mac and Me in this decade, then chromes it with period detail. Having been restored to his former glory, a sentient BumbleBee watches The Breakfast Club in the Steinfeld family garage; that repairs montage is set to no less a tune than Steve Winwood's "Higher Love". We've been through so much with this franchise that you could easily accuse BumbleBee of a certain cynicism: hey, the film asks, would like a Transformers movie if it featured Pop Tarts and had the Smiths on the soundtrack? Somewhere in that question, you spy a certain level of pandering towards a demographic that has long grown out of these films and these toys - or who never gravitated towards the phenomenon in the first place. There may, in fact, be no evading the fact BumbleBee is still a Transformers movie, reliant for its success on an audience investing in the fate of nuts and bolts that aren't even nuts and bolts, rather an ever-shifting conglomeration of pixels. The funny thing is: this time, we do.
BumbleBee is now showing in cinemas nationwide.