Hailee Steinfeld riding a moped in her cut off jean shorts, plaid shirt and rocking a series of cool heavy metal t-shirts is akin to the first time Edward Furlong traded in his wheels for a Terminator with a Harley Davidson. Sure, this Transformers spinoff is much more family friendly than James Cameron’s violent action flick with the Decepticons turning their foes into liquid and Steinfeld starring as a teenager coming-of-age in 1987 but it delivers the same chills with the film making its heroine a cool and troubled modern icon.
Screenwriter Christina Hodson (who is due to pen forthcoming DC comic adaptations Batgirl and Birds Of Prey) has written a character who teenage girls and boys may aspire to be like one day. She uses the 1980s setting to its full potential adding Spielbergian (who acts as executive producer) magic to the adventure Charlie Watson goes on when she accidentally brings home adorable transformer, B127 or Bumblebee (Dylan O’Brien) as she names him. Bumblebee has been sent to Earth by Optimus Prime to create a safe hiding place for the Transformers but after an uproarious and thrilling opening battle he loses his memory and voice. Charlie puts him back together again and he too helps her come to terms with the loss of her father. Steinfeld is thoroughly captivating and she has loads of fun in the role of a stroppy teen, arguing with her mum (Pamela Adlon) who gives it back as good as she gets. The family dynamic is wittily observed and it’s all very touching.
The junkyard setting where Charlie finds a beat-up yellow VW beetle and fixes it with her keen mechanic skills brings to mind Brad Bird’s superlative animated adventure The Iron Giant. The relationship between Watson and Bumblebee mimics that friendship dynamic, and the two are extremely protective of each other. When the gung-ho Agent Burns (John Cena doing brilliant work with outrageously aggressive dialogue and line delivery) sets on a mission to find them along with the help of the Decepticons it opens up a space for the two to team up and save the world – or Brighton Falls (the working title). Charlie is joined by a love interest in the form of an endearingly nerdy boy next door Memo (Jorge Lendeborg Jr). He’s another sweet character who adds to the charm of it all.
Director Travis Knight (Kubo And The Two Strings) does similarly great work with battle sequences and the reveal of Bumblebee, who is utterly gorgeous and gets some cute sequences as well as some exhilarating ones. Whether he’s curling up in fright, on a high-speed chase through tunnels or shielding Charlie from harm, the carefully designed detail of it all makes the visual spectacle on par with the emotional narrative.
Bumblebee uses 80s sci-fi films as a playground, not just retreading its influential path but toying with the tropes. There’s the typical Reagan loving government agent tagging the troupe but he’s given a bit more humanity and humour, the mainframe is of course accessed by the Decepticons but they have the Pentagon’s permission and amusing nods to the power of the internet and dastardly data gathering are neatly inserted. In 80s fish out of water films like Short Circuit or even Splash it’s television that helps the being to learn or find their voices, but here music is delightfully used instead. Bumblebee speaks through radio stations and Charlie’s cassette tape collection which is made up of The Smiths and Rick Astley tapes and makes the soundtrack a blast of nostalgia for parents. If there’s a sequel coming it’s more than welcome as long as they keep Steinfeld.