The Transformers film series has been divisive at best, maligned and reviled at worst. While the first one was mostly liked if not praised, the sequels have devolved into over-complicated, under-developed, explosion-vehicles. Some still love going to the cinema and just seeing explosions and metal twisting robots duke it out, but there was always a subset of fans who wanted more. Luckily for them, Director Travis Knight appears to be one of them and he got to helm the first spin-off prequel to the series, Bumblebee. And he knocked it out of the park!
No-one is going to confuse this movie with high art, but it is a fun, family-friendly action movie that pays much more faithful homage to the titular toys than ever seen before. We're going to go through the ways that this movie stepped up the series expectations and quality. We're also going to give the main series its due in a couple of ways because it wasn't 100% all bad. Roll out!
10 Better - Charlie & Bumblebee
When it comes to main characters in these movies we'd prefer it to be the actual Transformers and this is the closest we've gotten to that yet, but Hailee Seinfeld's Charlie is leagues ahead of her predecessors. Charlie is earnest, likable, funny, and relatable. She's almost got a Disney princess 'I want more' song ready to burst out of her. Her relationship with Bumblebee carries the entire movie with their adorable interactions. Bumblebee's struggles without his voice mean he communicates exclusively with physicality and it is ultra-endearing throughout. Back to Charlie, she not only brings plenty to the table but leaves off so much of what didn't work about Sam and Cade. She's not stammering, frantic, whisper-yelling, or oddly shiny. All in all, the glue that carries this whole prequel with their personality, story, and chemistry.
9 Better - Classic Transformer Designs
It's a major visual element that's finally been addressed. The Transformers looked like jumbled messes in the main entries. They were hard to distinguish between unless they were standing in a line taking turns to spout bad dialogue. The twin-terrors in Revenge of the Fallen were a particular low-point. But now we finally get to see the glory of the G1 designs on the big screen. Anyone who grew up with those versions was bombarded with joy upon joy just seeing those awesome, distinctive, dare I say iconic, versions of the Transformers. They may not all have gotten lines. They may have been wiped out in numbers that put The Transformers Movie to shame. But they looked awesome, unique, and unforgettably badass.
8 Better - John Cena - Agent Burns
Exactly what this series needed, the fake marine to bring some humor to the overbearing military characters of the main series. John Cena's character is hilarious. Every cliche out of his mouth is delivered with just the right amount of cheese to keep it fun. He moves and acts like an 80's cartoon which is what this series badly needed. John Turturro may be an acting legend but whatever he was getting told to do in the other movies was beyond insane and rarely funny. Somehow, John Cena is the superior John in this case.
7 Better - You've Got The Touch - 80's Setting & Music
Whether for nostalgia purposes or because the main series was so far off the tracks they had no other option, returning to the '80s helped in a bunch of ways. The music in this latest installment is easily the biggest beneficiary, giving the best music in the series so far.
Bumblebee's now trademark radio-voice lets the movie drop great 80's tracks one after the other, but they don't rely on that avenue. 'The Touch', 'Everybody Wants To Rule The World', 'Don't You Forget About Me', 'Higher Love', 'Take On Me', the parade of hits goes on and on. Even Hailee Steinfeld's contribution 'Back To Life' fits in really well.
6 Worse Bad Guys - Dropkick & Shatter
The main series does have a big metal leg-up when it comes to their antagonists. The best Bumblebee does is tease us with mere glimpses of Starscream, Soundwave, Shockwave, Thundercracker, and Skywarp (Decepticons have the coolest names). What we actually get are two new, not-named-onscreen Decepticons the credits tell us were Dropkick and Shatter. Meanwhile, the main series got Megatron, Devastator, Sentinal Prime (Leonard Nimoy-bot), and the ridiculously awesomely named Nitro Zeus. It's pretty much a no-contest in this category. Point to the main series.
5 Better - References Galore
Where the main series' movies punish your eyes for trying to make out details, Bumblebee rewards you. There are a bunch of Easter eggs, references, and little nods that enrich the entire experience. At the beginning on Cybertron, you see familiar Autobots and Decepticons in all their G1 glory, but there's more. Blink and you'll miss Teletraan 1 from the original cartoon. Charlie wears a BFG labeled jumpsuit, referencing the Roald Dahl story with a similar premise. Bumblebee's raised fist in response to Agent Burns' salute, clearly from his watching of The Breakfast Club, is also an homage to Judd Nelson, who played Rodimus Prime on The Transformers Movie. There's a bunch of little nods to series executive producer and directing legend Steven Spielberg. It goes on and on and makes the film very re-watchable.
4 Better - Waaaay Better Comic Relief
Considering how viscerally annoying the Witwicky and Yeager families were it's downright amazing how pleasantly surprising Charlie's family and friends are. Pamala Adlon is a comic savant and plays her mother Sally with alternately frazzled and then easy warmth. Steven Schneider as her step-dad isn't an unlikable cliche but a well-meaning goof. Her little brother Otis, her budding boyfriend Memo, and her uncle Hank all get genuine, multiple laughs throughout. Not just that, but they've lost the mean-spirited edge seen in the Bay movies and it injects a whole other level of enjoyment to the entire film. An unsung, heroic element.
3 Better - Under 2 Hours
Is that your rear and legs thanking you for the return of blood flow? It is! This installment clocks in at a very watchable 114 minutes. That's way down on the series average.
It also means that if you shave off the credits it is much closer to a regular length family-action movie and that limits the bloat and filler the other movies have become mired by. There's something to be said for brevity and in this case, any longer would've been too long. This might be the first Transformers movie to leave us wanting more rather than exhausted with the whole deal.
2 Better - Action Not Disguised
Being able to see the action is surprisingly beneficial for an action movie series. It's been said in many places but the main series can be hard to watch at the best of times. Between every robot becoming a churning mess of cogs and the color gray and the camera being too close to get a good scope of the action, they weren't exactly cinematographic masterpieces. Director Travis Night clearly took lessons on what worked and didn't and presents the action here in far better scale and framing. You can actually follow and describe an entire sequence if you want to. It's not as frantic if that's your thing, but it is better composed by any reasonable measure.
1 Worse - Lessplosions
Maybe the movie is better for it, but there still felt like a missing quota of explosions in this entry. The main series is nothing if not explosive, literally and figuratively, with barely any time passing between blasts after the first act. This is the lowest budgeted entry in the entire franchise and it shows with the restraint insofar as fiery balls of destruction go. That doesn't mean there are no huge eruptions to enjoy, but if that's the only thing you liked in the original series, coming here looking for more might leave you in the cold.