12:19pm PT by Richard Newby
'Bumblebee' Is Becoming the 'Transformers' Movie Few Expected
The robots in disguise are back, though this time they’re operating on a much smaller scale. Tuesday morning, Paramount Pictures rolled out the teaser trailer for the latest installment of their Transformers franchise, Bumblebee. The long-running franchise, which first began in 2007, is said to be gearing up for a shared-universe-style reboot along with several other Hasbro properties, including G.I. Joe, Micronauts, Rom, M.A.S.K. and Visionaries.
With Transformers 7 removed from Paramount’s release calendar, and a writers room assembled to transition the series away from Michael Bay’s previous entries, it would seem that Transformers is heading for a new age. But before that reboot, audiences will take what may potentially be the last ride in the current franchise. Director Travis Knight, who wowed both critics and audiences at his animation company Laika, and made his directorial debut with the Oscar-nominated Kubo and the Two Strings (2016), is entering the world of live action with a prequel to Transformers (2007).
Written by Christina Hodson, and led by Hailee Steinfeld, Bumblebee provides an opportunity for the series to move away from some of the greasy masculinity that Bay offers. While Bumblebee is clearly set within the same universe we’ve come to know, the trailer showcases a lot less Bayhem and instead offers a sense of earnestness that feels a lot more Amblin than the previous entries, on which Steven Spielberg also served as executive producer. The Transformers franchise has never been a critical darling, to put it mildly, and The Last Knight proved that the franchise’s box office wasn’t quite as impervious as it once was. But Bumblebee may give Paramount a chance to earn back some of the trust they lost with this series and tell a tale of Autobots and Decepticons worthy of continued human interest. If it goes the way the studio hopes it will, Bumblebee won’t be the last gasp in this iteration of the franchise, but a shifting of gears that allows the series to continue on, and maybe swerve away from those original five films in the process.
Regardless of where Transformers resides in terms of public opinion, there is a fair number of moviegoers that look back on Bay’s original film with nostalgia. The trailer for Bumblebee taps into that feeling by using the speech the late Bernie Mac delivered in the first movie to Shia LaBeouf’s Sam Witwicky — “The driver don’t pick the car, the car pick the driver. It’s a mystical bond between man and machine.” These lines were also used in the first full trailer for Transformers, though here, as Steinfeld’s Charlie Watson encounters Bumblebee for the first time, they are given an ethereal quality that make Mac’s used-car salesman come across as a wizardly guide. Depending on viewer mileage with the franchise, this could elicit eye rolls or it could bring back some of the emotion that made the original film connect with so many moviegoers of a certain age. Like that first film, Bumblebee is a "first-car story," and there is a kind of magical quality to that, at least by our modern consumerist leanings. Away from the constant explosions, endless cadre of comic-relief side characters and conspiracies about Transformers being part of Earth’s history for a very long time (seriously, every movie), perhaps Bumblebee can allow this property to get back to what made it so endearing as action figures and cartoon characters.
Set in the 1980s on the California coast, Bumblebee finds the titular Autobot in a younger state than he first appeared in 2007. In Transformers, he was described as a teenager, but his smaller stature, design and body language suggest a more child-like quality to the character in this film. While the Transformers movies were always supposed to be partly geared toward kids who bought the toys and watched the cartoons, there was always a bit too much of Bay’s sense of humor, auto-fluid bloodshed and unrestrained male gaze for the films to feel entirely like juvenile ventures. Positioning Bumblebee as a younger character may be a way to re-introduce younger fans to Transformers. Though older fans shouldn’t be worried, as Knight is known for creating emotional complexity and mature life-and-death stakes at Laika.
Speaking of life-and-death stakes, it wouldn’t be a Transformers film without some aspect of a shadowy government organization to put the characters through the gauntlet. John Cena portrays Burns, a Sector 7 agent, who is presumably working with John Ortiz’s character to track down the Autobots and Decepticons. If Sector 7 sounds familiar, it’s because it plays a central role in the first three Transformers movies, where it was led by John Turturro’s Agent Seymour Simmons. While Sector 7 wasn’t good for much, other than providing the necessary exposition, Burns and his field team look like they’ll provide a serious threat and may ultimately be the reason why Bumblebee is in such poor shape and separated from Charlie in the original film. While Bay positioned his films as war movies, complete with military bravado, Sector 7 might prove to have a little more restraint in this film, if only to keep the Transformers’ existence a secret. Still, the teaser points to a number of spectacle-driven action sequences, if only a little more grounded than what we’ve come to expect.
Sector 7 won’t be the only threat Charlie and Bumblebee face. The Decepticons also make their presence known by way of the villainous Starscream. While an ill-fated flunky to Megatron in Bay’s films, Starscream takes center stage as the big bad in Bumblebee. It’s also worth noting that his design here more closely resembles his original G1 depiction, as opposed to his more monstrous form in the movies. While the teaser doesn’t tell us much about how the presence of the Decepticons ties into their plot in the original film, Barricade and at least one other is listed as part of the film. Starscream is known for his scheming and if he’s got his sights set on Earth, then it’s likely that other Autobots can’t be far behind. Peter Cullen is listed among the film’s credits, so Optimus Prime may show up yet, though hopefully the action and emotional drive remains centered on Charlie and Bumblebee.
The teaser ends with Charlie introducing Bumblebee to the classic '80s hit, “Never Gonna Give You Up,” which has since become the source of numerous memes. Hopefully, Bumblebee won’t end up Rick-rolling audiences come December. If this teaser is any indication, Bumblebee will give fans a new reason to be excited about the future of Transformers.