I can fix you.
I get the appeal to capitalize on nostalgia and credit to Hasbro and Paramount for doing exactly that with the original live-action Transformers film. They went for wall-to-wall explosions courtesy of Michael Bay, leaned into the male gaze with an out-of-the-lead’s-league love interest, and brought a sarcastic nerd to life who could probably be argued into filling the role of a proto-Gamer Gate type entitled prick. The goal was to excite twenty-year old men who played with the toys in their youth in the hopes they brought their children to enjoy the carnage of an increasingly violent PG-13 rating banking on robot fatalities to sway the MPAA from anything higher. It worked like gangbusters, spawned an increasingly dumb trilogy, and somehow kept going because Hollywood loves broken records.
The franchise became more violent and cringingly goofy while letting Bay hire any young model willing to grace the screen opposite an obnoxious Shia LaBeouf as main squeeze or Mark Wahlberg as daughter. And somehow (we’d like to believe it was inflation) they were crazy moneymakers with a couple eclipsing the billion-dollar mark internationally before last year’s The Last Knight bottomed out with a series low six hundred million. That’s a decade of catering to a now aged out contingent of 80s children and their now aged out from toys spawn. So why would anyone be interested in a sixth installment opportunistically latching onto a fan favorite character to expand the mythos with a prologue? They wouldn’t. But maybe that disinterest is what makes Bumblebee so inexplicably good.
Or maybe it simply is good because screenwriter Christina Hodson was allowed to start from scratch and craft a story that had more to say than, “Good guys fight bad guys while humans pretend to help.” Not only that, she also pares things down in order to target teens rather than their parents. With Laika CEO Travis Knight at the helm—experienced in toeing the line between dark dramatic subject matter and youthful morality lessons—they could literally flip the original’s script on its head. Rather than create a muscle car wingman for Sam Witwicky to score chicks at college, they dialed down the chauvinism to hue closer to an Iron Giant-type buddy adventure between two lost souls desperately trying to find their paths away from devastating tragedy.
Bumblebee (voiced by Dylan O’Brien before losing it to the sounds of radio) had just seen his world destroyed at the hands of the Decepticons before Optimus Prime sends him to Earth to ready a rebel base the Autobots would converge upon at a later date. Charlie Watson (Hailee Steinfeld) is languishing in a depressive state that hit after her father passed away from a heart attack, resentment towards Mom (Pamela Adlon), stepdad Ron (Stephen Schneider), and little brother Otis (Jason Drucker) stemming from their ability to move on with seemingly relative ease. They’re both isolated from friends and family, living inside their own headspace with a desire to escape. Charlie refuses to forget what she’s lost while Bumblebee (injured in a fight upon landing) hopes to remember.
They come together by a stroke of fate, she senses the good in him despite signs of reckless behavior that could expose her secretive harboring of a technologically advanced alien creature in the garage, and both know who the bad guys are when a pair of Decepticons arrive (Angela Bassett‘s Shatter and Justin Theroux‘s Dropkick). Even Sector 7 military man Jack Burns (John Cena) knows something is amiss when our government decides to trust aliens who intentionally put “deception” in their name, but he follows orders and has a history with Bumblebee to keep him on alert. So it’s up to Charlie and new friend Memo (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.) to teach Burns that Bee is humanity’s only chance at surviving a wolf his boss let into the henhouse.
It’s refreshing to have just this one behemoth to worry about for most of the runtime too. Rather than be an emissary to connect human and machine, Bee becomes akin to pet and confidant. Where Witwicky had to keep reminding us that the yellow Transformer was his chum, its interactions with Charlie prove it by example. Not only does Bee have her back, he also acts as a catalyst towards breaking free from a malaise that can’t be fixed by a self-help book with an intentionally sexist title (1980s or not). He pushes her to confront her demons and comforts her if she’s not ready. And she (conveniently being a mechanic) knows how to keep him alive when things look dire. They rediscover a love death took away.
Just like Steinfeld did in The Edge of Seventeen, she renders Charlie as a teenager with complexity and agency. She’s all of us when sleepwalking through her day job at the local amusement park, unwittingly ignoring Memo’s multiple attempts at introducing himself, and feeling invisible at home because it’s easier for the others to gravitate towards happiness than acknowledge pain. And when she and Memo do start hanging out, it’s not simply about them hooking up. Hodson didn’t write it so that Charlie is in love with class heartthrob Trip (Ricardo Hoyos) nor Memo as a try-hard pretending he’s better than him. It shouldn’t be a feature I need to mention, but allowing her characters to want to be themselves from start to finish truly deserves legitimate praise.
With the original films already serving in the role of sequel (never mentioning Charlie in the process), Bumblebee is allowed self-containment for a poignant conclusion of growth instead of stagnancy leading to more of the same. The questions being answered concern how Bee and Charlie exit this shared experience as better versions of previous selves. The lesson learned is the reality that it’s okay to part ways and that doing so doesn’t diminish their love. She doesn’t need to become Earth’s unlikely hero because the struggles she’s facing on her own are important enough and he doesn’t need to be her chauffeur because he’s destined for more than convenience. Hodson and Knight therefore go beyond just creating the franchise’s best chapter. They expose how toxic the others are.
 Left to right: Bumblebee, Jorge Lendeborg Jr. as Memo and Hailee Steinfeld as Charlie in BUMBLEBEE, from Paramount Pictures.© 2018 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved. HASBRO, TRANSFORMERS, and all related characters are trademarks of Hasbro. © 2018 Hasbro. All Rights Reserved.
 Left to right: John Cena as Agent Burns and John Ortiz as Dr. Powell in BUMBLEBEE, from Paramount Pictures.© 2018 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved. HASBRO, TRANSFORMERS, and all related characters are trademarks of Hasbro. © 2018 Hasbro. All Rights Reserved.
 Left to right: Bumblebee, Hailee Steinfeld as Charlie and Jorge Lendeborg Jr. as Memo in BUMBLEBEE, from Paramount Pictures.© 2018 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved. HASBRO, TRANSFORMERS, and all related characters are trademarks of Hasbro. © 2018 Hasbro. All Rights Reserved.