More human Transformers movie

Actress Hailee Steinfeld plays Charlie, who befriends Bumblebee, an Autobot.
Actress Hailee Steinfeld plays Charlie, who befriends Bumblebee, an Autobot.PHOTO: UIP



114 minutes/Opens today/2.5 Stars

The story: In this prequel to the Transformers film series (2007 to 2017), a scout, B-127, is sent from Cybertron to Earth to create a refuge for the rebel Autobots, who are losing their war against the Decepticons. On Earth, it is the 1980s and Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld) finds the damaged B-127, now in the shape of a yellow Volkswagen Beetle she nicknames Bumblebee.

The sixth instalment in the Transformers movie series is the best yet, but that is not saying very much because of the low bar set by the other five.

It is the best because more so than in the other films, this is centred on a human, more specifically, a young woman and her coming-of-age story.

There is a lot to like in this version of the Pete's Dragon template - weak kid meets a powerful guardian who must stay hidden from pesky adults - but there is too much here that is cookie-cutter, too many ideas pressed from the same 1980s Stranger Things-E.T.-Weird Science mould.

One particularly groan-worthy example: There are textbook high school mean girls here, the blonde and popular kind, who exist only to toss catty remarks at Charlie in a scene so contrived and derivative, it would not have made the cut of a poor Saved By The Bell (1989 to 1993) episode.

Director Travis Knight (who made the excellent stop-motion animation Kubo And The Two Strings, 2016) takes over from the director who helmed the first five films, Michael "camera shake" Bay.

Knight, thankfully, knows how to tell a story without resorting to hundreds of one-second edits and, unlike Bay, mounts his cameras on stands, not rubber bungees.

Like the Spider-Man film in cinemas this week, this sweeter, less war-heavy version of the Transformers story is supposed to be more kid-friendly.

Yes, there is bot-on-bot violence here - quite a lot, in fact - but where Bay would have characters running, diving and jumping for their lives in-between the battles, Knight's story has Charlie the car nerd trying to find out who she is in the midst of family upheaval.

There is an interesting study in contrasts between the Spider-Man film and this one. In one scene, the naive Bumblebee - in almost every way a bull in a china shop - escapes from Charlie's garage and into the living room. Much physical comedy ensues as furniture shatters.

In the Spider-Man movie, there would have been layers which would have made it funnier and also speak to character, while moving the story forward.

But here, the laughs are assumed because television sets are smashed and vases are toppled while a "funny" soundtrack plays.  If this is what passes for a kids' film, then it is just not enough.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 20, 2018, with the headline 'More human Transformers movie'. Print Edition | Subscribe