“BumbleBee” marks a lot of firsts for the “Transformers” franchise: It’s the first to have a female protagonist, it’s the first not to be directed by Michael Bay, it’s the first not to put at least one female character in a push-up bra, and it’s the first not to make this critic’s eyes roll out of his head and into the theater lobby.
Director Travis Knight (“Kubo and the Two Strings”) dispenses with the ponderous “Transformers” mythology that Bay usually bores everyone with, and drops the audience into the middle of a battle on the Transformers’ home planet of Cybertron. The nasty Decepticons are winning against the Autobot resistance, led by the formidable Optimus Prime (voiced, as always, by Peter Cullen). Optimus orders his Autobots to the escape pods, each going to a different planet to regroup and defend against the Decepticons.
Optimus’ most loyal junior soldier, B-127, lands on an out-of-the-way place called Earth, in 1987. First he draws the wrath of an angry Army special-ops officer, Agent Burns (John Cena). Then two Decepticons attack and nearly destroy the little Autobot. B-127 survives, though his speech circuits and memory have been damaged.
Cut to Charlie Watson (Hailie Steinfeld), an 18-year-old in a California coastal town and adrift in her life. Mourning the recent death of her father, Charlie has dropped out of the diving team (she was once state champ), and spends most of the time scavenging parts from gruff old Hank (Len Cariou) for the Corvette she and her dad could never get working.
On her birthday, Charlie finds a dust-covered old yellow Volkswagen Beetle on Hank’s lot, and cajoles the old man into letting her have it. She drives it home, and soon discovers her car isn’t German engineering but an alien robot from space. Charlie names the robot BumbleBee, and works to keep it hidden from her mom (Pamela Adlon).
Meanwhile, others are seeking BumbleBee, too. Two Decepticons get a greeting from Agent Burns, who would rather blow them to kingdom come, but is cajoled by an eager scientist (John Ortiz) to cooperate with the visiting robots and allow them to access U.S. satellite technology. Burns’ reaction — “They’re literally called Decepticons. Does that not raise red flags?” — is priceless, and oddly self-aware for a “Transformers” movie.
Screenwriter Christina Hodson (who’s very hot right now, with the new Harley Quinn movie “Birds of Prey” on deck) lifts a little — OK, a lot — from “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” and “The Iron Giant” to create Charlie’s relationship with BumbleBee. It’s still a more coherent, and more human-scaled, plot than any of the macho metal-bangers Bay has made.
Knight keeps the action closer to a human scale, and gives the non-robot characters — particularly Steinfeld’s strong portrayal of the awkwardly grieving Charlie — a chance to display real emotions in ways “Transformers” movies have never seen.
Add one more “first” to the list for “BumbleBee”: It’s the first “Transformers” movie that lives up to the franchise’s mantra, that it’s “more than meets the eye.”
Opens Friday, December 21, at theaters everywhere. Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action violence. Running time: 113 minutes.