“Transformers” is a series that just won’t quit; no matter how poorly reviewed the films may be, they always seem to attract audiences in record numbers, thanks to a kind of scale and spectacle that it feels like almost nobody but Michael Bay is doing these days.
But after “The Last Knight” underperformed – that is, by the franchise’s standards (earning more than $600 million worldwide) – Bay and his creative team went back to the drawing board for “Bumblebee,” not only hiring a new director for the first time but reconceiving this indefatigable property both for a new generation and an old one. With the Autobots’ plucky sidekick foregrounded for this particular installment and a collection of surprising changes implemented, it seemed appropriate to take a look at a handful of the things audiences should know before shelling out their money for a new “Transformers” film.
1. Sixth In The Series, First In Our Hearts (And Chronologically, Too)
After a series of films that have unfolded in a relatively straightforward timeline – notwithstanding a 65-million-years-ago preamble and some crazy business involving King Arthur and the Knights of the Roundtable – “Bumblebee” jumps back in time to 1987. Precisely how many scrappy teenagers the title character has befriended is unknown, but this time around Bumblebee buddies up with Charlie Watson (Hailee Steinfeld), a tomboy who embarks on an action-packed adventure after discovering that her Volkswagen Beetle is in fact a transforming alien.
2. A Beetle Reunion
Bay’s fandom of American muscle cars turned Bumblebee’s automotive iteration into a Chevy Camaro, but for this flashback story, he is once again the Volkswagen that so many kids grew up playing with. Although he looks similar to the way the character was portrayed in Bay’s films, the design of the character – and all of the robots, for that matter – more closely adheres to their toy and animated-series silhouettes. Undoubtedly that gives Hasbro the opportunity to create new toys from a well-established line, but on film what that means is they’re slightly less of a whirling mass of pixels and more actual machines that change into robots.
3. You’ve Never Seen a Transformers Movie Like This Before
Though Michael Bay remains on board as a producer this time around, he passed directing duties to none other than Travis Knight, making his live-action debut with the film after working at the animation studio Laika and directing “Kubo and the Two Strings.” Knight has indicated that he wanted to foreground the relationship between Bumblebee and Charlie and make it more of a family-friendly coming of age story than the nonstop action spectaculars that Bay produced.
4. Writer’s Room Turned Fighters Room
After the first three “Transformers” films, Paramount and Michael Bay assembled a “writer’s room” to create an expansive and mutifaceted universe of films that would explore different characters and stories on the periphery of what had already been brought to the screen.
Christina Hodson is one of the writers recruited, and even just looking at the promotional materials, she seems to have brought a significantly different feel to “Bumblebee” than its predecessors, perhaps most notably by creating a female heroine who is not immediately or initially defined by her, uh, “babeliness.” (She apparently did that so successfully that she’s subsequently been hired to write “Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of one Harley Quinn)” and the Barbara Gordon/ Batgirl movie.) But most importantly, this is the first of these “spin-off” or alternate “Transformers” take films, which means that the future of the franchise depends on the success of its past.
5. Get Ready for Some Triple Changers
Inspired by a toy line that has always razed and reimagined its heroes and villains, the “Transformers” films have refined and updated the robots, and added iconic characters to their respective ensembles (the ever-popular Dinobots, for example).
Triple Changers first appeared in the line’s Generation 1 with Astrotrain and Blitzwing; Blitzwing shows up here – though oddly with only the ability to transform into an F-4 Phantom – while newcomers Shatter and Dropkick offer longtime fans yet another piece of “Transformers” ephemera to fetishize as the filmmakers explore their rich mythology.
6. It Has an Impressive Cast
The “Transformers” franchise has always been populated with a lot of talented, high-profile names, both on screen and as voice talent. This time around, Steinfeld anchors a cast that includes John Cena (“Blockers”), Jorge Lendeborg Jr., John Ortiz, and Kenneth Choi (“Wolf of Wall Street”).
For the Transformers, Peter Cullen will reprise his role as Optimus Prime — the warm and cozy voice of robot authority for more than 30 years — while Angela Bassett and Justin Theroux play those Triple Changers.
And finally, Dylan O’Brien (“The Maze Runner”) will voice Bumblebee, replacing those busy, charming pop culture montages that previously provided the character’s reaction to the exploding world around him.