Bumblebee isn't a terribly complex film, and although it mostly satisfies, it's strongest moments are ones filled with potential for what to look forward to in following films.
Taking things back to the 1980's, Bumblebee is a soft reboot of sorts for the Transformers franchise in dire need of better on-screen representation. Instead of bloating the film with an overabundance of robotic warfare, the film takes a more grounded approach and focuses (mostly) on just one robot. For the most part, it works. It's far from being must-watch, even by the Transformers series of movies, but employing the tactic of less is more certainly pays off here.
Bumblebee can be best described like that of fireworks—in that it shines tremendously bright in certain areas, but once the light dissipates, you're left in the dark for long stretches. In this case, the light represents anything related to the home world of the Transformers, Cybertron. The film opens with a skirmish that'll get even the most stoic of viewers giddy like Saturday morning cartoons. The few Transformers shown are simplified, and iconic. Graphical fidelity still remains top notch, and the sound design is exemplary. But these moments are few and far between. Had you taken an untimely bathroom break, or showed up slightly late to the film, you'd have missed it all together.
What then remains apart from the Cybertron segments are mostly mundane. Like the worst parts of every other one of their films, there's far too much time spent on needless military and human subplots. Although Hailee Steinfeld brings the series' best protagonist to date, it isn't much competition when going up against the faulty performances of those that came prior. It became obvious early on that the directors and writers really wanted you to empathize with her and her struggles, but a bit of subtlety would've paid off immensely. On a multitude of occasions we're reminded constantly of her plight, as well as some of the tragedies that occurred prior to the film taking place. At a certain point, the empathy loses its effect and morphs into needlessly wasted screen time.
The antagonist(s) here aren't anything worth dedicating too many sentences to. John Cena is mostly one-dimensional, but does break the mold by sharing some memorable moments when up against the towering Bumblebee. The Decepticons, while excellently rendered, provide little more than reasons for steel to clash with steel. Essentially they're plot devices that happen to be aircrafts that transform into muscle cars that transform into robots. Cool, sure, but nothing the series hasn't already given us.
The film is supposed to take place in 1987, yet it never really captures the 80's vibe that it's yearning so heavily for. Making an 80's-based movie is more than just music and pop culture references, and Bumblebee—the film, not the robot—never seems to really understand that. Instead, it just feels like a modern film about a girl that likes old music and lives in a really retro house. It's fine, sure, but it never uses the time period as an advantageous way to distance itself from the more modern, previous films.
However, Bumblebee—the robot—is excellent. In many ways, the film takes the tone of that of a pet / animal movie. (Assuming that the government is trying to track down the animal, and its animal friends from another plan are also trying to kill it—but I digress.) The way that he fumbles around, learns and makes mistakes serves as some of the film's best comedic moments. His lack of dialogue is once again replaced by that of a radio, and it works about as well as it has previously.
All in all, the film isn't great, per se, but it's got plenty of potential for what to expect in subsequent follow-ups. It may not be saying much, but it's the best Transformers movie that's been put out, and I fully expect future installments to continue the decent amount of moment it has going here while also weeding out some of the lesser, more unnecessary segments. Had it shaved off 40 or so minutes while throwing in more Optimus Prime and Cybertron, we'd have a solid it. Instead, in its current state, it's just an okay film—for better and for worse. (Now that I'm thinking about it, why didn't they just do an 80's Optimus Prime movie? Hmm.)
1-2: Horrendous, wouldn’t recommend watching even if free of charge.
3-4: Potentially has some good ideas, but overall still lackluster.
5-6: Average, a decently good time; go see it if it's free.
7-8: A solid recommendation, and well-rounded film; warrants a purchase after home release.
9: No glaring flaws; deserves to be watched multiple times.
10: Masterful, must-see; filmmaking at its finest.