On the planet Cybertron, the Autobots, led by Optimus Prime (voice of Peter Cullen), are losing their civil war with the Decepticons and begin evacuation. Decepticons Starscream, Soundwave, and Shockwave attack, and Optimus sends an Autobot scout to Earth in an escape pod to set up a base of operations there. The scout, B-127, crash-lands in California in the middle of a training exercise by a secret agency monitoring extraterrestrial activity—Sector Seven. Colonel Jack Burns (John Cena) orders an attack and B-127 scans and copies a Willys MB Jeep and flees to a mine, where he is attacked by a Decepticon named Blitzwing. His memory core and voice box are damaged, but he wins the battle and destroys Blitzwing. Then he takes the form of a 1967 yellow VW Beetle.
In 1987, a teenager named Charlene (or Charlie) Watson (Hailee Steinfeld), depressed by the death of her father and her mother Sally’s (Pamela Adlon) boyfriend Ronald (Stephen Schneider), runs across the yellow Beetle in Uncle Hank’s (Len Cariou) junkyard, and he gives it to her. Trying to start it, she accidentally activates a homing signal picked up by the Decepticons, who arrive from Saturn and take vehicle form. They deceive (living up to their name) Sector Seven into believing they are peacemakers and get their help to capture B-127.
When Charlie tries to fix the Beetle, it transforms into B-127, whom she calls Bumblebee. There is a message from Optimus Prime urging Bumblebee to defend Earth. Charlie’s neighbor Memo (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.) finds out the secret and Bumblebee learns to use the radio to communicate. He accidentally destroys Charlie’s home and causes an energy spike, attracting Sector Seven, which captures Bumblebee and sends the kids away.
Charlie convinces her brother Otis (Jason Drucker) to cover for her and Memo. They follow Colonel Burns to Sector Seven, looking for Bumblebee. Decepticons Shatter and Dropkick learn that the Autobots are coming. They torture and leave Bumblebee for dead. Doctor Powell (John Ortiz) alerts Colonel Burns to the truth and is killed for it by Dropkick.
Charlie electroshocks Bumblebee back to life, restoring his memories. After evading the military, they pursue the Decepticons. Shatter shoots down Burns’ helicopter but he is saved by Bumblebee, who destroys Dropkick. Charlie deactivates the Decepticon beacon but is pursued by Shatter until the Decepticon is defeated. Arriving at the Golden Gate Bridge, Bumblebee takes on the form of a 1977 Chevrolet Camaro. As Charlie goes home, Bumblebee reunites with Optimus Prime as they watch more Autobots arrive to help Earth.
The film was developed as a spinoff, but became a reboot of the franchise, which did not continue. It was directed by Travis Knight and Christina Hodson. Dylan O’Brien played the voice of Bumblebee, when he finally found it. Michael Bay produced it, but did not direct, and though an action film, it was nowhere near as over-the-top as his. Critics liked the smaller, more intimate story. Hailee Steinfeld was highly praised. Angela Bassett was the voice of Shatter and Justin Theroux of Dropkick. Hailee Steinfeld sang “Back to Life” on the soundtrack. The Autobot fight scenes were praised as easier to follow than those in the slam-bang series. Peter Cullen has been the voice of Optimus Prime from the original animated films on.
Hailee Steinfeld, born nine years after the setting of the movie, had to learn how to operate a Walkman. Little clips of The Breakfast Club appear throughout. The scene in which Charlie, trying to repair Bumblebee, activates a holographic message from Optimus Prime is a nod to Star Wars. There are many references to Stephen Spielberg as well, mostly in the form of posters. Much of the film was inspired by the Iron Giant. The film has the distinction of winning the rare Razzie Redeemer Award at the Golden Raspberries, given to a film that is surprisingly good after a string of duds. Let’s face it, the first Transformers and Bumblebee are based on the same plot, but one is for the boys, and one is for the girls. The latter has a female director, a female star, a female villain, the world’s largest cute robot, and acting.