Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed in this review are solely those of Marlon Wallace and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of WBOC.
The film is essentially a prequel to Transformers (2007). It also acts as a remake of that same film. Its basic premise is that a teenager discovers a robot that can turn itself into a car. The difference is that the gender of the teenager is swapped. Instead of a boy, the protagonist here is a girl. However, she’s a girl who doesn’t conform to gender stereotypes. She doesn’t wear dresses or play with dolls. She’s a fan of The Smiths. She wears dirty jeans. She rides a moped without a helmet. She’s essentially a mechanic. She likes to fix up old cars.
Yet, she still is a girl and the Time’s Up Movement, if nothing else, has highlighted the fact that it’s more than past due for young girls to get to be the lead in films like this. For so long, movies about a boy and his dog going on an adventure have been made in various variations. That trope became a boy and his robot. The prime example would have to be Terminator 2 (1991). In fact, when it comes to women in science-fiction, James Cameron has led the way, but he hasn’t been putting out much, especially within the past 10 to 20 years. It’s not as if women have been totally absent from sci-fi but hardly any are given the kind of lead as here. This film could really fill that void and give audiences a version of The Iron Giant (1999), but with more female representation.
Hailee Steinfeld (The Edge of Seventeen and True Grit) stars as Charlie, a 17-year-old girl living near San Francisco in 1987. She lives with her mom, her younger brother and her stepfather. Things in the house seem fine, but Charlie is expressing her independence. She wants a car. She has a job at a hot dog stand in an amusement park, but she clearly doesn’t make enough to purchase a vehicle, not even a junk car at her uncle’s scrapyard. She’s determined to get one though.
One day, she sees a broken down yellow Volkswagen Beetle in her uncle’s scrapyard. She begs him for it. Because it’s her birthday, he gives it to her. She takes it home to fix up when she realizes that it’s actually a robot in disguise. It can turn itself from a car to an automaton at will. The robot can’t speak having had its vocal chords destroyed, but Charlie finds a way to communicate and befriend the living machine. From that point forward, it really is The Iron Giant but with context of the back-story from the first Transformers.
What makes the film stand out and even rise above those predecessors is how the film handles the character development. What also helps is the charm of the writing and acting, as well as the fun of the action scenes, which aren’t that many and aren’t as cacophonous as Michael Bay would normally do. The character development regarding Charlie isn’t complicated, but it’s well done. Steinfeld is a great, young actress and really is an endearing and engaging presence in this film. The moments with her mom, played by Emmy-winner Pamela Adlon, are great mother-daughter moments, genuine, heartfelt and occasionally funny.
The entire supporting cast is genuine, heartfelt and funny, as well as very well used. The people, even the ones who don’t get a lot of screen time, don’t feel wasted or just there to fill out the human population. In previous films, involving this robot, people were either props or fodder. However, the people here feel a bit more fleshed-out.
John Cena (Blockers and Trainwreck) co-stars as Agent Burns, the military leader who is the kind of stock character present in all of these kinds of movies. Thankfully, Cena has proved himself in plenty of comedies prior to this and makes this stock character not feel so stock. In previous movies, this stock character would be played by Mark Wahlberg who would find a way to make the character annoying or grating in some fashion. Here, Cena handles it well.
Because of the gender swap and the protagonist being a girl, of course there’s going to be a love interest or a potential one. In previous films, Bay had been accused of leering or having the male gaze on scantily clad women. Some have criticized him as sexist because that’s usually all he does with his female characters. He has them as mere objects of desire. Maybe those criticisms went too far and certainly Bay wasn’t alone in that kind of objectification, but this movie provides for the tables to be turned.
Travis Knight (Kubo and the Two Strings and The Boxtrolls) directed the film, but it was written by Christina Hodson (Unforgettable). I’m not accusing her of being sexist, but she does turn the tables a bit. There are three scenes that have two boys strip off their clothes for no real reason. Yes, one time could possibly be justified because it involves a high dive into water, which becomes a character development beat later. However, the other two times feel like they’re done simply to leer at cute boys who happen to be in good shape like Ricardo Hoyos who plays Tripp. Hoyos though is no stranger to being shirtless having done it countless times in his show Degrassi: The Next Generation.
It’s not as bad because for the one boy named Memo, played by Jorge Lendeborg, Jr. (Love, Simonand The Land), he’s given more of a character and personality than previous movies have given young girls in similar roles. How much he’s given compared to girls in similar roles in previous films could be debated. Also, he doesn’t always feel totally necessary or substantial to the plot, but otherwise he’s enjoyable and the actor sells this nerdy neighbor.
Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action and violence.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 54 mins.