American films

Transformers as you’ve never seen them before in Bumblebee, director promises

  • Travis Knight, director of sixth instalment in Hollywood blockbuster franchise, set out to ‘understand these transformers’ in film, a prequel set in 1987
  • Producer hopeful of repeating success of previous Transformer films in China market, saying ‘Love, betrayal, fear’ – those are very universal feelings’
PUBLISHED : Thursday, 13 December, 2018, 7:03pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 13 December, 2018, 7:27pm

Travis Knight set out to make a Transformers film with a difference when he was brought in to direct Bumblebee, the latest episode in the blockbuster Hollywood franchise.

“I think we wanted to tell a great story with real emotion at the heart of it,” said Knight on Thursday in Hong Kong, where the film opens on December 27; it opens a week later, on January 4, in China.

Bumblebee: the most character-driven Transformers film yet

“We still want to honour what has come before, which is great action, spectacle, robot fisticuffs, and high speed chase scenes, but we really want to showcase how human these characters are, to really dive in and understand these transformers in a way that we haven't really in a meaningful way before,” added the director, who made his feature-film debut in 2016 with well regarded animation Kubo and the Two Strings.

Michael Bay, who directed the two most recent films in the series, an executive producer, as is Steven Spielberg.

Bumblebee is the sixth instalment of the Transformers franchise, but a prequel. The action takes place in 1987, 20 years before the first movie in the series, and fleshes out the main character Bumblebee’s origin story. It stars Oscar-nominated Hailee Steinfeld, US professional wrestler and actor John Cena, and Jorge Lendeborg Jnr. 

Speaking at the same event as Knight, Steinfeld, who received an Academy Award nomination for her performance in True Grit in 2011, said of her experience making the film: “There was never a dull moment, it was very physically demanding.”

Cena, who speaks Mandarin, said he was fascinated by China’s culture, movie, and entertainment market.

It’s a market where the Transformers films have done well in the past.

According to film trade magazine Variety, the last two films from the Transformers franchise were more successful in China than in the United States.

Last year’s Transformers: The Last Knight raked in US$229 million at the Chinese box office, US$99 million more than it generated in its domestic market. In 2014, Transformers: Age of Extinction took US$320 million in China, against US$245 million in the US.

So can Bumblebee continue the franchise’s success in China? Producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura certainly hopes so.

“Everybody experiences love, betrayal, fear – those are very universal feelings,” he said.

“I think the Chinese market obviously is such a big market that we're not going to ignore it, we're going to embrace it, but also the desire – both sides have to make movies that relate to each other – I think is there,” he said.

Tencent Pictures, the film production arm of China’s biggest social network operator, co-financed Bumblebee. It has said that exploring international markets is a priority, and sees Bumblebee as a strategic step forward because of the combined US$4.3 billion that the franchise has raked in at the global box office.

Its parent company, Tencent, has invested heavily in Hollywood films over the past three years, having been involved with titles such as Warcraft, Kong: Skull Island, Wonder Woman, La La Land, Ready Player One and, more recently, Venom.