Michael Bay’s “Transformers” franchise has been the subject of much ridicule, and deservedly so. At its best, the series is inoffensively mindless. At its worst—which is most of the time—it’s torturous, misogynistic, and occasionally racist. After the fifth (dear lord, there were five of these?) movie in the franchise, Bay handed the director’s baton over to Travis Knight, the filmmaker behind stop-motion wonderment “Kubo and the Two Strings”. If that seems odd to you, wait ‘til you hear who’s writing “Bumblebee”: Christina Hodson!

That’s right, a woman wrote the screenplay for a “Transformers” movie. We’ve come a long (but not nearly long enough) way from Michael Boy ogling Megan Fox through a camera lens. Back in the old days of 2007, Bay was reportedly ordering Fox to arch her back at certain angles in order to look requisitely sexy. When Fox spoke out against the director’s objectification, she was fired, and Shia LeBeouf blamed her for “never getting comfortable with Michael’s style of appealing to a 16-year-old’s sexuality”. Good riddance, Bay and LeBeouf and the nine men who wrote the previous “Transformers” movies.

Not only does “Bumblebee” feature the series’ first female screenwriter, it also stars its first female protagonist. Hailee Steinfeld is Charlie Watson, a rebellious teenage girl who likes working on cars without arching her back for no reason. Bumblebee crash-lands on her planet (that’s Earth) after the Autobots are forced to flee Cybertron, and she finds him disguised as a 1967 Volkswagen Beetle. It’s only a 20-year-old car, so she decides to take it home to fix up.

Oh yeah—this is a prequel, and it’s 1987. “Bumblebee” is not keen to let you forget that. Hey look, that guy said he wants to watch “Alf”, which aired during the 80s! Guess what movie everyone’s watching? That’s right, “The Breakfast Club”! Hey, isn’t it weird that Charlie refers to The Smiths’ “Strangeways, Here We Come” as a new album? Nope! It was new in the 80s!!

The movie may not be coy about its setting, but it perfectly nails the tone of an 80s film. Knight and Hodson are clearly well versed in the adventure movies of that era—particularly the kid-meets-alien variety—and they imbue “Bumblebee” with a host of nostalgic touches. The relationship that blossoms between Charlie and Bumblebee is clearly inspired by “E.T.”, and it works, thanks to a passionate turn from Steinfeld and a wonderfully animated robot. From structure to pacing to sidekick little brother, this is less a typical “Transformers” entry and more a 1980s throwback.

But make no mistake; it’s still a “Transformers” movie. There are gaping holes in logic, a machismo military force for added conflict (led by John Cena, who’s constantly trying way too hard to grimace), and heaps of terrible dialogue. Hodson’s screenplay goes the “every other line must be quotable” route, which dilutes anything resembling human conversation into characters trying to one-up each other in bad one-liners. The action, while shot more coherently than the other films in the series, feels perfunctory—as if it’s distracting from the character relationships that give the movie heart.

“Bumblebee” isn’t fixated on metal scraping against metal, though, so the action doesn’t grind any gears. For a “Transformers” movie, small scale and a female protagonist with agency are practically revolutionary, and “Bumblebee” is easily the best of the series. Just don’t think that’s too high of praise—the movie still falls victim to some “Transformers” blues, even if it does pull off a satisfying 80s movie pastiche.

★★★   (3/5)