Before heading to the theaters to see TRANSFORMERS: AGE OF EXTINCTION, I wanted to watch the first three Michael Bay TRANSFORMERS movies to see if I still felt the way I did upon watching them the first time: I loved the first one, hated the second one, and thought the third was okay.
I watched TRANSFORMERS last night and I still love it, even with all of its Shia LeBeouf-ness, and it got me thinking about the kinds of movies Michael Bay makes. The internet is awash with Bay bashing because the internet loves nothing more than an easy target (and Bay is certainly a self-created easy target), but for all of the talk of how EXTINCTION will surely suck, it’s still going to fly by $100 million at the domestic box office on its opening weekend.
That’s a whole lotta people going to see a movie the internet would have you think is a less intelligent but prettier to look at version of Two Girls One Cup.
The narrative about Michael Bay is that he makes terrible movies that insult your intelligence while jerking off your eyeballs. He’s an easy mark for bad internet comedians, lazy critics, and bitter fanboys because it’s already been decided he’s a terrible director making terrible movies that only simpletons who like to look at pretty pictures care about. It’s just not acceptable to like a guy who made Shia and Megan Fox famous, and even in this Golden Age of Pop Sci-Fi, people tend to treat embracing the Transformers series as if it’s going to give them face herpes.
That Michael Bay makes dumb movies is a sentiment that is not completely false, of course, but then, Michael Bay isn’t making movies that seek to replicate the literary complexities of writers like Dostoyevsky, Melville, Faulkner, or whomever it is that writes the one page summary of those novelists for the Bathroom Reader series.
Bay makes an easy target, but my gut tells me that most of the folks who go after him aren’t spending their time or money supporting indie cinema, or good, smart, beautiful, philosophical films like Upstream Color would be able to break the $500,000 mark at the domestic box office. Bashing Michael Bay movies has become as much of an annual event as people flocking to see the latest Michael Bay movie. And people do flock to see them: AGE OF EXTINCTION will be his 11th directorial effort to date, and only three of his movies have failed to break $100 million at the domestic box office and $200 million internationally: Bad Boys (which did well enough to warrant a sequel), The Island (which is pretty terrible), and Pain and Gain (which is the most un-Michael Bay of all Michael Bay movies). Bay has said he makes movies for teenage boys, and given the visual appreciation he has for cars, girls, explosions, and the military, teenage boys might very well be who Bay is targeting, but his movies simply make too much money for teenage dudes to be the only people shelling out cash to watch them.
I think, in his own way, Bay is a throwback to the days when Hollywood got people to give them their money by giving them an experience they couldn’t have anywhere else. Bay doesn’t make movies as much as he makes visual spectacles, and his audience isn’t teenage boys as much as it is people who want to go to the theater to see something in a way they can’t see it at home. HD televisions and Blu-rays make the home viewing experience better than ever before, but there are still movies that are best seen large and loud, and this is the audience that Michael Bay makes movies for – people who want to sit in the cool dark and eat ‘corn and slurp Coke and want to be have an experience they won’t be able to have at home if they waited for the movie to hit Netflix.
Nothing I have said suggests that all Michael Bay movies are good movies, or that they are somehow beyond criticism. Far from it. In watching his movies, I get the impression that his relationship with how things look is less a style than it is a fetish. It’s as if he cares less about how the food he eats tastes as much as he cares about how it looks. Bay allegedly filmed Megan Fox washing his Ferrari as part of the auditioning process, and when one gets past the creepiness of that, I can’t help but wonder if he would have filmed Megan Fox washing a Vauxhall Vivaro because no kid is ever going to hang a poster of a Vivaro on their wall.
I think for Bay, all objects – cars, planes, mountains, robots, aircraft carriers, people – are created equal in that he prefers to look at the most beautiful versions of all these things. It’s as if he’s made Objectification his own personal philosophy. This is not the healthiest way to look at (or display) life, but Bay seems careful to only take his objectification so far. He might prefer aesthetically appealing actors, but he makes sure to give both male and female leads something beyond their looks. Marcus Burnett (Martin Lawrence) and Mike Lowrey (Will Smith) might be typical Hollywood Bro Cops in BAD BOYS, but they each have their faults, which Bay has them cleverly reveal through their impersonations of the other. In TRANSFORMERS, Megan Fox’s Mikaela Banes has a shallow fondness for hot guys that’s balanced with her skills as a mechanic and her refusal to run away during the final battle despite being ordered to by the military; yes, she has great abs that Bay’s camera cannot stop drooling over, but she’s also smart, tough, loyal, and resourceful.
If you can’t get past the camera lingering on her abs, the question that springs to mind is whether it’s Bay or you who are more obsessed with Fox’s body, because TRANSFORMERS gives her a personality and both positive and negative attributes.
Are you willing to recognize them?
In these examples, we see characters who are often offering, depending on your point of view, critiques of Michael Bay’s style or problematizing conventional wisdom’s understanding of that style.
Even the idea of suggesting there’s, ahem, more to Michael Bay films than meets the eye will be indefensible to some, and it needs to be noted that some part of the anti-Bay contingent gets their fuel from the fact that he’s so unapologetic about his success: he drives supercars and dates Playmates, as if either of these things is somehow automatically a bad thing. As if either of these things means his movies have to be shit. I always roll my eyes when I read an article that comments on Bay’s shallowness, and then supports this by grouping all Playmates together, as if taking one’s clothes off robs a person of all individuality.
Has any of Michael Bay’s personal “crimes” rendered his movies automatically unwatchable?
Michael Bay is neither the Second Coming nor the Anti-Christ, but he does make movies that look and act like nothing else at the multiplex. Given his success, you’d think Hollywood would replicate this if it was easy to do. He puts sophomoric representations of gender and race up on the screen in between beautiful explosions, then shrugs off your disapproval to go spend your money buying Ferraris. He’s not the most mature man in Hollywood, but neither is he the village idiot. As Wesley Morris writes in his review of AGE OF EXTINCTION about the TRANSFORMERS franchise: “It takes a lot of very smart people to make these stupid epics,” and Bay makes an effective ringmaster, balancing his technological pyrotechnics with beautiful people sweating in slow motion.
In total, I probably dislike as many, if not more, Michael Bay movies than I like, but I do appreciate that he’s still making movies for the big screen, and not just because the big screen is a highly profitable way for studios to get your money. No one else makes movies that look and act like Michael Bay movies, and that’s usually enough to get me in the theater to watch them.
And I pay to watch smart independent films, too.