People think they have Michael Bay figured out. To most, he’s the critically reviled action filmmaker known best for incomprehensible editing, military worship, gay panic jokes, and shooting everything like it’s a luxury car commercial. And explosions. They call it “Bayhem.” It is worth asking if the fact that you can put a label on the cumulative cinematic style of the man’s Hollywood career supports your shallow hivemind argument that his films are nothing but fire and fury, signifying nothing. The giant irony is that despite being generally regarded as among the worst pieces of moviemaking ever coughed up by corporate Hollywood, Bay’s Transformers films offer infinitely more material for both practical and theory-based film analysis alike than almost any other strain of mainstream blockbuster from the last decade or so. Try to wring something meaningful out of a low-tier MCU flick. Yeah, I thought so. Meanwhile Bay’s filmography, with all of its gag-inducing consumerism and sexist leering, is maybe the most brutally honest depiction of American culture in late-stage capitalism (or whatever). It’s no wonder nobody wants to look it square in the face.
At first glance, the 2007 film, with a premise entirely derivative of a million other Amblin-esque, high-concept 80s nostalgia trips, makes you wonder why Spielberg didn’t just direct it himself. Of course, it becomes clear why he didn’t when you realize that it never ever could have been a “real” movie, I mean in the sense of its primary purpose as a communicator of narrative, when it functions first and foremost as a $150 million dollar advertisement for Hasbro and General Motors. Only from this perspective does it make sense why Bay, who started his career directing some of the most lavishly bonkers ads and music videos the industry has ever seen, was the only possible man for the job.
There’s no doubt Bay’s rationale is cynical, but once you understand this, it’s really no surprise that he figured he’d throw in the military for good measure so the Pentagon could foot a portion of the budget. It does seem objectively insane that a movie about Japanese transforming car toys is riddled with so, so much racially questionable ad libbing and sexual innuendo. You do have to wonder if Hasbro felt uncomfortable about whether Bumblebee urinating on John Turturro would affect toy sales, or if GM wasn’t too hot on Ratchet – who transforms into a Hummer – asking Shia LaBeouf if he wants to “mate” with Megan Fox. Evidently, they didn’t care. For Bay though, it’s all one and the same. If corporate Hollywood is going to brazenly team up with the Auto industry and the U.S. Military to bring home more bonuses for the executives after opening weekend, then there’s no reason why Bay shouldn’t be able to do whatever the hell he wants. After all, it’s just about 10 year old boys asking for Leader Class Optimus Prime for Christmas after watching an entire scene where Sam’s drunk mom asks if he’s been masturbating. Camaro sales skyrocketed after this movie came out guys.
Is Michael Bay a racist? Never mind the complete absence of genuine complaints from people who actually know the man, because I really wouldn’t blame you for thinking so after watching Revenge of the Fallen out of context. And I must say, this was the one where I began to understand why my mom wasn’t too thrilled to know I watched it as a second grader. As perhaps the most infamous artifact of the 2008 writer’s strike, Bay rewrote most of the script himself and didn’t cease with his perversely self-indulgent wankery until he locked picture literally hours before the world premiere. Thank God so much of this went over my head as a kid or I’d probably be in prison instead of college. It’s truly a dumping ground for all of Bay’s loathsome fetishes. The most racist, the most sexist, the most jingoistic. It functions as about five different genres simultaneously, from action/adventure to college comedy to self-serious military drama to alien invasion terror to that scene where John Turturro climbs the Great Pyramid of Giza and declares he is “directly below…the enemy’s scrotum” as a giant robot’s two wrecking ball’s sway above him. But what’s so mesmerizing and impressive is that Bay’s expressive direction and exhaustive editing makes it so that, somehow, you never feel any tonal whiplash. Bay shot the third act on-location in Egypt just because he could. Meanwhile, every other movie nowadays can barely puke up some green-screened imitation of a real location because I guess that’s cheaper? (it’s not).
No one has been able to definitively pin down what Bay actually believes about the world. Critics argue this simply proves that he’s a juvenile idiot who can’t tell a story. There’s no doubt that Bay’s Transformers films are crammed with humor suitable for prepubescent middle schoolers and dumbfoundingly contradictory politics that utterly transcend this country’s red-blue divide. Two things are pretty clear though: 1) He loves the military and respects Middle America. 2) He loathes everyone else. Almost every character who’s not a soldier is portrayed like a bed-wetting blockhead. Shia LaBeouf’s Sam Witwicky is an entitled, shrieking manbaby, who, in Dark of the Moon, spends the first act whining about his unemployment like all the lazy millennials who think they’re entitled to a job. Bay hates them, much like he hates the emasculated Silicon Valley startup CEO played by Stanley Tucci in Age of Extinction. Every government employee either humiliates himself like Turturro’s Agent Simmons, or is portrayed as a slippery, shadowy liar like Kelsey Grammer’s CIA director. Meanwhile, Bay also highlights the resentment of Grammer’s character when he asks Tucci’s character why he shouldn’t be allowed to have the same financial means as him after serving his country. Mark Wahlberg’s protagonist is placed as a mirror to Tucci’s character, both passionate inventors, one scrounging for junk to pay off his mortgage while the other lives a life of luxury. There’s also stuff about whether sentient mechanical life can be physical or intellectual property when the remains are confiscated, and CIA agents hunting and murdering Autobots like they’re illegal immigrants. Even his obligatory military porn is more concerned with honoring the brave men and women who put their lives on hold to actually do the work, rather than the suits and ties who thoughtlessly send them into battle.
Is all of this completely consistent series-wide? Not really. Is Bay secretly a Marxist? Has he infiltrated corporate America to brazenly force a mirror in its face? There are those who do argue this, though any research into Bay’s actual lifestyle makes it less convincing. He seems to genuinely like fast cars and hot girls. Then there’s crazy story arcs like how Optimus Prime goes from a benevolent and righteous pacifist to a bitter, borderline sadistic war criminal who rips out Decepticons’ spinal cords, blows up humans, and seemingly promotes extrajudicial executions. Is this a comment on veteran PTSD? Honestly, who the hell knows. And yes, practically every female character is basically shot like a walking vagina in ways that do become increasingly indefensible as Bay’s career goes on. It doesn’t help that Megan Fox’s Mikaela is the only character in the original movie that actually has a sympathetic personality, despite Bay’s ogling camera working way too hard to prove otherwise. There’s a lot that makes you question what really goes on in that man’s mind, and how praiseworthy or condemnable it actually is, but there’s definitely a sense of how effective Bay could be as a political filmmaker if he didn’t get so distracted by all the tummy t-shirts and explosives he surrounds himself with on set.
It simply must be said that no other director at his level is such a master of synthesizing practical effects and CGI. Every explosion on screen is real, every car being flipped around 20 feet in the air is real. His commitment to compositing in the digital robots only at the very end is so strict it even causes trouble, where there’s often a sense of scale and physics that doesn’t quite click, where the real pyrotechnics aren’t gelling perfectly with the VFX. But who cares when every five minutes there’s some face-melting action scene that also must be completely exhilarating for the actors. For Bay, a large, wealthy film studio is forking over tens of millions of Ben Franklins, no questions asked, and he wonders why the hell anyone wouldn’t use it to raze the nearest abandoned warehouse. And then do it again. And again. Other directors just opt for green screen. How lame is that? They’re pussies. I’ll bet Bay hates them too.
Revisiting this bonkers series, the density of each movie is so great you don’t even remember everything that happens by the time it ends. Revenge of the Fallen has an old man robot who farts parachutes and a toy truck robot who humps Megan Fox’s leg. Somehow Dark of the Moon pushes this even further, with an opening sequence recreating the Apollo 11 Moon landing that’s genuinely one of the best things Bay has ever filmed. What follows is a parade of brain-frying supporting roles and cameos from John Malkovich to Frances McDormand to Ken Jeong to the actual Buzz Aldrin, all because Bay just felt like it. Leonard Nimoy also voices Sentinel Prime, a character who is regarded with immense respect by Optimus as if he were actually meeting Leonard Nimoy. He also straight-up quotes The Wrath of Khan as justification for committing genocide against Earth. Age of Extinction, meanwhile, is the series at its most grotesquely commercial, which obviously says a lot. To make up for the series’ diminishing domestic box office, Bay drags the entire third act to Hong Kong in order to pick up more Chinese viewership while blithely disregarding the reality of the encroaching Communist mainland government in an act of performative commercialist exploitation so cynical it may as well sum up his entire ethos as a filmmaker. The fact that it worked, launching the movie to $1 billion worldwide despite an 80/20 international/domestic box office split, is what makes me so taken by his uncanny savviness as a director.
Finally, there’s The Last Knight, which I must admit is where I draw the line. It’s the worst movie Bay has ever made, but only because he’s totally asleep at the wheel. I simply cannot in good conscience defend a movie that changes aspect ratios every ten seconds because Bay was somehow both ambitious enough to shoot on three different types of lenses but too lazy to correct it all in post. All of the weight, scale, and elasticity of Bay’s camera moves in the previous four films is dropped in favor of tragically plain action movie monotony. Even the humor tumbles into intrusive Marvel-esque fourth-wall-breaking, impossibly making one miss the good ol’ days of sexist leering and racist quips. Still, even in a genuine dumpster fire, we have the legendary thespian Sir Anthony Hopkins shouting “what a bitchin’ car she is” before collecting what must have been a paycheck of unprecedented magnitude, giving a performance so jaw-dropping I can’t decide whether he had the time of his life or wished he could throw himself off a bridge. You get the sense that’s how most of Bay’s actors feel, depending highly on how hard they commit to all the, well, fire and fury.
What does it all mean? We lowly peasants are not worthy of truly knowing. It did give us the only two good songs Linkin Park ever wrote. And I cannot deny that hearing Steve Jablonsky’s iconic score blasting as fast airplanes make things go boom gives even a lefty like me the sudden and uncontrollable urge to call my congressman and implore him to increase the Pentagon budget. If nothing else, we’ll always have absolutely insane images like Megatron sitting on the Lincoln Memorial’s throne or Optimus Prime dramatically walking into frame from behind the Great Sphinx of Giza as epic music plays. That surely must be exactly what the Ancient Egyptians intended it for.