Since his first feature, Michael Bay has been criticized over and over for a style of filmmaking that requires big budgets, big actors, big set-pieces and big action. With each new release we can expect a slew of critic side-jabs knocking rapid cutting, imperceivable visuals, and muddled storytelling. Yet, we can also expect a box-office beast.
Bay's Transformers franchise alone has grossed over $4 billion — that's billion with a “b.” No matter how you feel about him, Michael Bay has created a recognizable and profitable brand that has reached millions of people. However, are those of us who buy into the frenzy just too drunk off his tantalizing images to know what a good action flick is? Or does Michael Bay possess a spark of the cinematic genius that allows his work to transcend the action genre and become something of its own?
Regardless of what critics say, Bay boosts box-office. This isn't news. We've known this since 1996 when The Rock grossed $335 million and again when Armageddon scored $553 million in '98; not to mention Pearl Harbor with its $450 million. Still, critics alike feel that Bay films pander to the lowest common denominator. I remember reading a review of Transformers: Dark of the Moon that compared the viewing experience to being urinated on. Another reviewer called the first in the series “acid kool-aid for children." Even after all these reviews, I still don't think we should dismiss his work. Here's why: there's still an audience — a huge one. There's something about his movies that keeps drawing people in and I think that deserves some attention.
Glitz And Glamour: The Style of Michael Bay
Contained in a single Bay frame you are most likely to find at least two or more of these characteristics: vivid colors, low camera angels, explosions, orange glow from the magic hour, hot babes, shiny cars, explosions again, products you're likely to find at your local CVS, and more explosions. His style is distinct, fast and alluring. It draws the eye and holds it there until something blows up and then repeats itself, and before you know it you've just spent the last 175 minutes of your life in complete “Bayhem.”
“Bayhem” (a combination of Bay and mayhem) is considered to be a cinematic style that inflates nearly every aspect of the movie-making process in order to achieve a maximally stimulating experience. It is designed to capture the most stunning image within the mise en scène and avoid losing the viewers’ attention at all costs, whether it's a pivotal moment or arbitrary joke. This often means lots of motion within each frame and constant camera movement to keep our eyes hooked on the screen. If a character is stationary, Bay will use a tracking camera movement and the motion of objects in the background to give the shot mobility. If you watch a Bay film, there are hardly any static shots. That's because his style aims to keep your interest on a sensory level regardless of what the content is.
It is widely known that Bay works fast, efficiently and understands the importance of practical effects. While his movies do contain plenty of CGI, the use of practical effects adds to the film's authenticity and gives it a more realistic look. This is what separates Bay from the other action flicks. His talent as a director lies mainly in portraying action scenes in the most arresting way. The image must be exciting enough for us to be engaged and look real enough for us to buy it.
In Bay's universe, the characters and plot serve the action rather than the action serving the overall story. Nobody goes to a Michael Bay film looking to be engrossed in a deep character drama. The characters in Bay's films are often flat, undeveloped and void of any proper conviction. This is why critics deplore Bayhem and reject it as a proper film form. It's simple, really: there isn't a story beneath the glitz and glamour. And if there is, it’s usually convoluted or distorted by the action sequences. It is truly form over content, which is exactly what places it in the realm of experimental cinema.
Looking at the conventions of classic Hollywood against the deviation that art-house cinema fosters, we come to an interesting intersection with the Bay films. Hollywood produces films that contain causally related scenes driving toward a clear goal with defined characters in a narrative that is presented in a logical way. Art-house breaks the conventions of Hollywood by expressing an idea or theme in a more visual and ambiguous way. So while critics blame Michael Bay for being too Hollywood, they miss the irony of their own criticism. How could a film that hardly has a narrative, has zero character definition and a weak sense of spatial logic be the culmination of a style that is the complete opposite? It's apparent to me that Bay's progression of action and dissolution of plot and character deviates from the conventions of Hollywood so much that it makes it more experimental than anything.
The Action Sequence
Fast movement, quick cuts and shiny, pretty things are just the beginning of what Bayhem has to offer. By its very nature, this style cannot be restricted to a single frame but must move and live throughout a sequence. These are a series of related scenes that contain a similar theme or idea and typically follow a non-action scene that has set up the battle, chase or the like. The sequence structure in Bay films kind of works like batting practice: You lob the ball up (the expositional set-up) then WHACK it out of the ballpark. It’s easy, fun and doesn’t require much thinking. This is exactly how Bay structures his films. A few characters banter back and forth about why Character A wants to kill Character B and then — BAM! — an action sequence shows A and B in a car chase that devastates downtown Los Angeles. This structure then repeats itself over and over, but as the film progresses, the banter becomes quicker and more integrated into the action, while the action itself becomes bigger and more drawn out.
It isn't so much about placing us in the characters' perspective, as other films tend to do, but more about placing us in the point of view of the action. In that way, his action becomes a character of its own. So instead of instilling empathy by using relatable characters, Bay brings about excitement by using involved action sequences and integrated camera work.
To create momentum during his sequences, Bay often breaks into the forth wall by having an object fly at us and then cuts to the object flying away from us. This allows him to expand the scale of the scene and make our 2-D experience seem more like a three-dimensional one. This kind of editing explains why he is an avid supporter of 3-D cinema and is constantly coming up with new ways to place the audience amid the action.
As a writer, I must say that watching any one of the Transformers movies is definitely a guilty pleasure. But I will always admit that I have respect for Bay's style. Why? Because I think Bayhem can be argued as an experimental form a movie-making and it's important that we keep exploring the medium; he offers a form so unapologetic in its absurdity and so self-aware in its execution. Some say it's just “the art of blowing sh** up at sunset,” but I feel this definition trivializes the meticulous and complicated process of action filmmaking in the tier of which Bay works. Have you ever looked up how long it takes to prep for an action sequence in a Bay film? Or how many people are involved? I have and it's pretty ridiculous.
The movies of Michael Bay, Transformers in particular, utilize this form and expand it at maximal levels (if you've seen This is Spinal Tap, then you'll understand when I say these movies turn it up to eleven). The set-pieces keep getting bigger, the explosions continue to grow larger and more frequent, the fight scenes run longer and incorporate more characters, all while the story continues to evaporate. It's expanding the form while diminishing the content and doesn't apologize for a single, overblown minute.
The Future Of 'Bayhem'
With Transformers 5: The Last Knight, Bayhem nears its purest form — what the New Yorker calls “Pure Sensation”. Bay seems to be taking the elements he's known for and amplifying them, while narrowing the components that do not serve his brand, hence the extremely shallow plot. Since his trademark does not include a captivating storyline, the narrative in The Last Knight is stripped down to such an obviously thin spine that it's nearly incomprehensible. By limiting the scenes for character development and plot and expanding the action sequences, Bay creates a thread of adrenaline-filled moments that may or may not have anything to do with one another. As for the non-action scenes, it's so obvious that these were inserted for expositional purposes that it's painful to watch. The only reason they are in there is to justify the poor excuse for a story and lay grounds for more battle sequences. Although, part of me feels that it might be Bay experimenting with his audience, question whether or not we actually need a story to experience his films. I don't think the audience is ready for a pure sensation genre yet, but this film takes us pretty close.
If Michael Bay decides to carry on with his mission of Bayhem, we should continue to see some pretty wild action flicks in the near future. Not necessarily interesting, just wild. Although the only way for a pure action (or pure sensation) genre to survive is to keep experimenting with the medium. It’s all about the experience here, so it’s important he keep utilizing large format screens (IMAX), while using more portable and user friendly cameras with high resolution (4k, 8k and beyond) to place the viewer in new and interesting perspectives. 3D and possibly D-BOX offer an interesting theatrical experience, but will ultimately need to improve. If these tools are neglected, I'm afraid the average theater screen is too confined a space for Bayhem to be appreciated as an art form. He needs to keep expanding the experience if he's going to expand the action. From the looks of it, that's exactly what he intends to do.
What's your opinion on Michael Bay? Sound off in the comments!