I know it’s a very unpopular opinion, but I actually like Michael Bay movies. He’s the only director where I’ve seen all of their films, in theaters, and on opening day. Although I’ve already seen [Transformers: Age of Extinction](movie:206531), I’m hard-pressed to keep that streak going this time around. Age of Extinction might be the best movie in the franchise, but it’s a very low bar when you consider the first three films in the series. I will reiterate and say that I am a fan of Michael Bay’s movie, but it seems to me that the Transformers franchise is bringing down his creativity as an action director.
Now I know what you’re thinking, Michael Bay is terrible and any competent director can make movies full of explosions and destruction. While that’s true to a certain extent, there’s something about Michael Bay’s action that appeals to me as a moviegoer. There’s a fast pace and cutting edge to his action sequences that no other director can seem to replicate. From the prison break siege in The Rock to multiple car chase scenes in Bad Boys II, Michael Bay has shown time-and-time again that he has an understanding of space, geography, and choreography that is unique to action cinema. Maybe I’m overanalyzing his work, but you can look at anyone of his movies and recognize that they’re Michael Bay films. By definition, Michael Bay is an auteur, but increasingly his films seem to be getting worse and worse.
Michael Bay started his career in feature film directing with Bad Boys with Will Smith and Martin Lawrence in 1995. He almost re-invented the buddy cop action genre by infusing comedy and social satire by subverting expectations by peppering the film’s cast with a multi-culture pallet. The movie launched Michael Bay’s career and introduced the world to Will Smith as a movie star. Remember at the time, Will Smith was on the final legs of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, as he was itching to break into the movies. While he had a few supporting roles in smaller films, being the co-star in Bad Boys really showed a mass audience that he had real on-screen charisma.
Bay followed up Bad Boys with The Rock in 1996 and Armageddon in 1998, which are considered two of the best action movies of the 90s. In fact, both movies have a firm spot in the prestigious Criterion Collection with spine #108 and #40, respectively. The Rock and Armageddon stick out like sore thumbs when they’re placed next to movies like Sir Laurence Olivier’s Henry V and Josef von Sternberg’s The Scarlet Empress, but in some ways, Michael Bay fits in perfectly when you read the first line of the Criterion Collection’s mission statement: “a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films.” For better or worse, you really can’t have a conversation about action cinema without namedropping Michael Bay.
Bay’s career in the 2000s is bookended with Pearl Harbor, a big scale historical drama, and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, a sequel to a highly successful film franchise. To many Bay aficionados, these two movies are the lowest points in the action director’s career. One film handles an important and tragic day in American history as a fun, action thrill ride, while the latter is a complete mess and a cluster of racist and childish moments with loud and dumb explosions. In other words, it’s a hot mess!
The first Transformers trilogy was highly profitable for Paramount and Hasbro, which is why they keep making them, but I contend that Michael Bay can do better than what these films are doing for him creatively and cinematically. While Transformers: Dark of the Moon has some flourishes of interesting cinema, namely the last 45 minutes with the attack on Chicago, the Transformers franchise adds up to be about nine hours of entertainment. And 45 minutes pure wonder and excitement is simply not enough for me.
In 2007, Michael Bay teamed up with Steven Spielberg to make the first film adaptation of the popular toy line from Hasbro. The first Transformers movie was a big commercial hit with moderate critical praise. While the film is seen as a fun and light romp, I felt that it was complete nonsense with shallow characters and uninspired action. Overall, looking back on it, Transformers was harmless when compared to what would come next.
Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen
In 2009, Revenge of the Fallen took the mediocre formula that made the first Transformers movie a success and turned it to 11. While the movie suffered from the Writer’s Guild of America strike from 2007, Bay practically didn’t do anything to elevate the film’s story or action, but instead delivered highly offensive Autobots with the infamous Skids and Mudflap, and juvenile humor such as Judy Witwicky’s (Julie White) pot-brownie “trip” and Devastator’s balls. Revenge of the Fallen also “won” three Razzie Awards for Worst Picture, Worst Director, and Worst Screenplay.
Transformers: Dark of the Moon
Released in 2011, I actually feel that Dark of the Moon is a marked improvement from the first two Transformers movies. Michael Bay is doing something interesting with the camera throughout the whole movie with the way he composes shots. The focus seems to have shifted from Sam Witwicky (Shia LeBeouf) to the Autobots and Decepticons’ civil war and the Transformers place in American historical fiction. The last 45 minutes alone is worth watching this film for its intense and thrilling 3D action, which seems to be the inspiration for other summer blockbusters such as The Avengers and Man of Steel. In fact, Dark of the Moon and Man of Steel share similar plots with its villains terraforming the Earth to recreate their respective home planets, Cybertron and Krypton, with sci-fi device mumbo-jumbo, the Space Bridge and the World Engine.
The only real point of interest in Michael Bay’s career in the last nine years in the smaller Pain & Gain, which is the movie his fans and cinephiles were waiting for. It’s Bay’s passion project and it shows. He and the film’s stars mark Wahlberg and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson took considerable salary cuts to make it, and it was a character driven movie, as opposed to an action film. While Pain & Gain was a low budget movie (by Hollywood standards), Bay couldn’t find financing for its $26 million budget. Ultimately, Paramount agreed to fund the movie, if Bay agreed to direct Transformers: Age of Extinction, after the director said he was finished with the franchise after Dark of the Moon. Pain & Gain re-invigorated Michael Bay’s creativity and showed that he can make a smaller movie without explosions. Simply put, Michael Bay needs to make more movies like Pain & Gain.
Transformers: Age of Extinction
Age of Extinction is an example of a director who seems to be going through the motions to make a movie. While it just might be the best in the franchise, it’s also the longest and most bloated. That spark of excitement and innovation that could be found in Pain & Gain was gone. The thought that Michael Bay would turn around his career was also gone with Age of Extinction delivering more of the same from the first three Transformers movies.
When I look at a list of Michael Bay’s movies, I faced with great memories of sitting in frosty movie theaters from my past. While there are certainly some lows throughout his career, there are definitely more memorable greats. However, a majority of the lows come directly from the Transformers movies, which seem to be like a big Decepticon logo on his chest. It’s evil!
Although Age of Extinction has the potential to be the most profitable in the franchise, I’m really hoping that Michael Bay hands the keys to another director for the sake of his directorial chops and the franchise’s longevity. Some like Jonathan Liebesman (Battle: Los Angeles) or James DeMonaco (The Purge), who already make movies under Bay’s Platinum Dunes production company. At the moment, Paramount confirmed that Transformers 5 will hit theaters in 2016, but the film's director has yet to be announced. While the new film’s title points to a massive catastrophic event, the film franchise is in desperate need for new life.
Want to hear more about my thoughts on Michael Bay? I co-host a podcast called The AuteurCast, the podcast dedicated to filmmakers, their movies, and film criticism. We did a whole series on Michael Bay’s career and work. You can find that series at this link.