Michael Bay: An Unbiased View
What’s the first word that comes to mind when someone says “Michael Bay”? Is it negative? I’m willing to bet that it’s anything from hack to asshole to all style and no substance, and all of those things wouldn’t be too far from the popular consensus. Michael Bay is a genre director who chooses aesthetic appeal and juvenile, brain-dead humor over the core emotional drama of his movies, and that’s a driving force for this negativity. His movies range from bad to decent, to pretty good, to absolutely awful with little to no projects that fall in-between. He has no gems, flawless masterpieces or works of art in his collection of films and he probably never will. When he tries to tackle heavier subject matter that needs to grip audiences emotionally he fails miserably (Pearl Harbor). His best flicks bring little creativity to the world of movies but you could argue that their action scenes and visual appeal are both so striking and so distinctive that they look better than 95% of other movies in that genre. Seriously, this man knows how to shoot the living crap out of a chase scene. It’s undeniable that he has a talent for chaos and carnage but the problem is that he can’t get out of his own way. Instead of focusing on pure thrill rides like we know he’s capable of bringing us he tries to add humor and drama into his movies that turn them into a muddled mess. You can compare Transformers (a guilty, fun pleasure) to Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (a convoluted, clunky, offensive mess) and know exactly what I’m talking about. He needs to stay in his comfort zone and focus on the fun and carefree experience of a thrilling action movie instead of trying to reinvent the genre.
When you look at Bay’s earlier work it feels that his projects have a simple and interesting narrative with a collection of memorable characters. Are they flawed? Of course they are, but they’re fun and much easier to watch and enjoy then his jumbled, bursting-at-the-seems mess of a Transformers franchise. Bad Boys and Bad Boys II gave us a great comedic team-up that packed a hell of a punch in the action genre. With Armageddon he gave us a patriotic underdog movie with a rag-tag group of cast-offs going from zeroes to heroes and saving the world. The Rock, known to most as Michael Bay’s best and most audacious work, is a relentless and engaging movie that owns a spot in the Criterion Collection and seems to have turned into an action movie staple. The Island is a rare and creatively underrated SciFi/Action mash-up that offers one of the best ensemble casts in Bay’s arsenal. Though the movie lacks “soul” at times, it’s interesting and fast paced enough to keep you thoroughly engaged in the story as well as the spectacle. Even the first Transformers movie sort of fits this mold, even if it does stray further away from his traditional projects. It has the right mix of comedy (that seems appropriate), action and dramatic punch that works in a cohesive enough pattern to give us a fun summer blockbuster. Those 5 movies aren’t popular with critics or getting nominated come award season but they are visually stimulating an action crowd that feeds off of these movies. In those 5 films alone you get Bruce Willis, Sean Connery, Nicholas Cage, Will Smith, Billy Bob-Thornton, Scarlet Johansson, Ed Harris, Ben Affleck and Steve Buscemi. Wow. That’s some damn talented actors and there are a ton of smaller but well-known performers in those movies as well. They’re harmlessly relentless thrill rides that have their fair share of movie fans both with the general public and the cinephile community. Armageddon is a B-movie disaster flick loaded with humor, a great cast, a damn good soundtrack and some visually stylistic action scenes, not to mention some genuinely moving moments. It’s the perfect “love/hate” movie that Bay has become so used to being associated with. When I look at Michael Bay I see someone promising dumb, over the top and obnoxiously loud action movies, and delivering on that promise. He doesn’t beat around the bush and say that they’re Academy Award hopefuls or small indie dramas. He tells it like it is and gives the people that want visually striking, loud, shallow movies, exactly that. So when did he get the perception of a cinema-killing hack of a director? Two words: Giant Robots.
The last 2 Transformers movies failed to capture an emotional core because the human characters are throwaways and the robots don’t get enough development, so these movies have turned into the quintessential Michael Bay turnoff. Why? Well, because their fan base genuinely consists of the younger, ADD-crazed teenage crowd that cares for nothing more than mayhem, Call of Duty and poop jokes.
And that’s what they’re directly associated with.
He turned a franchise that could’ve been something really special into a franchise that runs on product placement, loud noises and infantile humor. They’re riddled with horrible acting, plot holes, pace-killing moments of comedy, throw away characters, subplots that go nowhere and some overly complicated action scenes. My eyeballs want to vomit everytime Bay gives us a sequence of more than two robots fighting at the same time. It’s confusing at times, hard to follow in others and drawn out as a whole. Those movies suffer from “George Lucas Syndrome” where every single frame has so much crammed into it that your mind has no idea where to look or how to react. The first movie tempered this idea and managed to give us a decent blend of action, comedy and enthusiastic chase sequences. When they raised the scale (and budget) of the next two we were treated to bogged down action movies that were too ambitious for their own good. When you throw in the poop jokes and racially offensive humor of the stereotyping variety you get the recipe for utter disaster.
Those movies aside this guy really has a solid lineup of explosive fanfare that delivers to fans what they’re looking for in an action movie. He offers them the ability to escape and see some gorgeously stylistic chase scenes coupled with your standard characterizations that get the plot moving from point A to Point B. Zack Snyder is throwing feces like Sucker Punch in our faces but gets a free pass because.. well, why isn’t he getting blasted as much as Michael Bay? He gave us women in skin-tight fetishistic school girl outfits fighting gigantic dragons, Nazis and robots in front of a green screen with painfully boring CGI but people are eating it up and praising it as original artistry. No Thanks. That movie was just as bad as the last two Transformers movies but flew under the radar in terms of overly negative feedback.
One of the things that is criminally overlooked about Michael Bay is his use of stunt work and minimal reliance on computer generated images. He seems to only use CGI when it’s needed in context with the story. He built an asteroid set for Armageddon in place of a green screen with a CGI backdrop. He filmed on location for The Rock and built massive set pieces for The Island and Transformers. He totals tons of vehicles, buildings, and stationery objects and opts for real explosives and stunt work instead of digitized fire and cartoonish looking human designs. Too many action movies these days suffer from computer-generated sequences that stick out like a sore thumb and make them look like video game cut-scenes. We as movie fans are constantly criticizing filmmakers for the abundance of CGI in their projects but don’t step back and look at what Michael Bay does with every single movie. Look at the highway chase scene from The Island and tell me that it’s not better than 90% of the CGI car race we got from the 4th Fast and the Furious movie. Even in the Transformers series he filmed real stunt work and explosives but added in the robots later in post-production. A majority of the time something is exploding in The Transformers movies it’s actual smoke and pyrotechnics instead of computer generated explosives, and that’s why it looks so realistic compared to other movies. I love that he uses CGI as a tool instead of a medium and he never gets the praise he rightly deserves for it. I also appreciate his work-ethic behind the lens and his commitment to delivering the most thrilling and organic performances possible. He’s notoriously hard on his actors and puts them through vigorous training regimen to get into peak physical condition. Why? Because he wants to film everything as real as possible and often uses actors in place of stunt-men in his movies. He also works hand in hand with the United States military and a lot of the extras in his action scenes are active-duty or now retired veterans. He brings as much detail as possible to his movies and it’s nice to see someone reaching out to our armed forces and having a patriotic love for their country (and it shows in his trademark flag-waving screenshots).
At the end of the day everyone has their own opinion on Michael Bay and mine is that he makes a wide variety of movies that range from downright terrible to surprisingly effective. I think he gets a ton of flack for his egotistical and immature personality that translated terribly on screen with the last 2 Transformers movies, but there’s more to him than that series. Deep down I believe that there’s a brilliant action movie lurking inside of his mind that may never get out. It certainly won’t if he keeps getting caught up with the Transformers franchise and pushing complicated CGI robot models instead of a story-telling narrative and emotional core. Will we ever see something great from Michael Bay? Who knows. Maybe we already did. Maybe his best work was something as fundamentally sound but inherently flawed as The Rock. People seem to really view that movie as his best work so maybe that was the only time it all came together for him.. and unfortunately it happened at the beginning of his career instead of the middle. So, how do you feel about Michael Bay?