Every two years or so for the past-decade-and-a-half a movie appeared, like clockwork, right in the middle of summer. This movie promises to be the spectacle to end all spectacles and outdo every other film released that year. It comes populated by the young and the beautiful, the best and the brightest of the stars of tomorrow and promises more thrills, more laughs, more explosions and more sex appeal than anybody knows what to do with. In every way the movie is designed with but one purpose in mind: to separate the movie-going public from their hard-earned dollars, and if it seems that way it’s because that’s exactly what it’s designed to do. And more often than not it succeeds, no matter how juvenile or underwhelming the results may be.
You’re probably asking yourself just who the genius is behind these movies. Who’s the man that figured out how to get us to hand over our money time and again like a bunch of little lemmings? Who is the auteur of excess that entrances us year after year? Is it Spielberg? George Lucas? Robert Zemeckis? Maybe the great Cecil B. DeMille, risen from the grave? Of course not. Don’t be silly.
No, it’s Michael Bay.
Some of you are probably laughing right now but if you doubt his credentials as the purveyor of the popular, just consider his oeuvre: Bad Boys, The Rock, Armageddon, Pearl Harbor and Transformers 1 & 2. Each was released in that hallowed summer movie-window – if you stretch the meaning of ‘summer’ a little bit – and only one failed to crack $100 million at the domestic box office. But even the one that didn’t – Bad Boys – is still considered a major hit, probably because it made four times its $19 million budget at the domestic box office and helped propel Will Smith into the superstar-stratosphere. In fact, aside from The Island, he hasn’t stumbled once, but just kept chugging along, although, since The Island still managed $165 million box office worldwide, not counting video, DVD, merchandising, product placement and TV rights, it’s not much of a stumble.
Since the beginning Michael Bay’s been something like box office magic, a slot machine coming up nothing but cherries and looking at the films themselves it’s easy to understand why everything always pays off. Each is done to a perfect formula. Pretty much everyone is built on a simplistic bad guys v. good guys story with no moral gray area that avoids all political statements and grandstanding. The hero is almost mythological, the girl is always hot and loves to run around in slo-mo while wearing a low-cut blouse and the editing is hyperactive, all perfect for today’s youth. And blowing stuff up? Fuggedaboutit.
With all that, what’s not to love?
Loving Michael Bay
I should say it right now: I kind of love Michael Bay. Not in that whole “bromance” way that seems pretty popular right now because honestly, I’ve never met the guy. No, it’s more of the “I can sit down and watch his movies anytime and be pretty happy” kind of way and somehow I don’t think I’m alone. He might get clobbered by the critics but when Transformer’s 2 opened to $108 million domestically, I know it wasn’t my $8 alone that made up the gross. No, these days the masses flock to his movies so regularly that he’s become the go-to-guy for high-concept, high-octane, highly-ridiculous summer tent pole movie.
My thing for Michael Bay began when I was in the Columbia House DVD club. They sent me Pearl Harbor and I opened it before I knew what it was and even though it was mine now I had no intention of watching it. And why should I? Roger Ebert hated it and so did just about everybody else. But somehow it made $200 million and that fact kind of piqued my interest and when I finally did watch it I kind of loved it and not just a little, but I kind of loved it a lot. I mean, its hokey, jingoistic, predictable, historically laughable, has the worst dialog spoken by some actors that don’t really seem to be working very hard and it stretches all credibility, but embarrassingly, I loved it. I thought it was a fluke, but I loved it.
Everything was really cemented for me when The Island came out. That movie was slightly better received by the critics than Pearl Harbor, probably because Bay didn’t make the mistake of tampering with the seminal event to septuagenarians everywhere. Instead, this time he kept the focus entirely on the future and because of it the movie got a bit of a pass, though one suspects that if judged on its own merits, The Island might be just as hated as Pearl Harbor. But the critics hating Michael Bay was nothing new, it was the public hating him too that was the real innovation.
I was in law school when The Island came out and maybe I was stressing and my brain was fried and I just wanted something easy and not really challenging and I have to say that when I finally saw it on DVD it was exactly what I needed. Sure, it’s goofy. Sure, Scarlet Johansen is pretty awful in it and Ewan McGregor isn’t much better and the whole story was intriguing but also stupid, but I thought it was kind of imaginative and kind of fun – at least for a movie of its type – and if you could turn your brain off and just go with it, you’d love it too.
It’s embarrassing but since then I’ve eagerly looked forward to the next Michael Bay movie and even if it makes me seem stupid and shallow I figure I’ve done enough cinematic good in my life – my favorite movie is Touch of Evil and I adore Werner Herzog films to the point that I forgive the sometimes-loose way he plays with the facts in his documentaries – that I guess it’s okay if one of the filmmakers I’ve come to love is Michael Bay.
Hating Michael Bay
It’s sad that I’ve had to secretly love Michael Bay but it’s necessary because loving Michael Bay and his films is kind of like taking home that last girl at the bar at the end of the night. You know the one I’m talking about. She’s kind of loud and sloppy because she’s been pounding drinks all night, and she’s not real pretty and she’s not real nice but she’s at least interested in the one thing you are and at that time of the night there aren’t any other women around so it’s not like you can be picky. With a girl like that, you’re maybe gonna have some fun, but it’s not like you’ll fall in love and you’re certainly not going to be proud of it when it’s over.
I’ll say it right now, I love Michael Bay, but I’m no Michael Bay apologist and I’ll be the first to say that the critics are right. Usually critics are like eunuchs at an orgy, they can see how the show is performed but can’t do it themselves. With Bay, though, the critics are right on the money. His films are loud and obnoxious and are neither deep nor meaningful and don’t pretend to be. Even his most thought provoking film – The Island – makes its big ideas an afterthought, just something to fill the space between crap blowing up and Scarlett Johansen looking sexy. To put it bluntly, he’s a hack.
In the light of day his movies are just like the drunk girl at the bar: a pretty ludicrous and embarrassing lot. Certainly they are staged well and filled with dozens of beautiful and interesting shots, but that’s about all they are. A collection of shots. Certainly Bay can glorify the beauty of the thing in front of him – from car to teen girl – but glorifying beauty isn’t the same as inspiring emotional involvement. No, his films are like commercials, existing only to sell a product. But whereas Chevy would normally play a 30 second ad to get you to buy the new Camaro, Bay made Transformers. His work is as shallow as a dry lake bed and he is, in essence, the world’s greatest commercial director, only he yet hasn’t figured out that commercials don’t work well stretched out to two hours.
The biggest failings of his films, though, isn’t the shallowness, it’s the way they festishize explosions. Look, I like things blowing up. I’m a guy, it’s in our nature, but too much is too much. For example, there’s a show on TV called Mythbusters and in just about every episode something gets shot or blown up. It’s the way it has to be, but while you can expect the explosion in Mythbusters and rely on it eventually happening, they don’t occur every five minutes. No, they come once or twice an episode, almost always at the end, and that’s it. Any more than that and the show just wouldn’t be the same. With Bay, though, restraint is not something he regularly attempts. He likes his explosions fast and furious and while it’s fun at first after while it’s like, who cares? I saw Transformers 2 in the theater with my kids and the movie was involving for a little while – kind of – but the more it went on and the more things blew up, the less interested I was. Sad to say, but I nearly fell asleep. Put another way, a little sugar is okay; too much and I get a stomach ache. I shudder to think what The Lord of the Rings would have looked like in his hands.
As much as I love his films the reason to hate them is that they just don’t give me what I want. I want quality, I want to be engaged, challenged, maybe even a little inspired, but Bay has time for none of that. If I want to love his work I have to purposely remind myself to expect very little from it because if I go into it like I would a normal movie, expecting coherent plots and natural dialog and quality performances and women that aren’t either sex-pots or nagging mothers, then I hate it. I hate Michael Bay because it seems that the more I demand his movies be judged on the same plain as other movies, the more I hate them and I hate it that in order to love his films I have to shed my high standards and compromise my integrity. I hate it that I have to feel cheap.
It’s sad but as much as I hate to love Michael Bay, or love to hate him, I’ll probably continue to see his movies. It would just be nice if once, just once, I wasn’t the one making the compromise. Just once it would be nice to watch one of his movies and think it was something I could be proud of.