Transformers: Dark of the Moon may not be very good, but it’s relevant to me, and sometimes that is more important.
“He’s a Millennial. That means he’s like a Lost Generation or something…”
The standard line on Michael Bay’s authoritarian reign over the very powerful Transformers Empire goes something like this: “Here before us lies the death of thoughtful cinema! Oh God above, where is its heart? Is there a beating human heart here? Alas, there is not. Only cold steel and empty spectacle! Why do we condone the callous actions of this Michael Bay by laying billions of dollars at his feet? Why! Have we no pride in ourselves? No shame?”
This is obviously paraphrasing. Some liberties have been taken, yes. But we would be
lying if we did not at least acknowledge that, at the heart of the evisceration Bay gets served fresh every time he rolls out another episode of Sam Witwicky and His Robot Friends, we find some form of this lament. When Bay releases a movie, there is a resounding call to the gods above to restrain a beast much larger than Megatron – an unstoppable, vampiric parasite that feeds off our wallets and our souls during those carefree summer months that used to be occupied, in days long past, by innocent pursuits like stickball and Anne Rice novels. This beast is called “Summer Blockbuster,” and he takes many forms. Not long ago, he tried to pass himself off as a unique space epic involving a green-loving superhero, and he has returned this July 4th weekend to try and convince us he is not simply the same recycled space epic, just with more robots.
This beast scares me too. All my life, I have been trained well to fear him, and so, when I hear the name Michael Bay, I have the appropriate Pavlovian response. Gag.
I’m not saying this response is even that wrong. Bay has set himself up to be “that guy.” Heck he even embraces it like the evil wrestler who feeds off the boos of the few people who don’t like the evil wrestler more. He feeds off your derision.
He wants to be the dude with the camera who is there to serve our needs when we are at our least self-conscious – when we want our greasy fast food fix after too many wayward
adventures in unknowable haute cuisine. That’s what his ethos is: “When you get tired of movies about loneliness and the unbearable nature of being, I’ll be here with a story about a band of brothers – all of them little guys, underdogs, with pretty girls back home – fighting against improbable odds in order to keep that American flag waving! (Also, there will be explosions and breasts!)”
With the exception of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (which had a plot so holey, entire pyramids fell through it) Bay has never released an egregiously bad movie, though he has never released a truly superb movie either. Though his editing can create extreme confusion, Michael Bay is not a bad director by any means. What makes everyone so uncomfortable around his legacy is that he is an extremely effective (almost very good) director with a “bad agenda” that seems to run contrary to everything auteur cinema should stand for.
When you peek above the trees – beyond the specific message of each individual narrative Bay stamps with his signature – to take a glance at the Forest of Bay – towards his troubling overarching super-narrative – you get an unsettling big picture of a sort of self-righteous mission aimed toward feel-good monotony (broken up frequently by big booms) that can make you more than a bit queasy. In other words, we have a severe gap between a man’s work (which isn’t half bad) and the man himself (who is loathed in such a passionate way that it makes his films seem worst in retrospect then the really are). This gap puts the legacies of semi-decent and important movies like Transformers: Dark of the Moon on the line, serving us with a dilemma Grantland columnist Chris Ryan puts well when he asks earnestly, “Has there ever been a filmmaker whose work is so consistently popular while the man himself seems so loathed by the thinking public?”
As a member of this “thinking public” who truly loves innovative movies based on novel
concepts that do not necessarily involve children’s toys, I frequently counsel myself against continuing to support Bay, the man who is supposedly swallowing quality cinema whole, telling myself it is unwise, if not immoral, to see his next romp… And yet… When it comes to the Transformers movies, I do inevitably end up in the theater on opening weekend, butt planted firmly in seat. Stranger still, when I am there, an emotional connection to the text itself seems to grab me unexpectedly and make me forget that a man I have a vague distaste for named Michael Bay even exists. Why is that?
Bay’s is a precarious position to take as far as directorial visions go, and naturally, it leads pretty unanimously to reviews like this one, from John Anderson at The Wall Street Journal:
A black hole of technology, talent and time, “Transformers: Dark of the Moon” is a symptom of many things, chief among them the fact that summer blockbuster movies don’t really matter anymore. What matters is the propaganda. The sound and fury surrounding director Michael Bay’s third Hasbro inspired sci-fi hallucination has been cranked up to such a
volume that no consumer of any media can ignore it, and no mere movie can possibly live up to it. And it doesn’t matter: Audiences won’t come to “Dark of the Moon” to see it, but to have seen it. The hype has outpaced the product.
This analysis is three things: it is extraordinarily typical, building on a perfect template for taking down the School of Bay; it is effective as far as criticisms of the overall movie culture of 2011 go, making things seem really truly very bad; and it seems to have almost no relation to the text itself, a movie about big robots, yes, but also a very prescient text which, at its best, follows the emotional journey of a young man growing up and entering the job market, unsure how his noble exploits as a brave teen will translate to a world controlled by – yuck – old people, and at its worst is a pretty standard alien invasion movie about how much, in the end, humanity really rocks.
What about Anderson’s criticism is typical/effective? You have, right off the bat, the
cultural succubus notion of the “black hole.” You have a mention outright of technology, the scourge of pure, old-school film-making. You have the naming of the beast: “Summer Blockbuster.” You have the words “propaganda,” “sound and fury,” “hallucination,” and “Michael Bay” making up two damning sentences about a certain director’s assembly-line movies ultimately signifying nothing. You have lip service paid to Hasbro, damning
product tie-ins as sell-outs. You have “sci-fi” used as a bad word. You have criticism levied against both the Hollywood hype machine, marketing a dream that no mere movie can live up to, and against the audience, who is dumb enough to buy into this deal, mindlessly consuming the product without discernment or intelligence. And, most tellingly, you have no mention of the text itself, just the context that leaves that sour taste in your mouth.
Here’s the thing. It’s difficult to care about that whole nasty meta-narrative about the death of cinema and the corruption of art when the engrossing narrative on the screen about a boy and his pet robot is sucking you in by being at least somewhat compelling and asking you to revel in the intricacies and truths on display – and don’t be fooled by analyses which neglect to acknowledge the existence of these facets, because they are in Bay’s films in droves! They are not handled as tactfully as they might be by a less commercial, more subtle director, but they are there and they are rather intentional, and they do speak to something if you’re willing to be spoken to.
At the heart of Bay’s films are rather intricate and relevant commentaries on suburbia,
masculinity in the 21st century, growing up in a technological age, generational conflict in the workplace, the harsh job market, objectification of women, the government, and the military – essentially every important issue anyone in America talks about these days except immigration. Now, these commentaries are shoe-horned into movies which Bay would like us to believe are really about badass robot cars when they are ostensibly not, which ends up sending a mixed message. But it’s not like you have to go hunting to find some depth and thought in a Bay film! You just have to accept the good with the bad, which is most of the problem with Bay – he insists on throwing you the bad (weird sidekicks and chauvinism) while making you search a little harder for the good (incisive, thoughtful filmmaking served up appetizingly with wicked cool special effects).
Bay’s films are accused of being either a symptom of, or the cause of, the death of cinema
because they are empty vessels which hold nothing beneath the surface – the glossy sheen of a robots metal carapace or of a woman’s bare leg sensually ogled. They contain no subtext or import. They divert everyone’s attention from what is good and speaks to the human condition. They have dollar signs in their cold, lifeless eyes! Read Tranformers
reviews and you see these cutting commentaries time and again. Well-written as these scathing comments may be, they miss the mark. These accusations are levied at the attitude of a man who seems to represent in his ethos all these bad things, but what of the body of work he has actually created? Has it really done all the damage to our cinematic tradition we claim it has? Of course not.
I do not think that Bay’s Transformers films are the death of cinema. I believe they are another chapter in the life of cinema. They are not the smartest chapter, nor are they the most mature or warm chapter, but they do breathe and live and they inform how people today interact with that magical portal known as the movie screen more than any other films out there in 2011.
Hands down, if I am creating a curriculum for a class about the immediate post-9/11 years in America using only movies and television shows, the first and third Transformers films are making the cut, and I say that with no shame. They are important. It’s not like you can’t view them critically while acknowledging this import, and I plan to do just that. But you can’t just plug your ears, shout “LALALALALA,” and claim they don’t exist.
These movies do exist, and they have a huge amount of influence. That is most of the problem, of course. We expect movies by Michael Bay to be poorly thought-out and poorly intentioned. We expect movies about ‘80s action figures, movies starring Victoria’s Secret models, and movies involving perverted, fetishistic pet robots who like ladies’ underwear to be really poorly thought-out and extremely poorly intentioned. On the other hand, we expect important movies to be important because they are well-thought-out and well-intentioned. It shouldn’t be enough that a movie is relevant and entertaining. For it to say something, it should earn the right by paying its dues at the meeting place of art and its patrons. If box office numbers and critical backlash are any indication, Bay’s films get to really say something in spite of the fact that they are big, clumsy, populist, sexist and “simple.” Directors like Christopher Nolan and Matthew Vaughn appear to work hard for their cred, but it looks with every passing year like Bay is cheating the system – every time a movie release comes, only he gets to pass Go, speaking straight to the zeitgeist without really thinking about what he is saying.
But Michael Bay has thought about what he is saying. You can not like what he is saying just as much as you can not like what Terrence Malick is saying, but you cannot posit that Bay is not saying anything. Bay’s films are overstuffed with things he is saying!
Bay’s mind must be a veritable playground of passionate arguments punctuated by colorful, exploding exclamation marks. Probably the biggest myth propagated about a Bay film is that it has nothing to say beneath its special effects. Bay is accused of giving us cold, empty vessels, but, if anything, his movies are just the opposite – they are disorganized moshpits of really hot, passionate ideas stuffed tightly into a vessel which cannot carry all of them and still make a clean landing. As Molly Lambert points out, Bay’s greatest crime is not a lack of effort but, surprisingly enough, an overabundance of enthusiasm for his
aesthetic. “Fast Five,” she claims, “accomplishes [its] goals with twice the payoff and a fraction the strained effort of Michael Bay. Michael Bay tries way too hard, and his movies reflect this. They try too hard, and trying too hard can be the biggest impediment to success of the thing you are trying too hard at.”
I hear you, Ms. Lambert. Bay is not a dumb filmmaker. He is an inefficient filmmaker. His films are not bad; they are flawed in a really interesting way that I think will play well in years still to come. Bay wants his films to be many things, and he tries way too hard to make everything happen and still fit in more. There are two prominent tracts which make up Bay’s Transformers films:
1) He wants his films to be cool, high-grossing movies about how a war between transforming sentient machines effects the somewhat rocky existence humanity has going on this big blue rock of ours. This conflict is where most of his films’ razzle-dazzle comes from. This is the safe, uninteresting part of his Transformers
movies where all the conflict comes from big cathartic releases of energy. This
is what a lot of people go to Bay’s movies to see, and if Bay would just focus on good robots and bad robots and leave all the teenage angst stuff out, a lot of people would be a lot happier and Bay’s flawed movies would be a lot less schizophrenic, which all sounds great I guess. His films would be serviceable alien invasion movies about a bunch of talking cars based on a line of Hasbro toys, which is what most people think these movies are about anyway – big robots.
To be frank, this part bores me, at least until Optimus Prime rips out a Decepticon’s spine. (And, really, that doesn’t interest me because of any great story beat, but because of sheer spectacle, which is fine if the story serves it. The story rarely does.) Why am I bored? Because in this half of Bay’s story, the Autobots are the protagonists, and the Autobots are horrible protagonists. They are poorly drawn, their motivations are given in halting exposition that doesn’t make any sense, and they cannot express feeling. Only Bumblebee manages to both look awesome and come across as a motivated, feeling individual with a purpose, and that’s only because he is so tied to Sam. Bay could turn his attention toward fleshing out his Autobot characters, making the science fiction aspect of his films seem more visceral, but Bay, it becomes increasingly apparent as this series grows older, has very little interest in doing that. Each film spends less time trying to humanize the Autobots and more time exploring Bay’s pet themes of human brotherhood and burgeoning sexuality. In some respects, Bay is too good for a simple smash-bang robot movie, so he tries to focus on human stories that interest him while still feeding the machine. This lack of focus, of course, never pays off come the grand finale, where all our focus is on the Autobots (whom Bay has neglected to give any depth). There is, as John Anderson puts it “no integration of various elements, no sense of immersion in consolidated fantasy and hence no suspension of disbelief. Hence no emotional engagement. Hence, boredom.”
Therefore, as films about alien invasions go, these movies aren’t very interesting; they are too confusing and disjointed to really give you that sinking, claustrophobic feeling you get when you feel, watching a sci-fi film, that humanity really is in imminent danger of extinction and that this conflict is tapping into something essential about humanity. On a sheer emotional scale, Bay’s films rate somewhere below films like District 9 and even Independence Day in the aliens-without-home-worlds category. Dark of the Moon is more coherent, but it’s still not a truly good movie about a war between humanity and alien overlords. Although the robots’ master plan actually makes sense in this Transformers, the havoc this plan wreaks never feels real or tight, because conveying time and space cohesively has never been Bay’s strength. Because of this, Bay’s danger feels synthetic. I feel like all of Bay’s slow-motion explosions are for naught. Ultimately, I’m not there.
2) In every Transformers film, Bay seems to be making an entirely separate film about burgeoning young people (mostly boys) finding their place in the grown-up world. This “film” sometimes runs counter to Bay’s robot war epic, and sometimes the two films work together serviceably. I think I know which is more important to the filmmaker though: ultimately, if Bay had to sum up his three films, I suspect the war over Cybertron would not even warrant a mention.
- The first film is not about the All Spark. It is about
the arrival of sexual desire. It is a simple film about a summer crush, nothing
more. There is a boy, a car and a girl. The boy wins the girl by handling his
car really well, even when all of Los Angeles starts blowing up around them. At
the end of the film, the boy and girl make out on the car, ending the perfect
- The second film is not about Autobot heaven. It is about
the end of that perfect summer, when you grow too old for that car and that
girl. It would have been a simple film about the strain put on close
relationships by distance if Michael Bay could have kept his head on straight.
He could not.
- The third film is not about Sentinel Prime. It is about a
young go-getter entering the real world and being told to get gone. It is a
simple film about struggling to turn teenage successes into adult successes. No
one believes a young man can have value, and he is put down frequently, but by
the film’s end, the young man has reordered his life, reasserted his value, and
is prepared for a mature future which he can live out his way.
Bay cares about his humans a lot, and the simple kernel of human truth he gives each film builds on really essential experiences of growing up in 2011 (or, really, growing up ever), which makes it really interesting that the biggest complaint against him is that he cares only about robots. Bay loves making cars turn into behemoths, just like any kid that ever held a Transformer action figure, but what he loves more is trying to make that simple thrill of identifying with your toys into something ambitious and relevant. This impulse puts a lot of strain on his films, but it makes them darn interesting.
What is really fascinating about Bay is that he got handed the keys to this profitable plastic empire, but you can tell that, somewhere in there, Michael Bay really wants his films to be about something much more human. You may see a Cybertronian epic. Want to know what I see? I see a pretty interesting film about a group of unsure young men being told what to do by their elders until, in a great bout of wish fulfillment, they are guided through the difficult process of growing up (in suburbia and in Iraq) by a group of guardian angels who are sent from above. These guides break the young men out of their gilded cages, giving them a purpose and placing them, at a surprisingly young age, in a position of authority. With the help of their guardian angels, the men handle this quick promotion to the forefront of humanity with aplomb. The world is a better place because of the youthquake these young men lead.
This should sound familiar. Millennials and magic guides go together like butter and toast. In Bay’s films, these guardian angels just happen to be really smart alien robots that turn into fast cars, rather than fairy godparents, genies or Christopher Lloyd in a baseball uni. Millennials (the generation born between the early ‘80s and late ‘90s, also known as Generation Y) have been eating this stuff up since we were little kids watching Aladdin
and Air Bud. We want someone else to come in from the outside and help us understand who we are, what our dreams should be, and what the best way to get the girl (or more rarely in male-centric Hollywood, the guy) is. We attach feverishly to these films about kind, protective guardians who help our favorite baseball team win so our dad will
come back, or take us away from our dark cupboard under the stairs, or give us the courage the tell that cute girl how much we love her. What Hollywood tells about ourselves is that we have been coddled, yes, but in spite of this, we feel alone and we seek connection. We also feel like we need a little help to get there — something magical and understanding, an all-powerful friend. We have put millions in the coffers of Hollywood by asking mom and dad to take us to see films that act on these feelings.
Bay’s take is the logical progression of things – the Transformers movies have found that precocious little Millennial with big dreams and a desperate need for a wise guide, but he’s not ten years old and vaguely depressed anymore (which is fitting because the audience doesn’t need mom and dad to drive them to the theater anymore either). He is in his early twenties, exploring his sexuality and entering a work force controlled by powerful Boomers and smarmy Gen Xers. The wishes he needs granted involve more complicated and (ahem) PG-13 rated content. Naturally then, in Bay’s fantasy, his guide is no magic fairy. It’s what every teenage guy dreams of – a gorgeous Camero that both protects its master from harm and reasserts his masculinity. Sam Witwicky’s spirit guide is a mute car that wants to help him land the girl of his dreams and escape his suburban parents. What more could he ask for really?
This is such an interesting way to frame the Millennial experience. You would think at least a few reviewers would have something to say about this movie’s vision of youth coming together and fostering change in spite of the skepticism and corruption of the old guard. In a post-Obama era, the critics seem to be on the lookout for this message anywhere they can find it in culture, and Bay offers it up repeatedly, but no one’s biting like they did with The Social Network or Toy Story 3.
Michael Bay bashes us over the head repeatedly that this is what he is getting at. At the heart of this film is a deep mistrust for the crimes of our proverbial fathers – the bad guy has inherited his loyalty to the Decepticons from his father; Optimus’s mentor sold out to the other side, leaving the big guy truly hurt; all those nice presidents and astronauts lied to us about why we went to the moon; all the old guys at Sam’s office who take Sam in are really in league with Megatron; even Megatron lashes out because he feels betrayed by the elder Sentinel Prime. This movie’s theme has nothing to do with robot good and robot evil. This movie is about how much older people screwed things up and how hard younger people will work within their screwy system to make everything better. Where else on film lately have you seen this many young people coming together to fight for what they believe in, and doing it not by sticking up their middle finger to authority, a la The Breakfast Club, but by making the authority figures see the error of their ways? Bay unironically loves this generation of loyal team-players who feel stymied by an economic downturn and a bad rap. I find this fascinating. This is mostly because I am a Millennial, people identify me as such at my workplace, I just went through job interviews and I too wonder where I am meant to go in life. Where is my spirit guide? Bay’s vision of Millennial wish fulfillment actually means something to me. How could it not?
You could parse these movies for a good long time searching for these sorts of significant
markers of Bay’s importance to the movie-going experience in 2011 – and someday, many people will do just this. They will find much to be troubled by. Michael Bay cannot help it – he gets in his own way. His films are juvenile, chauvinist and a little bit racist and looking back at them will be painful not because of what isn’t in Michael Bay’s films (the incorrect consensus being nothing) but because of what is. You’ll find googly-eyed robots panting about how great it was to be in a girl’s underwear drawer. You’ll see many shots of a girl’s behind. You’ll see John Turturro yelling about a robot’s scrotum. You’ll see Ken Jeong taking off his pants in a bathroom stall and Sam’s parents partaking in pot brownies. You’ll see insensitive caricatures of black people. These things will make you cringe, most assuredly, and I offer no excuses for them. Michael Bay, in these moments, thinks his films are funny, but it is a commonly held belief that Michael Bay cannot do comedy. The proof is right here.
The Transformers films will endure not because of their attempts at high comedy, but because of their unique, schizophrenic attempt to be more than just action movies. These films are extraordinarily prescient – almost manipulatively so. You can say they are not very good but you cannot say they are empty. I know they are not, because I’ve seen inside them and realized that, while I don’t think the movies are as well-made as they could possibly be, these movies are relevant to me, and sometimes, with art, that matters more. They reflect back much of what someone my age worries about, and they project it in front of me in large, sweeping strokes. They take something I see every day and turn it into a consumable experience that presents a different, magical world – which really looks a lot like the one I see most days through my own eyes, but with more robot ass-kicking and fire. Transformers is accused of being escapist fantasy, but, no matter how much I want to dislike him, when I see Sam Witwicky struggle on the screen, I don’t feel like I am escaping anything. Instead, I feel like I am confronting something. Don’t I have Michael Bay to thank for that?