Note: There are quite a few YouTube videos included in this post, all of which I included for a reason and all of which I think are worthy of checking out. In case you’re some tech uber-noob, I recommend switching each video to HD where possible (use the little gear symbol on the bottom right side of the video to switch video quality), and some of the videos are best watched in their bigger versions on the YouTube site itself. Do that by clicking the YouTube logo on the bottom right of each video, and it will open in a new tab. Do I really have to explain this to you in 2014?
All year, I’d been anticipating doing a full review of Transformers: Age of Extinction, because my reviews for the previous 2 TF films have been fairly popular, not to mention fun to write. Then, after seeing the film I realized…what’s the point? I know damn well Michael Bay hasn’t learned a thing with regards to how to tell a story, and he isn’t even remotely interested in changing the worst aspects of his filmmaking style. I’m done hoping and praying that he’ll somehow evolve into a mature filmmaker. The guy is 49 years old, but still proudly makes movies for 14-year olds. He is what he is. So…why review something when I knew going in precisely what I was going to get? So I can tell you everything he did wrong in the other Transformers movies he does wrong again here? So I can tell you the only real improvement is that we don’t have Shia LaBeouf screaming like a girl for 2 hours? So I can explain to you in 6,500 words that yes, this was in fact EXACTLY what I thought it would be? Logic demanded I not waste my time. If I was going to talk about this movie on here, I’d need a different angle. As a result, I’ve decided instead to share what it is that fascinates me so much about Michael Bay, a director I’m somehow still a fan of despite his not having made a decent movie since the first Transformers 7 years ago. A man whose best movie (The Rock) came out 18 years ago (fuck I’m old). A man who has NEVER made a truly great movie, yet whose films I still want to see anyway no matter what. There is no other mediocre director who captivates me so. WHY?!
I’ll tell you why…
Why, after all his crimes against cinema and humanity, am I still fascinated by Michael Benjamin Bay and his work? The primary reason I’m still captivated by Michael Bay is that for all his flaws, he still fits into the category of auteur [look it up]. He may be the most unique visionary filmmaker working today. Regardless of the overall quality of his films, he is every bit the unique visual storyteller that Steven Spielberg, Ridley Scott, Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee, David Fincher, John Woo or Tim Burton are (to name a few)…just in a different way. His visual trademarks may annoy the shit out of me sometimes (for instance: the fact that his movies take place almost exclusively at sunrise/sunset because he loves magic hour light, the constantly moving camera, low angle glory shots of people getting out of cars, excessively busy frames, 360° camera rotations around his actors), but at least he has a specific visual style. That’s something that’s becoming increasingly rare in big budget filmmaking. When someone asks you What does a Michael Bay film look like?, you could answer that person. Now tell me what a Joss Whedon movie looks like. I’ll wait…
Bay knows what he likes and what he does best and he doesn’t stray from it. I applaud other filmmakers for being masters of certain techniques, so why can’t I applaud Bay for the same? The only time he legitimately tried to step outside his boundaries was on Pearl Harbor in 2001, and he failed miserably. To date, it’s his only attempt at a true drama. I remain one of that film’s few defenders (in certain respects- I don’t think it’s great by any means), but despite the individual moments and images I love in that movie, in the end he turned one of the most important events in American history into a Michael Bay movie…odd as that sounds. He has no idea how to restrain himself, even when the subject matter of the film demands it. In an objective sense, I kinda respect that. I think he actually believed that would be his Oscar movie. No matter, as I’ve said in the past, I’m officially done hoping that Michael Bay will one day stop being “Michael Bay” and embrace change. He’s too obsessed with box office and making money and style to be give two shits about his legacy among critics or the actual quality of his movies. But to him, I think huge box office tells him that people think his movies are good, so he has a completely different barometer than most critics, movie bloggers, and basically anyone over the age of 25.
Bay claims that the reason he did a 4th Transformers movie (after originally claiming he’d be done after 3) is that he went to some theme park and saw the huge line for a Transformers ride, at which point it suddenly hit him that he wasn’t done telling these stories. That’s the story he’d tell you (and has told many members of the media in the Age of Extinction press junket). Inspired by a roller coaster line. What a romantic notion. It’s a touching story if you’re a gullible nincompoop. You wanna know the real reason Michael Bay continues to make Transformers movies? It’s pretty $imple: multiple media outlets have estimated that Bay made more than $100 million EACH on the last two Transformers movies from his salary and backend box office participation. He was initially hesitant to do a fourth one (or at least he said as much publicly), so in order for the studio to get him back for #4, Paramount agreed to make his long-gestating, smaller-scaled dream project (Pain & Gain, a movie no studio would greenlight in today’s marketplace unless they were forced to at gunpoint) as long as he agreed to return for another Transformers immediately afterward. If Age of Extinction does as well or better than Dark of the Moon, he’ll make another $100-150 million in the year of our lord, 2014.
Put another way: Bay will make more money off of ONE MOVIE than someone with the talent and prestige of Martin Scorsese has made in his ENTIRE CAREER. Forbes has estimated Bay’s net worth to be about $400 million. That’s before Age of Extinction. If he continues and winds up finishing a second trilogy of these movies (which he hasn’t ruled out doing), he’ll be very close to being a billionaire. To someone like him, that’s very appealing, even if it does mean he’ll have spent more than 10 years essentially making the same movie over and over again. These movies are low-risk creatively (audiences have shown they don’t care how dumb they are so long as there’s middle school-level humor and big spiky robots smashing into each other), and as such they’re critic-proof at the box office. Obviously making a movie of this magnitude is incredibly difficult logistically, but Bay and his team have been doing movies this big for nearly 20 years (Armageddon being his first massive, CG-laden blockbuster in 1998). $200 million blockbusters are as “hard” for Michael Bay as $10 million dramedies are for Woody Allen. Bay would shit one of these movies out every single year if it were feasible. Now, if Bay tried to make, say, Moonrise Kingdom…THAT would be a challenge for him. Force Michael Bay to shoot a Wes Anderson script and the only explosion would be inside his mind (just as Wes Anderson would be equally befuddled if he had to make a Transformers movie, but you get the idea).
Still one of my all-time favorite opening credits scenes.
So that’s why he does what he does, and why he’s now “stuck” making Transformers movies. Audiences have given him no incentive to change his methods, so why would he? He’s hinted that may do another smaller movie next, but he’s all but guaranteed to do TF5 at some point, because his desire to be the king of the box office is much greater than his desire to be a multilayered filmmaker.
But this doesn’t explain why I continue to show up for his movies. Well, in short, after a decade-long struggle, I have finally accepted Michael Bay for who he is, and as much as I hate to admit it, I ENJOY his style. I ENJOY “Bayhem”. There, I said it. For every 3 or 4 things in his movies that are stupid or repetitive, there’ll be one shot or camera move or visual effect or lighting setup that will make my jaw drop. There are a dozen or so small moments in Age of Extinction that are simply breathtaking. And I realize 3:1 or 4:1 is a bad ratio in terms of quality to excrement, but I’m always looking for that inspiration, even if it is in tiny doses. We mock him for his nonstop explosions, but I’ve always loved cool movie explosions, and at this point, a Michael Bay explosion is either awesome or so unnecessary that it’s funny. Either way, I’m getting something I enjoy out of it. I love the way Bay shoots beautiful women, even if it is gratuitous and borderline sexist. SOMEONE has to do it like this, and Bay does so without hesitation. I thank you, sir.
I’m also intrigued by his reputation within the industry. Bay is widely considered to be more of a “dictator” director than an actor’s director, which is something you don’t seem to hear about happening much anymore. He’s known to be very hard on his cast & crew and enjoys yelling at people on the bullhorn. He’ll say that’s mostly because the movies he works on don’t allow for any wasted time. He’ll change his mind about complicated setups and expects his crew to keep up with him as he makes adjustments. I like that. He does a lot of his own camerawork (which I’m sure those union camera operators just loooove). He prides himself on finishing his movies on time and on budget, even if that budget escalates with each new Transformers flick. If you believe what you read, he isn’t very sensitive to actors’ needs prior to a big scene, yet there are very talented actors in all of his films and I’ve seldom heard an actor publicly complain about him. At the same time, he’s been working with mostly the same key crew members for years, so clearly they respect him even if he is a dick on set. In this way, he’s sort of a throwback to the director-as-god era in an age where big stars exert more control over their projects than ever. I like that about him. The director should be god, dammit; a collaborative god, but a god all the same.
The other thing people don’t ever mention that you get with Bay is some of the unique access he’s been afforded over the years because of his status and success (and excellent producing on his behalf). You will often see locations and hardware in his movies that you’ve never seen on film before. He’s received unprecedented access to Kennedy Space Center at NASA (where he’s shot twice– the only filmmaker who can claim that), Pearl Harbor, Alcatraz, China, the pyramids in Giza, and of course plenty of cool new cars to show off in the Transformers movies. On the third TF movie they got to shoot a big action scene in Washington D.C., which is known as one of the most restrictive, difficult places to shoot in America (Bay called it the worst city he’s ever shot in). And obviously Bay has had more extensive military cooperation on his films than pretty much anyone ever (the term ‘military porn’ has been used more than once by myself and other reviewers). On Age of Extinction, his crew was the first to use IMAX’s new digital 3D camera, which Bay claims is worth $1 million. His films will frequently feature real stunts that a) you’ve never seen before and b) that most other modern directors would create entirely on the computer. Some directors will get you access to stuff like this once or twice in their careers, but Bay tries to make something special happen on every movie of his. You gotta respect that.
Finally, on a personal level, I’d just like to hang out with the guy. Think what you will of his movies, but he comes across as a pretty cool and interesting dude. Of course it’s easy to come across that way when you’re that successful, but he’s one of the dozen or so people I would want to be legit friends with in Hollywood. At the very least, I’d love to do an in-depth, hour-long interview with him. I’d like to see him on Inside the Actors Studio, actually. (And before you say his career isn’t worthy of it, go look at some of the people they’ve had on that show in recent years.) I’ve listened to every one of his DVD/Blu-ray commentaries (they’re all fantastic- he’s just as no-bullshit as you’ve heard) and watched all of the behind-the-scenes clips. I enjoy hearing what he has to say and I love watching the man work.
He’s not overly intelligent when discussing his craft like a Fincher or a Christopher Nolan, but he does know what he’s talking about, and he’s never boring. I’m always curious what titans of the industry like Bay think of other current movies. I saw an MTV interview where he was asked if he’d seen any of this year’s other summer movies, and he responded that he really liked the new Captain America and X-Men movies (both of which are better than all 4 Transformers movies combined, not that he noticed why). Does Michael Bay watch smaller movies like The Grand Budapest Hotel? Is he an Academy member? Has he seen The Raid 2, which featured better, more complex, explosion-free action than he’s ever done at a cost of just 2% of Age of Extinction‘s budget?
Michael Bay gives great opening titles.
The fact is I think Michael Bay is one of the most interesting people (and personalities) in Hollywood, and that’s why I continue to devour everything that’s written about him, any comments he makes on the state of filmmaking, and his explanations on why he does what he does. It’s why I will continue to see his films, no matter what he does. Although he’s not the best storyteller and he doesn’t even know the word subtlety exists, let alone what it means, there’s still something in every one of his movies aspiring filmmakers can learn from once you sift through the garbage. I don’t know if this makes any sense to anyone but me, but thankfully it doesn’t have to. Long live Bayhem!
Watch Bay work on set in one part of the excellent behind-the-scenes documentary from the third TF movie:
And here’s a very good cinematic analysis of Bay’s visual style (or “Bayhem”). I wish somebody would do a longer, more in-depth version of something like this:
I didn’t waste my time and energy on a full review, but here’s a quickie rundown of my smiles and frowns while watching Age of Extinction:
WHAT I LIKED: Stanley Tucci, the gorgeous Chinese locations (even if they did shoot in China and cast a prominent Chinese actress for the sole purpose of increasing the box office potential there), seeing my baby, the Lamborghini Aventador, on the big screen (that’s the car Lockdown transformed into), sparks & explosions!, and the Dinobots (even if they did literally come out of nowhere and for no story reason other than “it’s time to put the Dinobots in these movies”)
WHAT I DIDN’T LIKE: Michael Bay continuing to do Michael Bay things (boom- in 8 words I just summed up what previously took 4,000 words in my other reviews), the script, the underwhelming performances of the lead actors (Mark Wahlberg, Nicola Peltz, Jack Reynor), and any scene that didn’t feature Stanley Tucci
Transformers: Age of Extinction – PG-13 – 166 goddamn minutes
IMDb rating: 6/10
Recommendation: So long as you understand what you’re getting, and you just want some Michael Bay eye candy, it’s worth seeing in theaters. All $200 million+ of this movie is on the screen, that’s for sure. I saw it in 2D, but I’ll admit, if there had been an IMAX 3D near me, I would’ve done that, because I want to see what that digital 3D IMAX camera can do. I would NOT see it in regular 3D.
Biggies Consideration: Art Direction, Stuntwork, Visual Effects, Sound Editing
I was also a big fan of Steve Jablonsky‘s theme for Lockdown:
-As far as other reviews of the film go, I quite enjoyed Devin Faraci‘s over at Badass Digest: Transformers: Age of Extinction: It Stinks!, in which he says of Mark Wahlberg, “the only person who would be less convincing as a Texan is Gerard Depardieu“.
–Vulture put together a list of Michael Bay’s best quotes over the years, including an awesome anecdote about lost sex toys from the Pain & Gain set.
–Vulture also provided us with How to Tell You’re a Woman in a Michael Bay Film. Very informative.
-The Red Letter Media guys watched all 3 Transformers movies at the same time with hilarious results:
“They all just look like a junkyard explosion.”
–Mother Jones did a piece on whether or not we can extrapolate Michael Bay’s politics through his movies. [Michael Bay: Hollywood’s Conservative Hero?]
-I hate the way this guy uses ALL CAPS in everything he writes, but he makes a bunch of good points, and I pretty much agree with all of it. [Film Crit Hulk Smash: HULK VS. MICHAEL BAY]
–Michael Bay’s 9 Essential Rules of Filmmaking, according to Filmdrunk.
This is 4 or 5 years old now, but it gets me every time. CLASSIC:
And just because…
Someone also edited together every scene from the first 3 movies of robots fighting each other:
P.S. To all the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles fanboys (who knew these people existed?) bitching about how Michael Bay is ruining TMNT…please do the rest of us geeks a favor and shut the fuck up. Jesus Christ with these people. There are things to be serious about, and then there’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Stop it. All of you. I’d rather read Star Wars: Episode VII microrumors than this “They fucked up the turtles’ mouths!” bullshit.