My heart is too generous to accept that Michael Bay is indeed the most evil force working in film today. It may be too harsh to think of him as The Great Satan of Cinema, but I would like to explore why so many critics seem to detest his mere existence.
I can't say I've seen every film he's made, and oddly, the one that was his only flop is one that I genuinely liked. I should say in my defense that my argument has always been that The Island is really two films in one: the first an exploration of what constitutes humanity, the second an action/chase film. Also, two of his films (The Rock and Armageddon) have received Criterion Collection editions. That's right folks: two Michael Bay films have been placed alongside the works of Fellini, Kurasawa, and Bergman--not even Werner Herzog has a film from Criterion. Film snobs, go and process that!
Despite this recognition, I cannot vouch for either The Rock or Armageddon as being great films. Now of the films of his that I have seen, they are as follows: all three Transformers films, Pearl Harbor, The Island. I suppose like other directors, he has a running theme, a motif if you will:
EXPLOSIONS, LOTS OF THEM, AND LOUD ONES AT THAT.
Bay likes blowing things up. His films have that as one of their central points of interest: massive explosions. One just has to look at any of the Transformers films to see that subtlety is not Bay's strong suit. His entire career is built on big action pieces.
However, I would add that these action scenes are generally brainless. I go to the first Transformers. I can't say that I thought a serious film could be made from a series of toys, but...well, they are not serious. Even worse, during this climatic battle sequence between the Autobots and the Decepticons, I simply couldn't tell them apart. I didn't know whom to be rooting for because they all looked alike. It didn't help that I never cared about them, or that I kept wondering how things that large could go almost unnoticed.
Or was that for Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. Truth be told, I couldn't tell you the difference save that ROTF is somehow an even worse film than the first Transformers. The first one is simply terrible: there was no story, the acting (in particular from Shia LaBeouf) is simply atrocious (and frankly, Megan Fox as the sexual interest added nothing to the movie except loving shots of her beautiful body, which make one wonder whether Bay has a little bit of himself trapped as a virginal teenager), and it was loud, loud, LOUD. The second one was even worse: there wasn't an attempt to have an actual plot or motivation for any of the characters, the action scenes drowned in their own excess, and the less said about the jive-talking robots the better. Even worse, there was a corrosive core of juvenile humor intermixed among all the explosions.
I digress to say that I know a couple: Derek and Brenda. They are relatively young: both in their early twenties. After having resisted for some weeks, I asked if they would like to see Transformers: Dark of the Moon with me. They said yes, and it was no surprise: they are BIG Transformers fans. They love the series and think all three films are simply spectacular. When I met them in the theater, they informed me that this was the third time they would see DOTM and that when they saw it the second time it was in 3-D (which I think was ruined for them by not having seen it in 3-D the FIRST time). I won't lie: I thought DOTM was the most entertaining of the three, but only after about half-hour of just giving up trying to even bother thinking, period. I decided that it simply was not worth the effort and do what all audiences (especially Derek and Brenda) do at any Transformers films: just let the visuals overwhelm me and not worry about such trivial things as story, acting, plot.
I should point out that while I thought it was the most entertaining of the three, I still thought it was terrible. While I didn't see it with my mother, she did what she had never done for any other film: she walked out. Even more surprising, she was completely unaware there were previous Transformers films.
The only real thoughts that came to me while watching DOTM were that Derek and Brenda, these young kids, think all the Transformers films are great, even brilliant, and that Michael Bay is a great director for putting all this wanton, mindless destruction up on the screen, but that they both found Casablanca extremely boring. Derek, in fact, made a show of falling asleep during Casablanca. I think Derek did that to show me up: since he knows how much I love Casablanca, he certainly wasn't going to like it. Anything I like has to be boring. Furthermore, Casablanca has too many flaws for him to enjoy it or think it's any good: no explosions, no girls that go jiggly, you have to think about what's going on, you even have to have some knowledge of history and geography (and who needs that). Throw in the fact that it has a bunch of dead people he's never heard of AND that it's in black-and-white, and you OBVIOUSLY have a very boring film.
In the mind of Derek, any Transformer film is not only more entertaining that something like Casablanca, they are actually better than Casablanca in terms of quality. Shia LaBeouf, in Derek's mind, is a better actor than Humphrey Bogart...at least LaBaouf is around his age, and alive.
Let's consider that for a moment: there are now a group of people who are absolutely convinced that Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, isn't just more entertaining/enjoyable than Casablanca, they think ROTF is a BETTER film altogether.
I think this is one reason why Michael Bay should be so reviled: he has dulled audiences into accepting that explosions and special effects, amped up to the Nth degree, trump everything else involved in film. There is something soulless in Michael Bay films, this idea that plot, character motivation, just aren't important.
Bay doesn't shrink from bastardizing history. My review for Pearl Harbor is very simple: by Hour Two, I was rooting for the Japanese. In a certain way, so was Bay: his portrayal of the Japanese aggressors was so surprisingly tame it bordered on the apologetic (sorry we won the war you guys really didn't want to start). If that wasn't bad enough, we were treated to a short scene so flat-out insulting that anyone with even the most cursory knowledge of history would have been aghast at seeing.
I refer to one where President Franklin D. Roosevelt is told that something couldn't be done (I think it was making a retaliatory strike at the Land of the Rising Sun, but I cannot be sure). At this point, President Roosevelt manages to stand up from his wheelchair with nothing but his own power to inform them, "Don't tell ME what can't be done". I saw this (on Memorial Day weekend no less) and sat there stunned. This simply could not have happened: Roosevelt was simply incapable of standing up without leaning on a physically powerful man to hold him up.
It just could not have happened. Him being in a wheelchair wasn't just some odd whim of the President: it was the result of polio, which left him crippled physically (though not mentally by any stretch). Believe me, President Roosevelt would have gone to Tokyo and surrendered to Hirohito and Tojo personally on December 6, 1941(hell, he would have been dropping the bombs on the Arizona himself) if he were guaranteed that he could stand on his own two legs unaided. OK, I'm exagerrating wildly, but you get the point. It's one thing to have composite characters and alter a few things in historical films for the sake of dramatic effect. It's another thing to flat-out lie and make things up that could simply NEVER have happened just for effect. The fact that there are many people now who truly think FDR could get up on his own because Michael Bay put it in Pearl Harbor is not only a mockery of history but an insult to the legacy of the President.
Of course, Michael Bay in his films doesn't care about the nuances of history, or even logic. In fact, the only thing he cares about is giving people big bangs for their big bucks. Again and again, his films are hollow, empty, with no thought about anything other than being overpowered by the visuals. It is no surprise he has adopted this style of flash over class: his career was built on music videos, where the visuals were there to merely accompany the music. This isn't to say that music videos are bad: you can make beautiful films and art with them (example: R.E.M.'s Losing My Religion), but by and large music videos are there to sell a product (the song). Likewise, Michael Bay's films are there also to sell a product (usually toys or teenage boy fantasies about women or violence).
Michael Bay fills dull audiences with the fast edits he does on his films (in particular with action scenes). I will never shift from my position that all the Transformer films are junk in part because the robots to my mind are indistinguishable. By making everything go faster, we don't have time to think, and if we don't have time to think, maybe we won't concentrate on the fact that the film doesn't make any sense and that it really is lousy. Again, I'm basing this on the Bay films I've seen, so if The Rock and Armaggedon are actually good (and worthy of Criterion), then I might revist this viewpoint.
I haven't touched on the fact that women are not real people in a Michael Bay film, but nothing more than figures to fulfill sexual fantasies and have no existence outside of that. A franchise that can have Megan Fox or Rosie Huntington-Whiteley be so passionately in love with Shia LaBeouf's Sam Witwicky (even the name smacks of Nerd) HAS to be a teen nerd's fantasy.
As I've thought about why Michael Bay films are so despised by critics (myself included), I think I've come up with some reasons. One: they are hollow. There is no core in them, no story, no motivation for anything that the characters do. Two: they are overwhelmed with action. The humans are secondary to the really important features of action (almost always massive and witless). I'm not just talking about the Transformers films; Pearl Harbor also had the humans as puppets to the central point of seeing the actual bombing (which I think WAS well-done). Three: there are moments when his films begin to look like music videos (for example, the excessively lush love scene entre Josh Harnett et Kate Beckinsale in Pearl Harbor or whenever Fox or Huntington-Whiteley saunter and sashe into a scene. Would that make Bay either sexist or misogynistic (a mix perhaps)? Four: they are dumb. In Revenge of the Fallen, I never understood how the Autobots (who look like the size of a small skyscraper) could easily hide in the Witwicky backyard (which looks like a small park to begin with) but could be seen when they fought with the Decepticons (as if I even cared). Five: they have no interest in things like plot, characters, or anything outside massive explosions.
I guess the best way to sum up the cinematic career of Michael Bay is thus: his career and legacy are all built on a series of bombs.
With that, I wish a Happy 47th Birthday to Michael Bay.