In praise of Michael Bay

I never got into Transformers, the toy line, as a kid. It’s not that I wasn’t into fast cars or giant robots; I just wasn’t allowed to have them. As a result, I had no interest in seeing the first movie; I didn’t see it until a summer Movies in the Park outdoor screening, and even then, I didn’t pay it much attention.

I thought the second one was godawful. I saw it a week or two after I arrived in Korea. I had been traveling in China and Cambodia the month before and was dying to sit in an air conditioned theater and veg out, and with nothing else in Korean theaters in English or with English subtitles, I went to it somewhat enthusiastically.

I hated it, as did everyone else.

But I just saw Dark of the Moon, and I have belatedly realized one thing about Michael Bay:

He is a terribly inventive visual artist.

The first Transformers film was an exercise in boyhood fantasy fulfilment. Tasked with creating a universe out of a line of action figures, Michael Bay’s approach was to bring to life the stories a boy might create as he plays with his toys. The sense of visual wonder that accompanied the transformations of mundane vehicles into anthropomorphized figures was palpable, each one a wonder of graphic and imaginative mechanical design, photographed with swooping cinematography and over-the-top score.

The third film of the franchise, Dark of the Moon, is no longer about the joy of the creation of worlds; it is its own firmly established sci-fi action franchise, and so far removed from the line of toys that spawned it that I found the “Presented in association with Hasbro” title in the opening credits momentarily puzzling. Having created this world, Michael Bay treats it as his own visual playground, and instead of filling it with an affecting plot or character drama he fills it with his own action-movie fantasies. Luckily, they are visually astounding.

With “Dark of the Moon,” he pushes the dumbass summer popcorn-movie formula to the max, and then pushes beyond that into an incoherent, purely symbolic realm that’s closer to experimental cinema than to Hollywood: sunsets and helicopters and vertical plunges through space and aircraft crashing to the ground and images of apocalyptic destruction and male bodies in motion and female bodies at rest […]
Andrew O’Hehir, Salon film critic

That [film musicals] class was important to him, because he realized that you’re not bound by reality in film if you don’t want to be. And his work is about color and movement and a kind of abstraction and unreality that is found in musicals.
Janine Basinger, Wesleyan University Film Studies Department, Chair

“[T]here is almost a level of near-operatic abstraction to Michael Bay’s images when he is directing a really slam-bang, in-your-face action sequence. It almost becomes divorced from narrative, even.”
Justin Chang, Variety film critic

[T]he marriage of your technical filmmaking and action, and the lucidity of the shot design that you create—these long, evolving shots that just go and go until your jaw’s dropping—I thought, “I’ve got to see that in 3D.”
James Cameron to Michael Bay

He is so adroit at composition, blocking, camera movement, color and tone […] [Y]ou can either look at his imagery as assaultive, transformative, or deliriously entertaining.
Steven Spielberg

I guess I ought to give Michael Bay his due. He does more with the 3D format than anyone since James Cameron. I thought Avatar’s use of 3D was at times awkward, with a self-defeating overuse of shallow depth of field that prevented the eye from roaming the third dimension. Bay, having learned from the missteps of others, has a better sense of 3D composition. Filming (and animating the robots) in deep focus, he creates scenes of real depth—stages for his characters to act out their duels.

He’s admitted that 3D has forced him to change his shooting style to avoid disorienting the audience with quick cuts or pans, and I think that works very much to his advantage. In DotM, his camera typically moves slowly and always deliberately, with plenty of wide shots regarding the scenes of mayhem almost dispassionately. Movement in the scene is often accomplished by the blocking of the characters themselves, rather than relying on an overactive camera. This is smart, as it emphasizes the scale of the robots—it would be an unnaturally fast camera that could swoop around them quickly.

But even the robots need a big enough playground to play in, and here Bay makes another good choice in his setting of the film’s final act and climactic battle. In the brick and steel canyons of Chicago, he has finally found an environment big enough for his robots to inhabit, rather than tower over.

There is a virtuoso 3D shot early in the film that lasts only for a moment. A guard stands at a checkpoint in an unnamed Middle East desert. In a medium-close semi-profile shot, we see the road that he is staring down into the distance reflected in his sunglasses. A clichéd shot, not particularly imaginative composition as an image. But in a 3D space, the scene reflected in the guard’s glasses has real depth. It appears as a gaping wormhole: the road disappears into the recesses of a space that exists only in his eye, a literal portal to another dimension. It’s a masterstroke of an image that I’m guessing will be copied ad nausem. It’s a shame that the imagery doesn’t serve a better constructed, more thoughtful story, but so it goes.

The last hour of the film is a self-contained war movie exclusively following the action of the main characters on the ground in the desolate ruins of Chicago, as they are mostly cut off from the A-list supporting cast (John Tuturro, Frances McDormand, and John Malkovich among them). Bay’s accomplishment is to create a visual landscape that portrays an American city not under attack but occupied. Decepticons cling silently to the sides of skyscrapers, curled up like bats, constant reminders of the overwhelming force of the aggressor and falling away at a moment’s notice to investigate any disturbance.

Bay cares little for buildup, for tension, or for evoking what he can simply show you—and he can show you a lot. If nothing else, this is honest filmmaking—rather than cheaply constructing a sense of false mystery by concealing spooky beings with conveniently placed obstacles as if crudely censoring the human body (JJ Abrams and Super 8, I’m looking at you), Bay never hides from you what is visible to his characters.

Nor does he waste time showing what others have already shown you. When Sam Witwicky informs NSA Director Frances McDormand of the impending, climactic attack that the Decepticons will unleash upon Chicago within hours, a different filmmaker might play with the big reveal, showing you Chicagoans gazing upwards in wonder and fear at machines materializing out of thin air, or crowds of unsuspecting citizens at play on Navy Pier as robotic spacecraft approach across Lake Michigan, the way crowds tend to do in alien invasion sci-fi flicks. But with a dash of showmanship and the vigor of an auteur, Bay economically cuts from phone conversation to black for a long beat, then deploys a smash cut to destruction in media res, a single, static wide shot of explosions, laser fire, and smoking skyscrapers along the Chicago River.

And let’s not mince words: the Autobots are triumphs of imagination, animation, and character design—human, organic to their environments, and even, at times, soulful. Bumblebee is the most human, and no wonder, for he speaks to us in our own language, our own words. The pathos he evokes by speaking in clips of the pop culture that he has absorbed as a character (and in the real world represents) is astonishing. He reflects us back at ourselves. In its way, he represents an accomplishment equal with Ben Burtt’s work on Wall•E or R2-D2. And in his relationship with Sam, he succeeds in making us believe that he cares for Shia LeBeouf more than we care for Shia LeBeouf.

Transformers is not about very much most of the time, but it is also—at times—about America’s love affair with space. The film’s main narrative conceit, as the trailer told us, offers an alternate historical timeline of the Space Race that explains why “we haven’t been back since 1972” (as its characters frequently reminds us). It involves a combination of Decepticon infiltration, human weakness, and bureaucracy—and it is two-thirds correct.

While its tribute to NASA may not exactly rise to the level of high art, it is nevertheless a timely and fitting one, opening one week before the final scheduled space shuttle launch. Bay’s reverent photography of the Kennedy Space Center scenes is both a love letter to the space program and a eulogy. When the Decepticons destroy the shuttle Discovery a minute after liftoff, the visual evocation of the Challenger disaster is undeniably unsettling.

Bay has already put his NASA-worship to celluloid explicitly:

“For 30 years they questioned the need for NASA,” Billy Bob Thornton crows in Armageddon. “Today we’re gonna give ‘em the answer!

In GC’s oral history, he reiterates it with a story from the KSC shoot and an argument with Shia LeBeouf on the shot order (emphasis added):

So Shia’s gonna do his emotional scene. He gets out of his car and says, “Michael, you’re gonna start with me first.” And I said, “No, we’re gonna start this way. This is a space shuttle! The United States of America! The last one to be launched!”

That’s right; instead of explaining to his actor that he needs the shot while they have the light, or that the crew is already in place, or for any myriad of technical or artistic reasons, Bay instead shuts him down by essentially screaming “SPACE SHUTTLE! U-S-A!”

For all its primitivity, I find that sentiment quite endearing.