I’ll try to keep this short: I like Michael Bay. I do. Really. I think.
Yes, I hated Transformers 2 (or whatever the hell it was called) – as did most sane people, since it was awful. (It now seems clear that Bay himself didn’t care for it much either.) And yes, I hated The Island. And yes, I hated Pearl Harbor. And I mean really, really hated them. So what is it about Bay that keeps me coming back? I'm not sure. He’s made one great movie (The Rock) and he seems capable of making another one, too, one of these days. I haven’t seen the new Transformers movie yet. I did mostly like the first one.
No, I don’t think Bay can direct actors. No, I don’t think he can tell a story with any kind of nuance. But on some distant planet in an alternate universe, Bay is the greatest director of straight-to-video junk ever, raising lowbrow, seemingly unredeemable, and utterly anonymous thrillers and other types of junk food to the status of art. In that world, film buffs pass his name around in hushed tones. He’s a low-level genre striver, a guy more people should know about, the kind of filmmaker John Woo was once upon a time, back when we had to hunt down unsubtitled laserdiscs of his flicks in Chinatown. A no-nonsense orchestrator of giddy cinematic chaos that makes you want to be nine years old again.
Unfortunately, we live on this planet, where all action movies have to aspire towards grandiosity and gravity. And on this planet, Michael Bay creates bloated, overbaked monsters.
We can often see glimpses of the director he can be: Bad Boys 2 is in some ways pure evil, but the sheer joy with which Bay stages its central, out-of-control car chase sequence is something to behold. Armageddon is in a similar category: The film is crippled by all sorts of flaws, but the macho bravado with which it throws everything at you is…is, well, something. Its awesome gratuitousness borders on the experimental. Though much of it makes me cringe, I could watch it over and over again (and, full disclosure, I have).
The Transformers franchise was theoretically the perfect fit for him: Completely devoid of anything resembling gravity or resonance or mythological pretensions. Unlike with comic book movies, even people who grew up with Transformers cartoons and toys don’t quite take them seriously. (I base that last thought on assumption and observation, not on experience; I was strictly a G.I. Joe man.) True, the films themselves do often suffer from bouts of self-seriousness (which is why that “theoretically” above) but when they’re working, you kind of understand why so many kids liked these toys in the first place.
I toyed with titling this post “Let Michael Bay Be Michael Bay Again.” But that isn’t exactly accurate. Because Bay himself doesn’t seem to want to be the straight genre guy I think he is at heart. He doesn’t want to live on that other planet. (No Melancholia jokes, please.) He wants to be Mister Four Quadrant. He wants to be taken seriously, at least within the realm of fighting-robots-from-outer-space-who-die-and-stuff movies. That’s kind of why I fear I’ll never get to see him make another movie like The Rock. Which is a shame. I liked the guy who made that movie.