Michael Bay: A New Kind of Director

Critics hate Transformers: Age of Extinction, but it's the work of someone who, like more and more filmmakers, has aligned artistic interests with commercial ones.
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Michael Bay is a man of the people, except for all those people who write about film for a living. Just take the scene from his latest box office-crushing blockbuster, Transformers: Age of Extinction, in which protagonist Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg) raids a crumbling movie palace for junk parts. As he steps over 35mm reels of John Wayne epics, Yeager ignores the owner grumbling that the cinema has been overrun with “sequels and remakes—that kind of crap” and uncovers a truck that is actually Optimus Prime, the massive robot that will do battle with other massive robots incessantly over the course of the film’s sprawling 165 minutes. When Optimus Prime rises from the dust, the movie kicks into the highest-octane sequel-y remake crap you have ever seen. As the audience applauds (at least, they did at my theater), the critics groan.

By design, perhaps. This scene, and Age of Extinction at large, seems plotted to discourage critics, once and for all, from paying Michael Bay so much attention. “Let them hate,” he told MTV’s Josh Horowitz. “They’re still going to see the movie!”

Bay is the rare self-professed “popcorn movies” director whose entire body of work regularly attracts deep analysis. Entertainment Weekly started the trend in 1998, when it semi-admiringly asked if the director was “the devil.” In the time since, he’s released Pearl Harbor, The Island, Bad Boys II, Pain & Gain, the Transformers franchise—and has also been labeled Hitler, a hack, and sexist. In the past few years, however, Bay’s films have amassed a surprising amount of cred. In 2011, Variety’s David S. Cohen marveled at how critics were taking Bay seriously, with Scott Foundas calling him an “auteur,” that most highbrow of monikers afforded a film director. Well-respected outlets Grantland and Film School Rejects have echoed the sentiments. “His films resonate louder than any explosion contained in the movies themselves,” Chris Ryan wrote.

But with Age of Extinction, the 12th entry in his oeuvre of big, brash, and bro-y feature films, it’s time to recognize Bay really isn’t an auteur—he’s something else entirely.

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Originally conceived by director François Truffaut and his compatriots at the Cahiers du Cinéma during the French New Wave, the auteur theory generally goes like this: The director is the principal “author” of his own film, and the auteur is a director who imposes a strong sense of personality or “signature” on the final picture. The term usually implies a style at odds with profit-minded Hollywood formulas.

Bay’s films certainly share some signature tropes. Sweeping camerawork, splattering fluids, exposition relegated to quick filler scenes, and set pieces that thrill via visual chaos are all typical. The Criterion Collection, an elite series of DVD re-releases that usually canonize the likes of Ingmar Bergman and Yasujiro Ozu, has honored Bay twice, for Armageddon and The Rock.

Those films are nearly two decades old, though. In the years since Armageddon’s 1998 release, the blockbuster epic has become quotidian, but Michael Bay hasn’t changed. Age of Extinction arrives at a moment when a mega-sized, CGI-filled “event” movie opens every few months (and every few weeks in the late spring and summer). If you go to see the movie in Imax 3D, you’ll sit through trailers for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Dracula Untold, and Interstellar, which are about apes taking over the world, vampires taking over the world, and the end of the world, respectively. The shrapnel will launch at your face, the blood will spill onto the first few rows, and the rapid cuts will escalate until the titles—pretty much the only distinguishing factors here—flash in metallic, bulky font across the screen.

The main act, Age of Extinction, plays like an extended set of commercials, or a prolonged version of its own ultra-sharp 1080p trailer.

If you’re looking for the hallmark Michael Bay explosions, one-liners, and flawless effects, Age of Extinction has plenty of them. But that’s not because he’s an auteur, per se. Bay may have inscribed his style all over a massive franchise, but that massive franchise has also co-opted his style as its own.

If there’s a signature on Age of Extinction, its name is Hasbro. Transformers 4 is a reboot of Bay’s own spinoff trilogy, which rebooted a cartoon that spun off a toy collection, which was itself a rebranded hybrid of two separate toy labels. The brand at large, administered by Hasbro and the Japanese corporation Takara Tomy, already extends across comic books, toys, television series, video games, and films. Screenwriter Ehren Kruger recently said, rather ominously, that Age of Extinction “lay[s] the building blocks for some other stories we have in the back of our heads.”

“Building” is the key word these days in Hollywood, which has taken to a business model of constructing narrative universes rather than single stories. Disney-owned Marvel is currently unfolding the “Marvel Cinematic Universe” of interconnected superhero stories, many helmed by little-known directors, that coincide every few years with an Avengers film. Warner Brothers has devised a similar strategy for the Justice League. All of which means this new Transformers trilogy—just one branch of the lucrative tree—may outlive Bay. He, after all, was only convinced to sign on to Age of Extinction after having an epiphany while in line for the Transformers ride at a Singapore theme park.

The film itself is as crassly commercial as you’d expect. With new 3D Imax cameras, nearly every frame contains CGI and references to the corporations that funded it. The epic ending battle in Beijing is a destructive pastiche of Victoria’s Secret, Tom Ford, Coors, and untold amounts of Chinese product placement, a concession to business interests both domestic and foreign.

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Katie Kilkenny writes for and produces The Atlantic's Entertainment Channel.

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