As a man who makes movies about giant robots throwing each other through skyscrapers, Michael Bay has never been a director who leads with his themes. Action set-pieces have long been his primary concern, from his debut with Bad Boys to his most recent opus, Transformers: The Last Knight. But as I settled into a weekend showing of the fifth Transformer film (despite the warnings of my colleague Chris Orr), I was very quickly struck by a strange thought. First: Is that really Stanley Tucci playing Merlin? And second: Wait, is this a Michael Bay film where the U.S. military ... are the bad guys?
Transformers: The Last Knight has other villains, of course. The robotic goddess Quintessa, who seeks to rebuild her ruined planet Cybertron by draining Earth’s energies. Megatron, the evil Decepticon whom she enlists to do her bidding. But those CGI creations aren’t on screen for too long; for much of the movie, especially in its first (interminable) hour, our heroes (including Mark Wahlberg and a bunch of his robot friends) are being hunted by a black-clad special-ops unit, a wing of the military called the “Transformers Reaction Force,” which trips right off the tongue.
Yes, yes, I already know what you may be thinking: that Bay has made a film where U.S. soldiers are the bad guys before. His 1996 masterwork The Rock, certainly his greatest movie, sees a rogue force of Marines led by the disenchanted Frank Hummel (Ed Harris) seize Alcatraz Island and threaten to attack San Francisco unless the government compensates them for the deaths they suffered while running clandestine black-ops missions. But that film is sympathetic to the soldiers, even if they’ve gone too far; like many a Bay film, it portrays the civilian government as incompetent liars, a sentiment rooted in the post-Vietnam era he came of age in.
That thread has run through so many of his movies. In Armageddon, NASA must turn to a private squad of oil drillers to save the world from an impending asteroid. In 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, Bay portrayed America’s intelligence agencies as a nuisance, a bunch of stuffed shirts getting in the way of the hard-scrabble soldiers trying to keep an escalating crisis under control. In the many Transformers movies, the military usually serves as a helpful liaison to the robotic titans doing battle with evil Decepticons on U.S. soil.
Except not now. Transformers: The Last Knight is a movie about a lot of things, including an Illuminati-esque secret society on Earth that has communed with the Transformers for centuries (William Shakespeare and Harriet Tubman are named among its membership). But to me, easily its most arresting image is those military men, now wearing black, bearing patches on their shoulders adorned with robot skulls. Starved for anything better to do during the film’s two-and-a-half-hour running time, I immediately started pondering Bay’s intentions. Is this just a cheap screenwriting trick? Or part of a larger storytelling turnaround?
The world of The Last Knight is different, too; while the other Transformers films take place in an America fundamentally unchanged from our own, this one has a much more dystopic feel. The protagonist, Cade Yeager (Wahlberg), lives in a junkyard while on the run from the military; he’s unable to talk to his daughter on the phone for fear that advanced tracking software will ping his voice to a location. A new character, Izabella (Isabela Moner), is a plucky 14-year-old who lives in the wreckage of Chicago, a city abandoned after a huge Transformer battle that’s now prowled by hostile robots and even nastier soldiers.
Bay isn’t much of a world-builder, so he doesn’t really dig into any of the concepts his film (written by Akiva Goldsman, Art Marcum, Matt Holloway, and Ken Nolan, and based, of course, on Hasbro toys) presents. He’s so fond of visual overload that it’s hard to keep track of just how ruined America is meant to appear. It’s certainly destroyed enough that when six giant metal horns suddenly sprout from the Earth midway through the film, no one seems that surprised. But there’s a strange pessimism to The Last Knight I haven’t sensed in Bay’s oeuvre before.
He’s always tried to turn stories of catastrophe—like Pearl Harbor and 13 Hours—into tales of jingoistic triumph. He usually idolizes military strength, delivering incredibly involved, near-fetishistic imagery of weapons being fired, explosions going off in detail, and soldiers dashing through hell to protect civilians (even against the threat of giant robots that can turn into sports cars). I’ve long found it remarkable that Bay tried to give Pearl Harbor (a deeply bad film, to be clear), a film about a national tragedy, a happy ending by depicting the Doolittle Raid. It doesn’t exactly work, but it’s easy to admire the effort, just as that film’s star Ben Affleck does in his notorious DVD commentary for Armageddon.
Maybe the ruined world of The Last Knight reflects Bay’s own growing disinterest in the Transformers franchise: After five films, he’s insisting he won’t make another one (though he also made that promise after the third and fourth films). But even if that’s true, it remains extremely unusual to see a film of his where soldiers don’t rush in and turn things around in the grand climax. They do try to assist the heroic Optimus Prime in his climactic grand battle, but serve only to complicate matters, firing tactical nukes at a useless target in a failed effort to save the day. The only remotely heroic moment comes when they apologize to Optimus for hunting him, and rip the robot-skull badges from their arms in shame. Still, it’s a humiliation, rather than a victory.
I never would have figured Michael Bay, whose vision of America has always felt one step removed from a Miller Lite commercial, for someone depressed at the direction of his country. But the one-two punch of 13 Hours (an incredibly muddled, pessimistic film, even as it celebrates the “secret soldiers” who fought at Benghazi) and The Last Knight (which is, to be fair, slightly more fanciful) has me worried for Hollywood’s premier auteur of bombast. The end of The Last Knight suggests a return to medieval rule for our ruined Earth, perhaps under the guidance of Mark Wahlberg, who has proven himself by summoning, Arthur-style, a very big sword. It’s bleak, but even bleaker is that this may be the only future Bay can imagine for America in 2017.