Is Michael Bay the anti-Christ, a pop visionary, or a filmmaker for our devalued times. I am the first to admit his cinema is not mine. Personally, I find Armageddon, Pearl Harbor and Bad Boys II much more reprehensible in their swaggering and brutish monotony than the Transformers films.
I caught the the fourth installment, Age of Extinction, in Imax 3-D. (If you’re going to see it, that’s the way to go.) The movie cost a million per minute; the one-hundred and sixty-five million budget matches the running time of two hours and forty-five minutes. It’s not exactly boring, just spectacularly wrong-headed.
It is striking to consider the disruptions and incongruities. At his best Bay shows a preternatural ease with his velvety and sensual imagery, particularly when it comes to visualizing the shape-shifting of the robots. Some of those moments are, I think, intuitively exciting, sharp examples of what technology and money afford. The last two editions, both shot in the larger format, are much less spastic and self-annihilating.
Still, the dominant impression remains joyless and dispiriting. The inventive is cancelled out by the director’s impatience, indiscretion and shamelessness. Bay is enough of a tyrant that he pores over every detail, yet how can he not fathom how graceless it is to have an establishment credit that reads, “Texas, USA.” Or in a rare instance where Bay actually considers the emotional implications of death, a secondary figure is vaporized into a cinder of ash. Rather than ponder the loss, I felt a horror and revulsion at the calculated manner Bay appropriates the imagery of Hiroshima to elevate and justify his fantasia.
Bay is not really a director as much as an advertiser. The technical demands of computer generated imagery and special effects have stripped him of any individuality or personality. He is a ghost in his own machine. “We all work for somebody,” says one of the movie’s robots. Bay is not a James Cameron-like kingmaker administering his technical prowess but a hired hand orchestrating an impersonal globalized product. He’s just selling it.
Looking back at his work, his one ambitious effort that actually strove to say something intelligent and discerning about identity, society and the larger culture, The Island, was his one unqualified financial bomb. The Transformers franchise quickly followed, his no doubt conscious and cynical rebuke to the same of professional failure.
He personifies how digital has corrupted the action form and obliterated mise-en-scène, cinematography, camera movement, space, color and movement. Movies still conjure a world, but they're backdrops, deprived of psychological acuity and denied any natural, intuitive or expressive rendering. Nothing’s real, so there’s no solidity or depth of feeling.
Ehren Kruger is the sole credited screenwriter. Structurally, the movie is an expositional nightmare, convoluted and inchoate. Like the other films, it’s Manichean, divided into unambiguous divisions of good (Autobots) and evil (Decepticons), with some minor variations.
The actors are capable though rarely fully engaged. Mark Wahlberg is the central figure, an inventor and engineer. Nicola Peltz plays his teenaged daughter, and Irish actor Jack Reynor is the aspirant boyfriend. Kelsey Grammer is a CIA directorate running a black op to wide out the Autobots who’s backed by an industrialist played by Stanley Tucci.
Characterization is fluid and unstable. Reynor is introduced as a man of action whose skill and bravery as a race-car driver extricate Wahlberg and Peltz from a dangerous situation. In a follow up crisis he’s cowardly and craven. Wahlberg is impoverished though lives on a spread, as a friend points out, that puts Tara to shame. Peltz is the new object of lust, the camera always starting at her ankle and angling up her uncovered thigh or pivoting in a reverse action.
Couched in the imagery of Disney and Spielberg, asserting the primacy of home, family and country (Bay never turns down an opportunity to wave the flag), Age of Extinction is objectionable in the usual fashion: its celebration of the infantile, the fetishization of the military, the dehumanization of women and the unrelenting, assaultive filmmaking that denies any real pleasure. The coercive stabs at humor only reveal the desperation.
It has about fifteen or twenty minutes of real grandeur and intensity, like a parkour style fight that unfolds down the vertical shaft of a Hong Kong apartment complex. The flourishes of wit and style in the production design prove insufficient. If Michael Bay were truly radical or innovative, he’d eliminate any pretense at plot and turn himself loose. The movie’s entire existence, its concessions to the Chinese marketplace and its egregious use of product placement, is built on compromise.
“It’s the film of a free man,” Roberto Rossellini famously said of Charlie Chaplin’s A King of New York. With every slog and desperate move, Michael Bay proves its opposite.
Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures.