I guess on some level, you have to respect what the guy does. There's a market for this sort of thing, for better or worse (Bay's films have grossed over $3 billion worldwide), and he plays to those strengths well. Born in Los Angeles in 1965, Michael Benjamin Bay started his film career early on, when he interned at Lucasfilm at the age of fifteen. He majored in English and Film at Wesleyan University, attended Pasadena's Art Center College of Design for his graduate studies, and started directing music videos and television commercials after receiving his degree.
Then, in 1994, producers Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson hired Bay to direct Bad Boys, which catapulted TV actors Will Smith and Martin Lawrence to superstardom. It's a passable piece of action movie pulp, all flash and no substance, that established Bay's affinity for swirling camera moves and slo-mo visceral gunplay. Bay followed Bad Boys with The Rock in 1996 (also for Bruckheimer/ Simpson), a movie that gets by solely on star performances from Sean Connery, Ed Harris and Nicolas Cage. (The plot of The Rock makes no sense, thematically; if Cage's protagonist character is meant to follow that old action trajectory of nerd-turned-gun-totin'-hero by film's end, then why, oh why does he hop into that yellow Ferrari about thirty minutes in, and chase all around San Francisco like a NASCAR driver, only to revert back to nerd mode for the rest of the movie?) In 1998, Bay reached a nadir with his astronauts-vs.- asteroids saga Armageddon, a movie with so many nonsensical explosions (including the inadvertent destruction of a billion-dollar Russian space station, after which not one single person bats an eye) that my brain simply gave up and endured the movie as pure comedy.
Pearl Harbor followed three years later – and we all know how that turned out. Bay's attempt to go respectable failed to win him critical accolades, with a script (from Braveheart's Randall Wallace, no less) that's more Titanic than Saving Private Ryan – a disservice to those who experienced the actual attack. As revenge (of sorts), Bay struck back with Bad Boys II (2003), a sequel that's as in-your-face amoral as they come, with "jokes" about homoeroticism, the KKK, and human cadavers crushed under car tires on the highway.
Then, in 2005, a glimmer of hope: Steven Spielberg was able to woo the director away from the Bruckheimer hit factory for The Island, a sci-fi/ adventure lark starring Ewan MacGregor and Scarlett Johansson. Despite obvious similarities to other works, The Island shows Bay at his most restrained (no doubt due to his change in mentors), with almost a full hour devoted to plot and character development before his typically bombastic action sequences take over the movie. (It is, by the way, his only "flop" to date, with only $46 million in U.S. box office receipts.) Bay is the undisputed grand maestro of large-scale destruction, all right – perhaps all he needed was the right material to match his rock'em sock'em mentality.
Cut to 2003. Producers Tom DeSanto and Don Murphy started negotiations with Hasbro to adapt the Transformers as a live-action film. A bidding war between DreamWorks and New Line Cinema erupted soon after, over rights to produce and distribute the movie. DreamWorks ultimately won out (Hasbro initially favored New Line, but changed their minds after receiving a personal visit from DreamWorks' co-honcho Steven Spielberg), and script drafts began in earnest from writers John Rogers, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman.
And so we come full circle. In 2005, Spielberg asked Michael Bay to direct Transformers, feeling his sensibilities were a perfect fit for the job. Bay originally rejected the idea as a "stupid toy movie," but soon changed his mind after attending "Transformers school" at Hasbro. Spielberg's idea for the movie centered around "a boy and his car"; Bay beefed up the story's military angle to give his version an edgier, more adult tone. (During Transformers' DVD/Blu-Ray audio commentary track, Bay brags about his "direct line" to the Pentagon, which helped inform his action sequences.)
To match the tone he wanted, Bay also felt he needed to update the look of his Transformer characters, as the original toy designs looked too blocky for the big screen. Designers modeled each robot character on actual vehicles, so that their size and working pieces corresponded correctly (Optimus Prime, leader of the benevolent Autobots, is made up of 10,108 individual CGI pieces). Fans of the franchise felt so dejected by this, they protested outside Bay's office and even sent him death threats, convinced the director was out to "wreck their childhood."
(A word about this. Fan boys are a mysterious lot, feeling anyone who takes a beloved property and adapts it to fictional form must stay consistent with all that's come before it. If there's any change in design, any alteration in format, they will let you hear about it. Star Trek fans, Star Wars fans, comic book fans – they are equally rabid about canon. In this case, "Robots In Disguise" aficionados immediately felt – before seeing a single frame of film! – that Bay had no respect for the mythology, that he was enforcing his typical brawn-over-brains stylistic "talent" over the entire project. True, the designs looked nothing like the toys I grew up with as a kid, but you know what? I couldn't care less about that. I've been a fan of many things over the years, and if there's one thing I'm partial to, it's the tone of the thing – the mood, the idea behind whichever brand name I cherish so dearly – that matters most. As long as that tone comes across, intact, on a theater screen, what is there to complain about?)
For the record, Michael Bay has said on many occasions that he'd always had the fans' best interests in mind while making the movie. He simply wanted to make a quality entertainment with robot characters that looked and felt like an organic part of our world. He didn't want people to laugh at his Autobots and Decepticons; he wanted audiences to stand in awe of them, as we did with, say, the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park. And 2007's Transformers movie is indeed a perfect marriage between director and subject, of a man obsessed with explosions and military hardware tackling the story of giant robot toys determined to blow each other up real good. The special effects by ILM and Digital Domain have that same wow! factor as Spielberg's 1993 dinosaur epic, of human figures interacting with one-of-a-kind CGI characters. Optimus Prime is every bit the selfless, compassionate hero as his cartoon counterpart (voiced, once again, by the animated series' Peter Cullen), Bumblebee is as loyal and brave as ever, Megatron and Starscream are deadly and fearsome, just as they should be – all this regardless of whether you're familiar with the mythology or not. And audiences loved it. ($710 million worldwide! Take that, Island haters!)
Oh, there are still too many Bay-isms – the rapid- fire cutting, the sweaty, ogling close-ups of female body parts (Megan Fox undoubtedly helped millions of pre-teen boys hit puberty overnight), and the oddly over-the-top "comedy" bits (roles for John Turturro and Anthony Anderson seem manufactured to amp up the movie's weirdness factor.) But there's also a sly sense of wit that Bay's never shown us before – an early, two-second shot of a boy on his mother's bicycle chased over sidewalks by a robot Camaro had me laughing out loud, and later, a kid actually shouts the line, "This is easily a hundred times cooler than Armageddon, I swear to God!"
If anything gives Transformers its edge, though, it's the human element. At heart, it's still the story of a boy and his car (or, more precisely, the story of a boy whose car turns out to be a transforming alien robot fighting an interstellar battle between good and evil), anchored by a terrific star-making performance from then up-and-coming Shia LeBeouf. As high schooler Sam Witwicky, LeBeouf has a built-in Everyman quality that draws you into the movie; he's funny and quick on his feet, even in the midst of Bay's patented apocalyptic destruction.
Too bad the inevitable sequels – 2009's Revenge Of The Fallen, and this summer's Dark Of The Moon – sap Shia and everyone else of their defining personality, shifting the focus to the special effects instead. Oh, well. If the career of Michael Bay, Director, has taught us anything, it's that you can't please everyone, all of the time.
Transformers (Michael Bay, 2007)
Cast: Shia LaBeouf, Megan Fox, Josh Duhamel, Tyrese Gibson, John Turturro, Jon Voight, Rachael Taylor, Anthony Anderson, Kevin Dunn, Julie White, Bernie Mac
Plot: An ongoing interstellar battle between two warring factions – the heroic Autobots and the evil Decepticons – erupts on Earth, with the key to its outcome in the hands of a teenage boy.
How It Set The Tone: Michael Bay's most accessible popcorn movie to date, mostly because the plot is a perfect match to his rock'em sock'em sensibilities. (Honestly, who better to translate a children's toy line to big screen glory than a guy who's a bit of a man-child himself?) Executive producer Steven Spielberg wanted the movie to focus on "a boy and his car" – an essential rite of passage if there ever was one – and for the most part it succeeds, with a love-struck teenage romance tossed in for good measure. The special effects have the same awe and wonder as Spielberg's Jurassic Park, showcasing CGI characters with actual heart (Optimus Prime is a natural-born leader anyone would be proud to follow into battle). Transformers' real heart, though, belongs to star Shia LeBeouf, whose charismatic, career-making performance grounds the movie; he helps make the implausible plausible.
Room For Improvement: Bay's typical too-muchness (leering camera shots, rapid-fire edits, a serious jones for military hardware) constantly threatens to overwhelm the movie's human element; a lot less unnecessary "comedy" and more attention to quieter character moments might have helped, too, thank you very much. Also, pay no mind to disgruntled fan boys who want their beloved Transformers standing front and center; the special effects should always be the backdrop, not the focus.
Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen (Michael Bay, 2009)
Returning Cast: Shia LaBeouf, Megan Fox, John Turturro, Josh Duhamel, Tyrese Gibson, Kevin Dunn, Julie White
New Cast: Ramón Rodríguez, Isabel Lucas, Rainn Wilson
Plot: The war between the Autobots and Decepticons continues on Earth, as college-aged Sam Witwicky tries (unsuccessfully) to move on with his life.
How It Compares: If Transformers 1 showed us Michael Bay at his atypical best, then Revenge Of The Fallen shows the director at his absolute worst: The action sequences pummel you over the head for almost two-and-a-half hours straight, the actresses are reduced to walking Barbie dolls (poor Megan Fox has even less of a personality this time out), and the machine-gun editing and over-elaborate special effects have you straining to see what's going on. Even worse, Bay adds a couple of jive-talking robot characters into the mix (shades of racial insensitivity!), even more weirdness with co-star John Turturro (if you ever wanted to see the man in sweaty thong underwear, here's your chance), and so much scatological and sexual humor (did we really need to see what a giant robot's testicles look like?), that ROTF is an insult to anyone with the mental capacity of an adult. (It's like Bad Boys II in PG-13 form – with robots!) Bay and others involved in the production claim the 2008 writer's strike was the cause of the movie's unwieldy pacing, but come on – couldn't that have been solved with some judicious editing?
Transformers: Dark Of The Moon (Michael Bay, 2011)
Returning Cast: Shia LaBeouf, John Turturro, Josh Duhamel, Tyrese Gibson, Kevin Dunn, Julie White
New Cast: Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Patrick Dempsey, Frances McDormand, John Malkovich, Alan Tudyk, Ken Jeong
Plot: A Cybertronian spacecraft is discovered on the moon, and the heroic Autobots race to learn its secrets before the Decepticons take over the Earth. Meanwhile, Sam Witwicky faces impending adulthood as he struggles to find a job.
How It Compares: First off, I just don't buy Mr. Samuel J. Witwicky (LaBeouf) as a ladies' man. He struggled to win the girl of his dreams in the first movie, fought off the advances of a hottie Decepticon-in-disguise in the second, and now he's able to land a Victoria's Secret model (newcomer Rosie Huntington-Whiteley) at the drop of a hat? Turns out that's the toughest thing to swallow about Dark Of The Moon, which cranks up the action yet, conversely, slows it down at the same time. As if schooled by TF3's laborious 3D process, Bay is forced to hold a shot or two for longer than a couple of seconds, so that you can actually tell what's going on in almost every shot. There's also an effort to work some actual drama into the plot (another oddity for Bay), with clearer character goals and, later, a surprisingly somber montage of human devastation to add weight to the chaos. At 154 minutes, the movie's still a chore to sit through; the routine "comedy" bits are split four different ways this time, between special guest stars Ken Jeong, John Malkovich, Alan Tudyk and John Turturro, and the lame references to Star Trek don't help (Leonard Nimoy voices Sentinel Prime, a father-figure type Autobot). The entire third act is a doozy, though, filled with over-the-top, never-before-seen-on-a-scale-like-this fashioned stuntwork.
More To Come?: Michael Bay and Shia LeBeouf have publicly stated they do not intend to return to the franchise, despite this report that said Paramount and DreamWorks planned to continue with or without their participation. True to his word, LeBeouf has continued to push himself artistically while Bay is currently behind the camera again for Transformers: Age Of Extinction (with a brand new cast), due on June 27, 2014.