Look, let’s get a few basics out of the way. Plenty has been written over the years about Michael Bay’s storytelling problems, his directorial tics, his troubling portrayal of women, homosexuals, and non-white characters, and his fetish for big guns and magic hour. You can also debate whether Transformers 4 is his most blatant cash-grab ever or the prototype for a new international-era blockbuster. (Maybe it’s both.)
But here’s the catch: I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Michael Bay film that I completely hated. In fact, even at their most flawed and least coherent, Michael Bay’s movies are still entertaining. They’re also surprisingly rewatchable, as you realize every time you catch yourself watching Armageddon on cable.
So how does Michael Bay manage to make films that fail on both a taste level and a logic level, yet still excel as cinema? Here are four things Michael Bay gets right in Transformers 4 that explain his cinematic upside.
Michael Bay movies are always about what it means to be American.
Yes, nearly half of Transformers 4 takes place in China, but it’s still an American movie — not just in its financial origins, but in its central theme. After the city-smashing alien battles of the previous Transformers films, this is a story about America trying to figure out its place in the changing world. Its three subplots involve a widowed American inventor who just wants to provide for his family, a wealthy American scientist in search of his conscience, and a grizzled American operative who’s determined to defend his country from alien incursion at all costs.
Is this all a metaphor for immigration, foreign policy, global finance, and the double-edged sword of the military-industrial complex? Of course it is.
It’s also a film that takes bizarre pride in the minutiae of laws. This is a film about giant alien robots that still finds time to include plot-driven arguments about intellectual property, search warrants, and statutory rape. Its villains have a binding contract, to which they honorably adhere. And while the entire third act is basically a nonstop chase-fight scene, it’s happening because one character’s crisis of conscience negates a different contract, which means the villains are essentially justified in exacting their violent revenge.
It all seems to imply that America is nothing without its laws, and without people who live within them, even when they disagree with them. You don’t like a law? Work to change it. Laws are meant to serve the people, and as the needs of the people change, so must the laws. Not exactly a concept I expected to see in a film about a robot pterodactyl, but there you go.
But the characters in this film also grapple with Americanism on an individual level, because…
Michael Bay movies are always about what it means to be a man.
Mark Wahlberg’s hero Cade Yeager (Seriously? Yeah, seriously.) is a macho ex-football star and widowed inventor with a hot teenage daughter whom he tries to protect from the leering advances of every other guy on the planet. He doesn’t want her to make the same mistakes he made as a teenager — a teenage pregnancy among them — and he hates the idea of men lusting after the daughter he still thinks of as pure and perfect. She’s the embodiment of the future he always thought he’d be able to sustain and provide for, but with every year he finds himself farther from his idyllic self-image. And with his daughter about to head off to college, who will he be with no one else to worry about but himself?
Kelsey Grammer’s black ops director is a shadowy figure working to keep America safe at any price. He doesn’t have room for emotion. He doesn’t even seem to take pleasure in his work. What he wants is success, and what success means to him is a complete and total elimination of external threats. It’s a fool’s dream, and if this was a movie with more depth, Grammer might get a scene where he admits what the audience already knows: that no matter how effective he is, he’s just delaying the inevitable need to adapt and assimilate with outsiders. And yet, the need to defend what we know from our worst expectations of what could be is as fundamentally American as wanting to provide for our families and excel in our chosen fields.
Which brings us to Stanley Tucci, who gives the film’s best performance as industrialist Joshua Joyce, a thinly-disguised caricature of Steve Jobs at his most tyrannical. Yet, like Jobs, Joyce just wants to make a difference in the world. Sure, he wants the world to remember that he’s the one who made that change, but it’s progress that fuels him. And it’s his fundamental similarity to Cade — the innocent spark of curiosity mixed with the hubris of wanting to be remembered for having done “the right thing” — that sets the events of the final act into motion.
And yes, all of this happens amid car chases, shootouts, fistfights, and sweaty closeups of muscles, breasts, and luscious legs filmed against hypersaturated sunsets. Because Michael Bay movies are also obsessed with the human body and its place in the world. And with masculinity vs. femininity, and with vitality vs. obsolescence, and with thought vs. action. If you’re not acting, if you’re not defending or attacking, if you’re not trying to get somewhere or obtain something, then you’re just waiting to be passed by. That’s life. That’s America. That’s humanity.
Michael Bay movies are always going somewhere.
This short clip explains Michael Bay’s aesthetic better than I ever could, and it’s totally worth your time from a film studies perspective. But I can sum it all up by saying you know you’re watching a Michael Bay film when small people are caught between giant problems and have to keep moving to survive, both literally and figuratively. There are almost no static camera moves in a Michael Bay film, or flat medium shots. The close-ups are always dramatically lit. The wide shots are in motion on multiple planes of action. And the characters are almost always shot from below, framed against massive backdrops that constantly remind us how insignificant they are against the collective shrug of society, industry, or nature.
Transformers 4 is about age and decay, about desire vs. actuality, and about man’s (and robot’s) eternal quest to understand why things happen. The “what” is the MacGuffin that keeps the story moving forward — hunted robots, kidnapped daughters, stolen weapons — but the “why” is what every hero is truly after. For all his presumed favoring of style over substance, Michael Bay’s movies are gravely concerned with where we as a nation, as a species, as a gender, and as a planet, are headed — and whether any of it actually matters.
Michael Bay movies are a textbook example of emotional logic.
Look, Transformers 4 is a pretty dumb movie. It’s a “dark” take on a popular ’80s cartoon that was created to sell toys to preteen boys, so you’re not dealing with unimpeachable source material here. And yes, the characters make intellectually questionable decisions at every step, not just because this is an action movie that requires them to keep getting themselves in trouble in order to justify its own existence but because Michael Bay doesn’t really care about the same logic that you and I care about.
Instead of logical cause-and-effect — “He did X, so they did Y, and therefore he should now do Z because he wants to achieve A” — what Michael Bay movies deliver is emotional cause-and-effect: “His actions made me feel X, and now I the viewer want to feel Y.”
For example, Cade spends most of the movie trying to keep his daughter safe. At least, that’s his stated goal, but his actions perpetually debunk his statement. This is a dad who nearly gets his daughter killed numerous times, sends her out to shoplift, and belittles her boyfriend at every turn, all under the guise of protecting her physically and emotionally from external threats.
While Cade’s intellectual logic doesn’t hold up, his actions (and his daughter’s reactions) fuel our emotional logic. We know he can’t protect her forever, and we also realize she’s probably more capable than he gives her credit for. So what we, the audience, end up wanting from this story arc is to know that Tessa can take care of herself so Cade won’t have to worry about her. And her final act in the movie closes that loop and provides us with the emotional catharsis we needed, even if its intellectual logic is as questionable as anything else in the film.
Similarly, Tucci’s Joyce isn’t just the most entertaining character in the movie; he’s also the movie’s resuscitated heart. While Cade has been brave from the beginning because he’s fighting for his freedom, Joyce is the one who has to choose between what he could be and what he wants to be. And when a film gives us a villain who realizes the error of his ways, we spend the rest of the movie hoping he’ll live long enough to become a better man.
Whatever that means in Michael Bay’s world.