It does not really matter if the fourth Transformers live-action movie is “good” or “bad.” It will be a 9+ $ figure global megahit all the while critics lambast the film and internet bloggers/forum prowlers get their metaphorical dung, tar & feathers ready to be thrown at Michael Bay for his alleged cinematic “crimes.” However something occurred to me as I was viewing Transformers 4 (subtitled: “Age of Extinction”), as I was rolling my eyes at the mid-film barrage of explosions with eerily-centered product placement logos, I noticed that the audience, mostly filled with neatly dressed & groomed professionals and hyperactive children, in the theater were all cheering. Despite nearly every worst instinct Michael Bay has as a filmmaker and storyteller being emphasized to obnoxious degrees in the nearly 3-hour long film, audiences were eating it up with huge grins on their faces. Some actually enjoyed the film, some enjoyed it for the pleasure of skewering it for their blogs and peer amusements and then there were others who were simply fascinated with what this film was trying to say. I fall into the latter category. Believe it or not, even the most mainstream studio-backed product is in some ways a work of art and every work of art makes a statement. While some far-reaching cinephiles have often taken the stance of Michael Bay’s films as satires on one subject or another, what is ultimately more fascinating is what the films say about the man behind them. Transformers: Age of Extinction may not be a “good” film or even a functional one but like many of Bay’s films it serves as a sort of Rorschach image peer into the mind of the filmmaker.
As noted before Age of Extinction displays nearly all of Michael Bay’s worst as a filmmaker and storyteller. Beyond an incoherent story with an excessive running time and action sequences that overstay their welcome, the film is littered with troubling implications of misogyny, racism, politics and an ugly portrait of people via an unhealthy lack of anything resembling empathetic characters. These are the sorts of issues that draw the most scorn towards Bay but also reminded me that he is one of the most weirdly fascinating filmmakers on the planet. His films carry notoriety for the amount of content in them that can be considered sexist, homophobic and racist garbage all under the pretense of some sort of mean-spirited jest. It’s fascinating because it seems Bay is absolutely aware of this. His last film, Pain & Gain, was a passion project for Bay. It was conceived as Bay’s homage to the darkly humorous crime-capers of the Cohen Bros. (Fargo, The Big Lebowski) and it knowingly used the very same sort of problematic content for clear satirical purposes. The characters and dialogue from Pain & Gain are indeed vulgar caricatures but that was sort of the point as Bay was using them as devices to make a point about the grotesque nature of excess and indulgence. Unfortunately it seems few were in on the joke as the film polarized critics and never hit the same commercial success as Bay’s other films. It’s telling that the first film Bay works on after his audacious passion project was the 4th Transformers film: the very capitalism-backed sort of gross & vulgar bawd Bay was mocking in Pain & Gain. If Pain & Gain was Bay at his most self-aware & happiest, Age of Extinction is Bay at his most resentful & angriest. This film is about Michael Bay, as an artist, resigning himself to the role of Hollywood’s vulgar auteur of blockbusters.
Despite being Hollywood’s whipping boy for critics and audiences alike, Bay is one of the most successful active filmmakers around. And not without reason: he’s a particularly skilled visual storyteller with an astute talent for composition, spectacle, imagery and creativity with staging action sequences. His visual style is unique to himself making him a genuine auteur considering his distinct filmmaking style. Many action-film directors often draw inspiration or outright mimic the visuals or even whole sequences from Bay’s films. Beyond his technical prowess, through his interviews and a little research into his biography reveals a filmmaker passionate about film and the preservation of film. His films themselves subtly provide an empathetic characterization of himself as an artist and even as an individual. For instance, in Age of Extinction the giant-machine “heroic” protagonist, Optimus Prime, screams towards the sky in solitary disconnect from a world that he serves as they hate him and filled with a resentment towards the powers that made him what he might actually serve as a metaphor for Bay’s relationship & attitudes towards his audiences, studios and culture that has built Bay’s reputation and career.
The work of an artist can often serve as evidence of who the artist is as a person and a fair semiotic interpretation of their “beliefs.” It would be easy to look at the problematic content of Bay’s features and use them to point to personal issues within Bay himself or just chalk it up to juvenile humor. However, if you put Pain & Gain together with Age of Extinction, a much more interesting portrait of Bay is made. See, Age of Extinction is Bay’s nightmare film. In some of Bay’s better films, the spectacle seems almost effortless but in Age of Extinction it reeks of the needed sense of guiles. By the end of the film’s final act nearly every moment erupts onto the screen with a spectral presence looming over the film who turns to the audience with a “you think this is cool, right?” Michael Bay probably could not care less about these films. Yet, he’s tapped into something with the franchise here and it might be why he keeps returning to them.
The first Transformers had a Spielberg-influenced gem of functionality (the myth of a boy and his car being the dramatic through-line) which was partly responsible for launching the super-franchise. Then the seemingly writer-less/purposeless and notoriously excessive second film went on to be even more popular than the 1st and Michael Bay may have seen the cruelest joke of that fact. The joke is that an almost script-less, nonsensical, boring and vulgar piece of cinematic junk food can still move on to make zillions of dollars. The live-action Transformers movies are not only critic-proof, but even gain from critic-skewering. Nearly every negative review, comment or discussion on any one of those films always elicit echoes of “this sounds so bad I HAVE to see it!” from the public. This sort of phenomenon proves to studios and filmmakers that they are not wrong to not care about “art” or “meaning” or “story” or anything of the sort. Studios are almost guaranteed safe success from chasing IPs and brands like Transformers because they can most assuredly trust that everyone will be all too eager to devour them. And Michael Bay knows this. Bay can use these films to put in all the worst things erupting from his whim, all in the most artless shell and receive nothing more than fiscal graces and a collective cultural shrug. The title “Age of Extinction” might actually have little to do with anything in the film and might actually be a play on what Bay might see as the problem with the sort of cultural climate surrounding these films. That might mean that Age of Extinction is an elaborate joke on all of us. It’s a litmus test to see if audiences are actually aware of cinematic issues in these films and whether people even care about them.
Whether people are aware/unaware of it, the Transformers films, more so than any other Hollywood blockbuster franchise represent the nadir of cultural taste reflected back at us. They bring out the worst. There’s audience that loves them; the audience that hate-loves them; the audience that loves hating them; the audience that goes out of morbid curiosity; the audience that joyfully laughs at the awfulness of them; and even audiences who are put into the headspace full of assumptions of meaning and the mind behind them. In the end, these films only extrapolate the very “wrongness” they try to bring to light. And whether or not Bay is delivering this sort of message via some misplaced expectation, or some sort of Machiavellian clarity for manipulating the basest instincts, Bay has discovered the ugly truth: This is what people actually want. This is the Age of Extinction.
People have every excuse to be cynical about everything and even to give in. However you take the same facts and view them optimistically, and Age of Extinction might very well end up being the highest grossing film of the year but its ONLY ONE film. Age of Extinction is one film out of the hundreds of films released in the US and out of the thousands worldwide. The money made off of this film might even be used by the same producers and investors to help produce or distribute those other films or even future films: some of which might be those “good” films. All forms of art are gifts. Even a film like Transformers is a gift.It’s just a matter of what that gift actually is.