V: I’m still relatively new to the practice of film & TV criticism, and while I have obviously become more generally critical in the process of learning and doing it, perhaps my biggest surprise is that I have also warmed to and become appreciative and even admiring somewhat of Michael Bay.
C: Go on.
V: Critics view Bay the way Floridians view high barometric pressure – a time-after-time harbinger of worsening atrocities so torturous and egregious that some even suspect a deeper agenda behind it. I’ve never bought into it, for it’s always sounded more like a smug excuse by the critics themselves to trash and curb-stomp Bay’s filmography under a pretense of righteousness.
C: The thing about Michael Bay is that he’s a master filmmaker (argue as you will). People have come to think of him as this egotistical, over patriotic womanizer, which I believe he is, but I also believe he is those things on purpose. He has his vision and style that NO ONE else has in Hollywood, but he gets bogged down with overlong stories and self-indulgence. The more movies he makes, the more self-aware he becomes, which we will talk about later, especially with Transformers: Age of Extinction.
V: Bay is smarter than his filmography would suggest, but since I saw Pain and Gain I’ve been wondering if Bay makes his films the way he does in part because of his nihilism complex and because he enjoys insulting the intelligence of his audience. The Transformers trilogy itself feels a bit detached from the rest of his filmography in how stupid he thinks the toys themselves are as well.
C: I don’t think it is him trying to insult the audience as much as it is that he just doesn’t care. Set aside the rest of Bay’s career for a moment. I would argue that the Transformers series is not one of, but THE weirdest movie franchise of all time, from a production standpoint. None are particularly good (I’d say the first one is), yet the general public continues to pay to see them. The chief response from people you’d ask about Age of Extinction was: “I know it’s not going to be good, but I’m going to see it anyway.” It wouldn’t surprise me either if Bay has been doing this as an experiment on the general moviegoer, but even then Transformers is unlike anything we have seen before. For better or for worse.
V: While I agree that those films were never good, I would argue that precisely what you said about the uniqueness and extravagance of the series is mostly for the better. Bay is not a subtle filmmaker; if he had something to say, he’d slam it on the screen the way he does the American flag. Perhaps the ambiguity of creator intent is what has so many critics fascinated and speculating about deeper agendas (and oftentimes in ways that you and I both probably find extremely unfair to Bay himself), but when you strip a blockbuster down to its core, all that really matters is what’s up on screen. And we can’t deny that in bringing these robots to life, Bay has orchestrated some of the most incredible pieces of raw spectacle in the entire history of film.
C: Oh, definitely. Bay has always had spectacle. The opening car chase in Bad Boys II is what I still hold to be the greatest car chase in the history of cinema. However, Transformers has given him the gateway to create more spectacle and explosions. They are Michael Bay turned up all the way with nothing holding him back, and that’s what makes them interesting from an action standpoint. The guy can’t tell a good story, with a couple exceptions, but he can blow things up better than anyone else in the business. He’s an action pioneer that filmmakers like Christopher Nolan look to when they need a great action set-piece (that’s not a joke).
My problem here can be summed up with the question “what is too much?” The excess is expected when it comes to Bay, but with a trilogy already in the past, I felt satisfied enough to let this franchise go to another filmmaker and have Bay go do other movies like Pain and Gain. Now having seen the fourth film in this massive Baysplosion, I end up being torn.
V: It’s interesting to see directors given full reign over a property, because while obviously you have notable cases like Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit and with George Lucas’ prequel trilogy where excess and sloppiness are principal flaws, you also get a better glimpse as to what these auteurs are made of. I kind of loved Age of Extinction and I think it’s the best of the series, in large part because the one thing I had actually wanted from the original trilogy was more action and more Baysplosions. The story here is still ridiculously scatterbrained with awkward transitions, cringe-worthy dialogue, and mostly flat human characters but Bay’s initiative to repurpose the franchise and make it more of the toy commercial that it always was paid off because for the first time. Bay kept the action going even when he wasn’t blowing stuff up, so sitting through the film – as long as it was – didn’t really feel like a chore.
C: The problem I had wasn’t the “Bayisms” you expect from these movies – those being his style, the poor dialogue, and the rocky humor – but it was actually the plots that follow the humans. There is WAY too much stuff going on even for this movie. It has four different storylines that try to come together, but it feels so forced and unnecessary that I felt myself getting bored and confused by the motivations (there aren’t any). I don’t hold that against Michael Bay per se, but actually screenwriter Ehren Kruger, who genuinely seemed to be parodying a Bay Transformers movie.
Nothing makes sense, even for Bay. Characters are flat, resulting in the audience FINALLY feeling emotion for the Autobots, and having me crave for the next film to not have human characters at all. The beginning of this film has an Autobot being brutally torn apart, and I’ll be honest in saying I felt surprisingly bad for him. How did that happen? I’m not sure, but after that scene I never felt the same emotion for anything.
V: The human motivations were definitely murky all throughout the film, particularly with Kelsey Grammar’s character and the guy who operated with him. They start out as the bad guys against the Autobots and then become bad guys against Mark Wahlberg’s character – Cade Yeager. With Bay’s films, you always have a lot going on but usually you can expect them to tie together, even if it would happen in the stupidest way ever. That doesn’t really happen here. Seeing that autobot get butchered like that was hard to swallow, as was seeing what Optimus Prime looked like at the beginning of the film. They literally looked like victims of bullying. One of the things I hated about the original trilogy was the fact that those films never really looked at those robots as characters. I’ve always said that human beings can empathize with literally anything, and Age of Extinction kind of proved that, and in that way I think Kruger did a good job. Yet just as before (and perhaps more-so now because of how distantly each “arc” functions from the others) the human storylines kept getting in the way of that.
C: Everything with the Transformers had me enthralled. I was like a child watching Lockdown be the badass that he was, collecting Autobots as trophies. This is what I wanted and I got that, but unfortunately it was for maybe half the film at the most. I personally thought Mark Wahlberg was alright at best, but the dialogue is so bad, even for Marky Mark, that he couldn’t save the majority of it. His daughter – played by Nicola Peltz – is such a wasted female character even for Bay that her only purpose was to motivate Wahlberg to go from point A to point B. Not to mention she’s pretty awful, and the short shorts/shots of her butt were a bit too excessive for my taste. And I won’t waste my breath on Jack Reynor, who can’t seem to pick an accent while just being the chauffeur for the entire movie. There is nothing for him to do other than be a cool driver, fight with Wahlberg, and hug Peltz. There are insanely fun moments of action with Wahlberg’s character, especially one involving scaling the side of Hong Kong homes, but the characters did nothing for me, only to waste half of the 165-minute runtime.
V: Bay has always had that problem of overstuffing his films, and Age of Extinction is definitely no exception. I was actually relieved when one human character died early, because I remember getting so annoyed with Ramón Rodríguez’s character in Revenge of the Fallen that I wanted to throw something at the screen and this person seemed to serve exactly the same function – that is to say no function at all besides screaming and freaking out.
I could forgive the bad dialogue when the robots were speaking because by now we should expect nothing less, but when Bay was composing the sequence of the government coming to Wahlberg’s home and dramatizing the heck out of it with the cinematography and music – to absolutely no avail – and using dialogue like “My FACE is my warrant!” it’s clear just how needless all of it was. It’s that reason why I think the best dialogue in the film was in a softer moment of character interaction between Yeager and Optimus Prime while on the ship, where Wahlberg’s character earnestly attempts to renew Optimus’ faith in the human race. In that scene, he says a variant of “you just have to look past the junk and see the treasure,” which speaks to what Yeager himself does for a living. I believe Bay & co. are asking the same of us, the audience. Self awareness dictated creator intent and why I can’t fault Age of Extinction too much for its flaws because watching those robots clash and destroy each other was the treasure. And I thought it looked better than it ever had before, even if the Dinobots were underused.
C: This is why I want to write an article on Bay and his career, because the further he goes, the weirder his movies get. I was thinking about this last night and you watch each Transformers movie and none of them look or feel the same. The Michael Bay who directed the first film is not the same guy who directed Age of Extinction. You could easily write this off as it being the screenwriter’s faults, but I don’t believe so. It’s Bay’s self-awareness. He finally realized it with Pain and Gain. That strange masterpiece is peppered with Bay’s style that he’s used from all of his films prior. The most notable for me is the Bad Boys II tracking shot through two rooms, going through bulletholes. That was used in Pain and Gain and is even used in Age of Extinction. This newest movie is covered in Bay, but not in the way that feels original anymore. It feels more or less like he knows what he’s doing, doesn’t care, and goes for it. I can appreciate that, but to me, I feel a bit betrayed. There is a moment when a doll from My Little Pony shows up as a reference to IGN’s fake trailer for a Michael Bay version of that Hasbro series. Sure, you can argue it was cross-marketing, but I really don’t think that was the case. When it comes to the action, Bay is still the master, I just fear he is getting a bit too full of himself.
V: I think if this was the second film in the series with Dark of the Moon being the first, Bay and this series overall would have a better reputation. I like that terrible film too, because it contained some of the best and most incredible destruction effects ever, and played with the space race in a way I thought was actually really clever. How do you think this film holds up in comparison to Dark of the Moon?
C: I don’t think it compares to Dark of the Moon. For me, I think objectively the first film is the best in the series, but Dark of the Moon is my favorite because the last hour of that beautiful piece of junk is indeed treasure. The reason Bay fans love the third film is because Michael Bay topped his entire filmography with his Return of the King to apologize for his worst film to date, Revenge of the Fallen. Now that he has continued the franchise, Age of Extinction feels tired; the action is still fantastic but it’s not Bay’s best. Even within his set-pieces, there isn’t anything too exciting. It feels like Bay doing what he does, but not him having fun with it. By the time the Dinobots show up, you’re already two hours and fifteen minutes into the film, and it feels a bit like overkill even if they’re awesome. They seem like an afterthought in a film titled “Age of Extinction.”
V: Even as modern blockbusters continue to get bigger (and hopefully better), I think there’s still a place for Transformers and I hope the franchise continues, but I also hope that Bay does finally step away from it. Whether Age of Extinction is the Transformers film Bay always wanted to make, or whether he’s just trying to get one final endorphin high out of Paramount’s big budget, I’m sure we’ll find out soon enough. But I liked and had a lot of fun with the end result. Some rumors have circulated about him wanting to make a film about elephant poaching (Bay is privately a major animal rights supporter), and I’d genuinely love to see that. His career has brought us to a point where Bay has his own style of camp and eccentricity, which I think blockbusters will always need. No matter what happens with the genre, the one thing that will always remain is that sometimes, the best way to solve a problem is by blowing it up. Final thoughts?
C: The way Age of Extinction ends is a disappointment to me if Bay doesn’t come back for a fifth film. It leaves off exactly what I want most, and Bay would be amazing at intergalactic Transformer mayhem – and getting rid of the humans. As a whole, Age of Extinction is a mess, but an expected mess. If you’re going in expecting a great, wholesome, meaningful film, where have you been for the last three of these? As a massive fan of Michael Bay, the film is a bit of a letdown. I wanted a bit more; nothing really topped Dark of the Moon, but I still had fun and will probably be seeing this one more time on the silver screen because it’s Bay and a decent Transformers movie.
We haven’t even talked about the Autobots, but Bumblebee has one of the funniest Bay-affect scenes of the entire franchise involving jealousy, and it’s gloriously perfect for that character.
V: It’s certainly possible that he would stick around. Bay himself said that the reason he came back was because of separation anxiety, even though he made Pain and Gain in part because of how insistent he was to get away from robots. Age of Extinction is indeed a mess, as is just about everything Michael Bay ever makes, but it’s a fun mess. There’s something almost romantic about how much of a pyrotechnic Bay is and we need people like him to push the action envelope with films like these. My problem is, I just don’t believe that if Michael Bay made another one of these movies, he’d actually do space robot warfare. I think he’d just be more likely to keep blowing stuff up here.
As for Bumblebee, that was indeed a terrific scene, as was the scene where Optimus, in all of his anger, nearly commits genocide upon all of KSI and Stanley Tucci’s character stands up to him.
C: As long as we some sort of intergalactic warfare, I’ll be happy. Maybe Bay could stick to just two plotlines, with the humans and Earth, and Optimus becoming his own bounty hunter, resulting in a connectivity that makes the final act Bay’s biggest yet? One can only dream, I guess.