[7 July 2014]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
I have to admit - I have never been the biggest fan of Michael Bay. I don’t like theBad Boys films. I can watch both The Rock and Armageddon without retching, usually, while both Pearl Harbor and The Island suffer from some of the most egregious cinematic stumbles made by any supposed filmmaker.
I even hoped that Pain & Gain would jettison some of the King of Excesses more manic proclivities and actual be a “human” comedy. Instead, it suffered from the same problems that plague almost all Bay’s efforts, issues best exemplified by his tedious, tired Transformers tentpoles.
For the record, I really did enjoy the first Transformers film, giving it a now seemingly deluded eight out of ten on our prescient PopMatters scale. Sadly, it was all downhill from there. Revenge of the Fallen earned a pitiful one out of ten, while Dark of the Moon faired a lot better, rising back into the recommendable category with another seven out of ten. So clearly I either suffer from occasional delusions, or I actually found myself swept up in Bay’s branded bombast.
Then came Age of Extinction, or as it should be retitled, Michael Bay’s attempt to Cash In on the Billion Dollar Behemoth He Birthed. Internet rumors (which are totally reliable, right?) have made it clear that, allegedly, the only reason the filmmaker fashioned yet another installment in this beleaguered series (with two more film making a trilogy supposedly in the works) is because 1. he didn’t have a sweet backend deal on the previous blockbusters, 2. the movies have become immensely popular overseas, and 3. money talks and creative bullshit walks.
Going back over my own reactions to the franchise, it’s clear I’m suffering from a kind of pre-J.J. Abrams Star Trek-style appreciation (you know what I’m talking about—in the case of the voyages of the Starship Enterprise, every even numbered film was/is great while every odd one is/remains awful). I liked the first Transformers and Dark of the Moon. I disliked Revenge of the Fallen and Age of Extinction immensely. So I am not the typical critic that Bay ranted and raved about in a recent press conference.
In case you didn’t hear (or read), the filmmaker said, “I work as hard as I can and I’m glad that people are liking the movie besides the critics, let’s just forget the critics.” He also said, “the people in the audience are liking the movies—that’s what I make movies for” before finishing off his comments with, “I think that they should make it mandatory for reviewers that they sit in the audiences—just be themselves surrounded by a real audience… they applaud, they laugh, they cheer. I don’t know what movie [critics are] reviewing.”
For a bit more personal perspective, I did indeed see every single Transformers film with an audience. I’m not one of those privileged press members who get to see almost every if not all movies in private LA/NYC/Chi-Town/Etc. screening rooms, surrounded by other critics only. I have complained frequently about such cattle calls, and the studio’s typical response (via their machine cog PR persons) is “[Insert Company Name Here] would prefer you see it with a crowd.” Their rationale follows Bay’s to a “T”, suggesting that a viewership hooting and hollering over what’s happening on the screen will somehow “affect” my ability to judge something.
Last time I checked, and I check often, I’m a critic, not a reporter or journalist. My job is not to simply state that a vast majority of the preview audience enjoyed the film. Instead, I’m supposed to rate the movie based on my experiences, my expertise, my frame of reference, past films, present pop culture, long standing artform aesthetics, and several other equally important factors. By Bay’s reasoning, a horrible film is actually good as long as the viewers (who, in this case, are getting a free sneak peek at something they will now not have to pay for) are enjoying themselves.
Let’s use a pair of recent examples as further clarification. I sat through Tammy this past week, and by Bay’s scale, I saw a pretty good comedy (not a god-awful one, as I wrote here). The reason behind that conclusion is that at least half the audience I saw it with was giggling along with almost everything Melissa McCarthy did.
Some nonsensical joke? They laughed. Some random facial or body gesture? More snickers. A pointless attempt at over the top physical comedy? Even though the actual material on screen was borderline incoherent and lacking any real character definition, the results were still solid since (by my estimate) more than half of the crowd found it funny.
How to Train Your Dragon 2, on the other hand, has been a critic’s darling since it debuted out of competition at Cannes this past May. When it was finally released, it received near universal praise with many in Messageboard Nation declaring it “the film of the Summer”. The audience that I saw it with (early on a Saturday morning) were neither enthusiastic nor bored. They cheered. They laughed. They clapped for their favorite parts and even whimpered a bit during a particularly tragic moment.
In Bay’s world, the critics are simply responding in kind to what the audience saw and appreciated…except How to Train Your Dragon 2 is considered a disappointment by most pundits. The first film managed an impressive $465 million on a $165 million budget. Two cost $40 million less, and has yet to pass $238 million at the box office. So Mr. Bay, Wha’ppen???
To his credit, Bay is right not to worry about the critics. They do not determine his fate. Foreign filmgoers do. Right now, the international box office is a two to three times domestic numbers generator, meaning that if Transformers: Age of Extinction earns $400 million in the US, it will easily break between $800 million and $1 billion overseas. That’s what happened with his other movies. No Transformers film has made more than $400 million domestically, meaning that all the inflated figures come from markets outside America. Dark of the Moon, in particular, pulled in more than twice its US totals internationally.
With his picture postcard imagery and similarly shorthanded scripting, Bay’s movies may be nothing more than a colorful crib mobile, delighting Joe and Jane Six-pack (and more importantly, their kids Jerry Lee and Jeannie) with their bright shiny shapes and constant careless motion. Since his biggest hits center on a kid’s toy turned CG spectacle, one could also argue nostalgia and novelty. Heck, even I’ll admit to being a bit giddy the first time I saw a car magically morph into a robot.
But Bay’s films are like bags of candied crack. He doesn’t just give you one action sequence. Instead, his entire three hour epics are action scenes spread out over continents and attempted character beats. He’s beyond subtlety. He’s the slam dunk. You get addicted and so you are the movie meth head he requires to make his vision work.
And so I’m jumping off the Bay bandwagon, both pro and con. I will no longer leap to his defense (not that I ever really have) nor will I try and tear down his clearly incompetent aesthetic. Instead, I will let the chips fall where they really count” overseas. If he ever loses the international audience, Bay is sunk. After all, no studio will greenlight a $200 million extravaganza knowing it will only make double that domestically. Those numbers don’t even provide decent craft services at the after party.
No, as long as Michael Bay can rely on the foreign filmgoer to line his pockets, he doesn’t need my help and/or hindrance. I wish him all the luck, and popularity, in the world.