But he's right for more than the obvious reasons. Sure, the movie is enormous, and while that's not everything, it's definitely not nothing. Though I've often felt that Michael Bay has done about as much to kill the action genre as he has making action movies, I have always admired him for his sheer ability to shepherd--however forcefully--these things into being. They're not, say, blog posts, after all. So if I don't honor him as an artist, or admire him as a craftsman, I do respect him as a general who marshals his resources to get these behemoths produced and on thousands of screens the day they're supposed to be there.
This, the sheer there-ness of Transformers, is about its only admirable quality. This is unfortunate, but not unexpected. It is, after all, a movie Michael Bay was born to direct. As is in Bay's other films, everything is too much. The Autobots and Decepticons are overdesigned such that you never have the impression of really seeing anything. A few details stand out here and there (windows that become a breastplate and so on), but on the whole, each robot seems less like a designed creation than an undifferentiated mass.
This is doubly true when the robots are in motion--whether fighting or transforming. When they move, we get little more than a blur of colors and the occasional shape.
How the Transformers interact with the humans is also revealing. One of the movie's more annoying tropes is a scrappy, skimpy robot who fights Shia LaBeouf (whose performance is one of the film's few and genuine bright spots). Here is a simple truth that does not inform the blocking but should: metal is stronger than flesh. And to offer a corollary, when flesh is caught in, or pierced by, metal, it hurts.
I'm sure Bay and co. would say that divesting the fight of such basic authenticity is part of its being aimed at younger audiences. And maybe it is. But I think it's part of something else, too. Failing to ground the fight in even this most threadbare realism has less to do with how Bay depicts the robots than how he depicts the people. That is, it is one more piece of evidence that convicts Bay for his inability to portray human beings as human beings. Here and elsewhere, Bay's movies suggest that to him, a person, a human body is a toy as abstract as their CG-creations.
Say, will there by crap I can buy?
Indeed, how the movie treats its people is even more vintage-Bay than are the robots or even the action. In my book, I write about how hostile Bay's movies are to their intellectual characters, and how, with his movies and in the press, Bay himself represents a nasty, nasty strain of anti-intellectualism. Fortunately, he eases off that gas pedal in Transformers--some. While he doesn't berate such characters as much as he has in the past, he still displays a dim-witted approach to intelligence. (it's almost funny to note how, when it comes time to be smart, Anthony Andersen puts on glasses).
Sadly, Bay makes up for the film's anti-intellectualism deficit with a streak of anti-authoritarianism. To be fair, this is an action movie staple. But whereas the heroes of Dirty Harry or Die Hard mouth off to a bureaucratic superior to stress their rugged individualism, Transformers depicts authority figures as boobs for basic comic relief. The former may be anti-authoritarianism for dummies, but it's better than the latter, which is anti-authoritarianism for pussies.
To wit (and I use the word "wit" lightly): an ersatz George W. Bush asks an Air Force One flight attendant to rustle up some Ho-Ho's. Better yet, we have LaBeouf's teacher, a dweeb with appropriately dweeby sweater and glasses, and LaBeouf's parents, bumbling clods who prompt one of the Autobots to remark, "Parents are irritating. Can we take them out?"
Similarly, the detective who interrogates LaBeouf is so over-the-top, he acts and even looks like Ben Stiller's freak Globo-Gym boss in Dodgeball. Likewise, John Turturro's character, a government operative who works for "Sector 7" is "lubricated" (that is, pissed) upon by a Transformer, and is later held out as an easy object of ridicule when he is shown in his boxers and a tank-top emblazoned with a corny Sector 7 insignia, much like Superman's shield. Protecting the earth from the scum of the universe used to be the job of the Men in Black. Now it's a job for Men in Underoos. Government cutbacks, I guess.
Lambasting these types--particularly parents and teachers--is old hat for Bay, as is his unfunny stereotyping. Whereas Bay has made fun of gay and black people in The Rock, and blacks, Japanese and Samoans in Armageddon (and who the hell has a problem with Samoans, anyway?), here it's Indian telephone operators--one picking his nose at that. The intercutting of this "character" into an otherwise "tense" firefight makes me wonder if Bay will end his career having left any races or ethnicities un-exploited?
The bigger point, however, remains this anti-authoritarian comic relief. Again, it's different from the sort normally seen in action movies because, here, the brunt of it is reserved for those in authority over teenagers. Transformers is chiefly a property aimed at the young, having originated as a cross-promoting cartoon and toyline in the 1980s. Infusing the movie (or more accurately, corrupting it) with this kind of humor, puts the film in league with television shows such as Saved by the Bell and its many descendants aimed at children and teens--shows that replaced the Saturday Morning Cartoon with vibrant, live-action depictions of in-control teens and totally-out-of-it grownups. (For more on this, see sociologist Juliet Schor, who discusses similar depictions of adults in television commercials.)
Transformers isn't really for adults, just as Armageddon wasn't for scientists, just as Die Hard wasn't for intellectuals. But there is a difference between not being for a group and being actively hostile towards it. Die Hard, for instance, is not anti-intellectual; it is merely non-intellectual. Armageddon and Transformers, on the other hand, are actively spiteful toward the people they are not "for." So when we laugh at this comic relief, we are, I believe, coarsened--even if just a little.
If there's one reason I'm not as worried by this as I might be, it's the reaction of the audience with which I saw Transformers tonight. To their discredit, they did laugh at the parts that were meant to be funny. But to their credit, they also laughed at the parts that were supposed to be emotional. This is because those parts felt phony, as they usually do in a Michael Bay film. The portentous musings of Optimus Prime, as well as the absurd solemnity of Steve Jablonsky's score belong in the Michael Bay Hall of Tripe. There, behind red velvet ropes, you will find them alongside Armageddon's animal cracker love-scene and faded JFK mural, and Pearl Harbor's depiction of Roosevelt, fueled by conviction, rising from his wheelchair.
That moment has always stayed with me because it reveals a question central to Bay's work: does that claptrap really work on him as a moviegoer, or is it just what he thinks will work on us? The distinction may seem small, but it's not. It marks the difference between being a genuine cornball and a mere hack. The former is better; at the very least, to be a cornball is to have some heart. But the fact that cynicism and stereotyping are such indelible parts of his work makes me fear that it's the latter.
It's sad, really. He is not completely ungifted; Michael Bay can shoot--or fix in post--a sky like nobody else. But sadder still is the thought that occurred to me during one of the many fights that left me sufficently distracted to think (even if I couldn't hear myself doing it): right now, in the world, there are kids who think this movie is great.
It's almost enough to make you wish summer was over already.