You know why Michael Bay’s 11 films have grossed over $5.5 billion? People keep watching them. Why? This exportable, ‘fun’, larger-than-life director is making the movies no one else will or can. He’s the man everyone hates but there is no mystery to Bay or his success. Michael Bay is Hollywood’s own Wizard of Oz and he’s keeping one part of Tinseltown alive.
If you’re a fan of ‘true cinema’, say the works of Eisenstein or Truffaut, you cannot like Michael Bay. It’s a generalisation but there’s some truth to it. Bay’s films indulge in crass, vulgar imagery and morals, for which there is little defence available or attempted. One can slant his works as little more than popcorn-peddling noise, yet Bay is a man who must be studied and, to a point, admired. As explored in the excellent Every Frame A Painting series, Bay’s significance is proven as immense. Series creator Tony Zhou’s disdain for the director is evident in the video below yet he echoes how Bay is one of the most technically evolved Hollywood director out there. Big, layered, blisteringly speedy direction and editing means only our eyes can catch Bay’s output, with our brains desperately attempting to hold it together. It’s chaos. Wonderfully digestible chaos.
There’s little brainpower required for much of Bay’s work, and that’s no bad thing. Outside of the Fast & Furious franchise and some of Marvel’s more cartoonish offerings, there is little else in the market of ‘fun’. As Eddie pointed out in a previous love letter, it’s become a dirty word. Now, to release Bay from criticism just because he’s ‘fun’ is a folly. So to echo Eddie again – you should go read his piece by the way, it’s very good – ‘fun’ movies can be clever, and guilt-free. Just look at Indiana Jones, Back to the Future and The Princess Bride. Yet there’s a certain appeal to having your brain cord detached for 2+ hours. There are many imitators to the throne, but there’s only one Bay.
Whilst the quality of his narratives has certainly fallen from their heights in the 1990s, Bay continues to deliver on his foundations of pure entertainment. Upon these, Bay has built films for the masses. Take Transformers: Age of Extinction – a film that grossed over a billion dollars worldwide. The eyes of some may roll ad infinitum at this stat – the dinobots could’ve appeared a little earlier, Mike – yet the masses lapped it up. Despite accusations of racism and sexism, Transformers: Age of Extinction drew the most ethnically diverse audience of the top five films in 2014, earning 38% of its box office from Caucasian audiences, 22% from African-American audiences, 26% from Hispanic audiences, and 14% from the Asian/Other audience group. This beats the likes of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1, Guardians Of The Galaxy, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and The LEGO Movie. You wouldn’t have called that. Much more than this, Transformers did not enjoy a sausage-fest of an audience, either. The film boasted a 58% to 42% (male to female) split, equalling both of Marvel’s aforementioned hits.
People like what Michael Bay is peddling. Those products are far from the best, in fact some are quite bad, but they attract us. In that alone we find a fascinating audience desire to see big action on the big screen. Even if you hate Bay, it’s blasphemous, and basically impossible, to watch his work on your cracked iPhone. It must be experienced on the big screen. There’s no better evidence for that than the fact that in Paramount’s entire history, the four Transformers films take up 2nd, 3rd, 6th and 11th on the all-time domestic box office table.
Bay’s greatest quality is the magic touch with which he transforms the ordinary stories of real life. He is Hollywood’s Wizard of Oz who turns today’s fact into utter fiction. That’s not just the giant 60 feet robots but rather the people, the surroundings, the morals. It’s all nonsensical but it’s safe. Bay’s world is a secure one for the masses. Everything works out in the end. Everyone looks sexy or hilarious in the process. The good guys win and they look damn good doing it. Almost separate from our known world, Bay’s films exist in Hollywood. Read these rough synopses of his films, and it’s clear we’re not working in the realm of reality: in Armageddon, to save the Earth, NASA recruits a group of redneck oil drillers to split an asteroid in half; in The Rock, a scientist with the help of a pensioner prisoner must defuse a chemical warhead in Alcatraz. Surely it would be easier to teach the astronauts to drill? Have they seriously run out of options outside of Nicolas Cage and an old 007? Through every unrealistic scenario, red sunset sky, and bombastic explosion, Bay swaggers in, demands your attention and earns your money. He attracts the most diverse audience because he makes transportation into his world so magically accessible.
There is no Hollywood director who believes in his own style more than Michael Bay. That, though, may be a curse. As seen in the smaller Pain and Gain, Bay has to rely upon his storytelling ability and so the project fails. Desperately. His moral compass is revealed in all its ugliness, and the film sits uncomfortably in its own skin; as seen with the currently maligned and flopping 13 Hours, which echoes this pattern again. Audiences want Michael Bay to transport them to another world, not keep them within their own.
The metaphor of Bay as the Wizard of Oz holds even greater credence when you delve deeper. The Wizard, heralded as all powerful and dominating at first, is revealed to be just a man behind a curtain. For Bay, that curtain is the wondrous and sensational technical expertise featured within his films, whether in bombing Alcatraz or creating a fully realised robot. The majority of praise should be showered upon the teams at ILM and LucasArts for their incredible visual effects mastery, but Bay knows how to make them count. He may lack the narrative skills of a Robert Zemeckis or Steven Spielberg where special effects are an embellishment of the story, but in his world, special effects are the story. There are severals directors who deliver consistently terrible movies – here’s looking at you Peter Berg – but they can’t put their worlds together in the same way as Bay. Even if Hollywood’s Wizard fails to enchant you, he’s pushing special effects into the future and to the forefront of cinema.
You can hate Michael Bay but he doesn’t care. You can despair at his work but he’s rather proud. Michael Bay is a key cornerstone to cinema because he is still Hollywood’s Wizard of Oz. One hopes that he can return to the glory days of his 1990s action masterpieces, but even if he does not Bay remains tremendously relevant. Unabashed, unashamed and unrelenting; Michael Bay looks to the future with a smile. There are so many more dreams to make (explode), and he’s ready to show them to you. Embrace the chaos.