You can learn a lot about Michael Bay by the numbers. In the last twenty years, he has directed eleven films, and all but two were released in June or July. All his films but the first, Bad Boys, top the two hour mark, and more than half exceed two and a half hours. The highest Metacritic percentage any of his films has ever garnered is the academic grading scale equivalent of a D+. In the last decade, studio execs have entrusted Bay with more than a billion dollars in budget, and he’s earned it all back and then some. He has directed half a dozen Victoria’s Secret commercials. He has a strange sense of proportion. He needed only fifteen minutes longer to tell the story of Pearl Harbor than he did to tell a story in which the penultimate moment involves a robot alien knight riding atop a robot alien Tyrannosaurus Rex which breaths fire. And yet, there’s something to Bay’s self-defense which is momentarily disarming. “I make movies for teenage boys. Oh, dear, what a crime.”
I will confess there was a time when I thought Bay’s presentation of a human body the slightest bit profound. He is given to placing his camera on a track at stiletto level and zipping three hundred and sixty degrees around his heroes, who become the towering still points in a turning world. There’s something of the will-to-power in Bay’s visual preferences; many of his films trade in the destruction of objects which weigh millions of tons, be they skyscrapers or alien space crafts or asteroids. Or Beijing. One gets the impression that, were Bay a general on the warfront, when news of the armistice arrived, he’d blast a few more rounds before showing anyone else the telegram. His interest in politics is pronounced, though not profound. He oscillates between uncritical, fan boy patriotism and wildly firing critical comments (which don’t necessarily come off as statements, per se) at US foreign policy, economics and diplomacy.
In class discussions centered on humanism and sensuality, I have often relied upon Bay’s Transformers series as exemplars of anti-intellectual storytelling. While there might be some thrill in watching models and aliens destroy Chicago, there’s no thrill in talking about it later. Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole is a film a viewer might find himself meditating on months later, wondering where exactly Chuck Tatum’s work in the mine went wrong… wondering at all the ways ambition naturally plays into a media-driven, media-saturated society. With Transformers, there is little to ponder over after the credits roll. In fact, talking about Transformers might even be a little vexing, because talking about the film simply makes one anxious to see it again. Talking about Ace in the Hole, on the other hand, usually just makes me want to talk about Ace in the Hole more, and with different people. Wilder’s film is one which feeds the life of the mind, a story so grounded in genuine human fear that a viewer might frame this or that dicey situation at work or church as “an Ace in the Hole situation”, turning to the film for moral direction in order to avoid its’ tragic conclusion. So Bay’s “movies for teenage boys” tend to assume that teenage boys don’t have much to think about, or don’t want much to think about, though the billion dollars which Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen took in was certainly not acquired exclusively through crumpled tens scrounged from cargo pockets. Does everyone have nothing to think about?
Age of Extinction is indistinguishable from the previous three films in the franchise but for the cast. Shia LeBeouf (the human Lindsey Lohan) has been replaced by Mark Wahlberg, who is commonly mistaken for a good actor when he is simply a likable and interesting human being whose off-screen persona is never far from the camera. Wahlberg comes from a big family in Boston, is a practicing Catholic, and has five kids and a tattoo over his heart which reads, “In God I Trust.” He rarely takes on roles which require him to be anything more than himself, perhaps himself on a bad day.
In the latest Transformers flick, Wahlberg plays Cade Yeager, a widower and a tinkerer whose only daughter Tessa (Nicola Peltz, who I’d never heard of before either) is old enough to wear daisy dukes, but, by her father’s estimation, not old enough to date. He corrects her and corrals her, and there are plenty of predictable jokes made about burying any potential suitors, both before and after her secret boyfriend reveals himself. Tessa insists that she takes care of Cade, Cade insists he takes care of her, and there’s an amicable tension between the two which is so thickly lacquered into the dialog, it is hard to think the expression “amicable tension” wasn’t part of the order placed when Bay glanced at the McScreenplay menu. This kind of thing is his bread and butter. Bay doesn’t deal in human relationships which don’t easily open up into witticisms and friendly barbs. Nobody really talks to anybody else, they only banter, as though trying to replicate the dynamic found in Facebook comments passed between facetious cousins. You’ll not find husbands and wives, small children or babies in Bay’s films, and the occasional elderly man or woman who wanders into the story is quickly reduced to an AARP card-carrier.
Before committing to Age of Extinction, would-be viewers ought to consider the value of an evening. In the same time it takes to watch the film, you could watch the entire first season of The Office and have enough time left over to make a proper omelet. If you decide to do the later, you certainly know what you’re missing. Averaged out, the film cost around twenty-one thousand dollars a second to manufacture, and while you get to see every dime of it, you’ve seen it before. Films like Distict 9, Inception and Gravity have reinvigorated the American public’s (easily set aside) expectation that creativity and sentiment play a more defining role in spectacle. Neither is it true that special effects necessarily get better with every passing year, as though more precise and sophisticated visual technology were directly proportionate to the verisimilitude of strange images offered. I’m not content the first Transformers film wasn’t the best looking of the series.
There’s some stuff in Age of Extinction about sacrifice and redemption, too, although that’s really all that needs to be said about that.