In many ways, the Transformers movies have always been somewhat plagued by a weird quasi-meshing of Spielberg’s penchant boy-growing-up-among-the-awe narratives with Michael Bay’s own crass maximalism (a meaningless word, but how else to describe what’s on screen). Age of Extinction eliminates the main component of the former director’s hand – Shia Labeouf’s alienating and always too smug every-boy – in favor of Marky Mark Wahlberg, who mutates into whatever he needs to be from scene to scene (techie, overly concerned parent, football star, machine gun expert). It’s a good metaphor for the film itself, which struck me as a work completely outside of its own interest as a film made by a studio for entertainment. Instead, it morphs into a parade of advertisement for each of its backers — Hasbro, Victoria’s Secret, Chevrolet, and Budweiser (not to mention numerous Chinese sponsors I didn’t recognize). The last of those companies comes up in a scene so crassly made that you could snip that 30 seconds from the film and it could have easily been a spot during the Super Bowl. A colleague of mine once posited that movie theaters are slowly morphing into the mall—a space for people to hang out more than experience film, and this film certainly made that experience seem like less a warning of doom than a proposition of truth. Goodbye Cinema, Hello Capitalism 2.0.
Age of Extinction wants to be a bit of everything, a type of Access For All narrative that is common for Hollywood, but feels more paradoxical under Bay’s lens: Pro-American, Anti-Government, Anti- and Pro-Business, Anti-Drones, Pro-Women via a lens of misogyny (Who carries a laminated card with a statute?), and most importantly Pro-China. Bay claims that it was completely his decision to shoot in the East (as seen in Kevin B. Lee’s Premake), but I can’t imagine him molding a film that sees the American government completely as buffoons and then also include a scene where the Chinese Defense Minister confidently declares they will do everything they can to protect Hong Kong. Bay’s subjugation and crass bowing to his financiers is likely a lack of skill than some Brechtian effect, but I found it all kind of exciting to watch the Franken-birth of a new type of Blockbuster. In a way, I kind of prefer looking at Bay’s films and knowing exactly where my money is going and what is expected of me as an audience member; it’s like wearing the They Live glasses.
Within all of this horrifying consumerism, there is also the Art Of Bay—equal parts disturbing and fascinating, or perhaps just fascinating in the disturbing “soul” (just like the Transformers!) that it reveals. Every shot of Nicola Peltz’s ass in Texas is like some horny man’s version of Days of Heaven. A comic relief character is blown into an acidic and grotesque statue and circled around in four shots like he’s as beautiful as the Statue of David. “I’m asking you to look at the junk and see the treasure,” Wahlberg’s protagonist proclaims, but what separates Bay’s compositions from a Tony Scott (or an Joseph H. Lewis and Edgar G. Ulmer) is that his art is the art of sadism. He may truly delight in a morality so despicable, but he’s also a filmmaker who so thoroughly reveals his own Interior Meaning; watching his films is like the temptation to stare at the sun.
And yet, there is a physical component to watching Bay. There’s a scene with a bunch of Transformers jump all around Monument Valley (and earlier, a poster for Hawks’s El Dorado!); what’s astonishing to watch is how each little jump brushes up little specks of rock and dust throughout, each moving with total respect to the physical universe these CGI creates are visiting. The integration of Bay’s physical elements and his digital effects is astonishing, especially given the amount of dirt, rock, glass, concrete, and other material that makes up any given frame of his film. There’s particularly a shot of the camera gliding toward a boat in an early action scene as marines are about to raid a Transformer where I noticed how many separate elements the camera was catching without feeling overwhelming. As others have noted, 3D has slowed his camera down, and he’s almost exclusively broken from any sense of chaos cinema to downright classical continuity – the spaceship chase through Chicago might be a new standard in terms of three-dimensional spatial continuity. Additionally, a final climax involving hundreds of physical moving objects floating up and down as the digital effects ask them to defy gravity is the work of each shot thoroughly investigating each part of the frame—no pixel left unturned. There’s simply a detail to Bay that eludes the grand gesture filmmaking in other blockbusters I’ve indulged this year, where things move cleanly but rarely with a reverence to the potential of cinema to capture something authentic, even if it’s in a world of CGI alien robots. Bigger is not necessarily better, but the further away Bay travels from humans and closer to the vision of maximalism, the simulacra suddenly turns tactile—it feels real, which in the spectatorial position of cinema, is close enough to saying it is real.
Bay’s a scattershot fuck up, but he’s our scattershot fuck up, and no one can best the filmmaker at his own game. He has perfected the art of himself.