Fundamentally, Michael Bay does not need defending. If I name one of his projects, odds are you will have heard of it. From Armageddon to Transformers, or from his legendary Milk-related adverts to the music video for Meat Loaf’s ‘I’d Do Anything for Love’, Bay’s work is ubiquitous.
This ubiquity does little more than arouse the ire of your average film critic, though. The Times’ review of Transformers, for example, was derisive of Bay’s “braindead machismo”, and argued “Films directed by Michael Bay are usually like being shouted at by a halfwit for two and a half hours.” This time last year Impact weighed in on the issue, with one writer alleging that “It’s films like Bay’s (whose style is worryingly spreading) that undermine the integrity of film as an art form.”
Michael Bay’s response, like his films, is refreshingly simple: “People always try to knock someone who’s had a ton of success in movies. Whatever.”
It is a mistake to try and defend his films by arguing that they are merely simple, fun and action-packed. These are undoubted truths – we’re not trying to watch Requiem for a Dream here – but such positives are always imbued with a sense of patronisation. Fans of Bay don’t just sit and watch with mouths agape in awe at the big explosions – to make this assumption is fallacious, and you’ll hear it a fair bit even from Bay’s apologists.
For a start, let’s not turn our noses up at the ease with which Bay places us in the setting of a film – think back to, say, Bad Boys. From the start of the film, it takes approximately two minutes and 52 seconds (feel free to check) to work out the setting, who the two main characters are, their mutual antagonism and their occupations. I’ve seen too many films that try so hard to impress with their character development, plot or ‘message’ that it takes a Wikipedia entry to inform me as to who the characters were and why I should care.
More importantly, however, Michael Bay’s films are successful because they absolutely nail the escapist genre. Anybody can do explosions – granted, Michael Bay’s are often quite spectacular and big budget – but fans of Bay’s films don’t watch them because of pyrotechnics. They watch these films because they represent a wondrous excursion from the mundanity of our everyday lives. We aspire to be – and place ourselves in the shoes of – the heroes from these films, whether they are geeky biochemists in San Francisco, two feuding cops in glamorous Miami, or a team of blue-collar oil drillers going into space to save the world. On the set, Bay himself puts it this way: “So many aspects of it seemed silly, but there is so much wish fulfilment to it, the idea of having a giant robot hiding out in your backyard.”
Why is the famous ‘shower scene’ in The Rock so emotionally charged, and why does Armageddon’s presidential speech (if you’ve seen the film, you know it) make the hairs on your neck tingle, in contravention of every cynical thought your head is throwing around? It isn’t simply because the music is telling us to feel this way, or because of explosions and gunfire. It is because deep down, in places we don’t talk about at parties, we want to ‘be’ these people: something primal, something instinctive, which our rational minds have long learned to suppress, is making us wish we were there. A Bay film is like Jane Austen’s Persuasion – try to read too much into it and you’ll spend more time moaning about the plot than appreciating its simple, romantic beauty.
One thing I can agree with the critics on is that Bay does not appeal to our heads when he makes movies. But then it was Napoleon who said that in order to electrify a man, it is his soul you must converse with. In the veritable symphonies of the action that Bay constructs, do we need to disengage our brains to understand exactly what Bay is getting at? Maybe we do. But what Bay does is create fantastic worlds in which tales of absolute heroism and villainy exist, and what’s more, he tells us that – for a few hours – we can go there.