It is well known that Bay started off his career in music videos, before progressing to a feature director of a relatively long line of Simpson/Bruckheimer (eventually just Bruckheimer) high-concept productions. By the time Transformers: Dark of the Moon hits our screens this summer (in *yawn* 3D), Bay will have racked up 9 feature credits as director. The question is, at least for the purposes of this article, are any of them any good? The films we are talking about here are Bad Boys (x 2), Transformers (x 3), The Rock, Armageddon, The Island and Pearl Harbor. Is there anything commendable among that selection, perhaps anything commendable about Bay’s style and approach in general? Is he a wrongly-maligned man, or a sun-set obsessed hack?
Undoubtedly there is a certain wilful superficiality to many of Bay’s films. As the above clip compilation shows, there is a disproportionate amount of orange-tinged sunset in his films that has become a running joke rather than a commendable trademark. Ridiculous levels of explosions, car crashes and demolition of buildings/landmarks/cities seem to have become his stock-in-trade and as Roland Emmerich has found lately, there is nowhere you can really go once you have started in that direction, other than louder, bigger, more. But am I arguing myself into a corner here? Am I building too strong a case against my own premise? Well, no. If you will indulge me for a few minutes, I will try to show that Bay is actually highly adept at playing to his strengths and that his detractors not withstanding, he gives many what they want and better than almost anyone out there.
Consider that sequence of films listed above. Clearly they are a bombastic bunch, possessing none of the subtlety of, say, The Bourne Ultimatum, Inception or X-Men 2 (to list a few recent examples of effects or stunt/action heavy, but critically lauded films). But is that not the point? Bay has never made any pretensions at subtlety, it simply is not what he is aiming for, nor is it what his target audience want or expect. We may wish that his target audience were a little more discerning, but they are what they are and he gives them what they want. Explosions. Absurd action. High concepts. Big set pieces. Giant alient robots that turn into giant trucks, tanks, helicopters and stereos. It is surely not his fault that millions of cinema goers like that sort of thing and actively seek it out. Indeed it is to his credit that he gives people what they want with so much style, polish and bombast.
Any old hack can direct an action scene, but that doesn’t necessarily result in a coherent end product. Consider McG’s work on the Charlie’s Angels films, or Stephen Sommers stumbles with The Mummy Returns and GI Joe. Plenty of money spent, plenty of bang for your buck, but much more limited commercial success. And let’s consider that commercial success. It is so easy to get snooty about box office success in and of itself, as if a film ought to be massively uncommercial in order to preserve its non-mainstream, trendy credentials. But who really wants to make a film that makes no money? Ideally of course we want a marrying of commercial success and artistic merit (on which point we return to the above examples of Bourne, Nolan and Singer’s superior X-Men sequel), but clearly we’re not going to get that every time. What we must not do however, is savage Bay for no other reason than because his films are successful at the box office without subscribing to our personal definition of artistic quality. Although his budgets have been creeping up of late to nigh-on unserviceable levels (in terms of the ability of the film to break even without making a billion dollars at the box office), he has manged to bring in highly profitable films (with perhaps the exception of Bad Boys 2 and The Island) that have done exactly what they say on the tin.
I also firmly believe that Bay deserves significant credit for his candor and self-awareness. He has openly admitted that he messed up with Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, delivering a film that suffered from some extremely poor elements (giant swinging wrecking ball testicles on a Constructicon anyone?) even though it made $100m+ more than the first film at the worldwide box office. Bay could have hidden behind the figures but instead acknowledged the film’s shortcomings, recognised the debt he owes to the film-going public and promised to deliver something better next time around. We will get to see how he fares in a few short weeks. In 3D.
This advert for fibre-optic broadband also showcases Bay’s significant sense of self-effacement. He recognises how he is perceived and is willing to send himself up (although no doubt his fee from Verizon has helped salve his wounded ego). Not everyone is prepared to do that. So many directors and actors take themselves so seriously. Why so serious? Where’s the sense of fun? Of course I cannot point to a single one of his films and say that it was my favourite film of the year in question. Of course he is not laden with “proper” awards for his many years of hard work. But I have watched Armageddon more times than I have seen The Godfather and if I fancy sitting down to watch a film of an evening, I can guarantee my thoughts will turn to Bay before they turn to the French New Wave, or Italian neo-realism, or Eisenstein.
You see, it’s not always about the inherent artistic quality of a film. Sometimes it is a matter of pure, visceral enjoyment. Of switching off and savouring the destruction of an entire city, for no other reason than because the SFX exist to be able to do it. There is enough space in the world of films for all of it and Bay should be applauded for working his niche tirelessly and delivering something satisfying that is often exactly what I am looking for. So come on, stick The Rock in your DVD player, sit back and let’s put a smile on that face.
So what do you think? Have I made my case? Is Bay pardoned? Does he remain guilty as charged for crimes against cinema? Comment below. Please also let me know if there is anyone else, or any particular films that you think need defending. Spiderman 3? X-Men: Origins: Wolverine? Just don’t ask me to defend Blade:Trinity. Everyone has their limits.