Has there ever been a more malinged director than Michael Bay? Critics routinely savage his films as representing everything wrong with Hollywood and its excesses of size, noise and money.
With all-American jingoism and the sort of unapologetic machismo that left the movies with the exits of Steve McQueen and John Wayne, Bay dreams up Boys Own Adventures and gets 40’s era fighter planes, giant asteroids (and the souped up space shuttles sent to destroy them) and a fully functioning set of Transformers to bring them to life.
Maybe we hate him because our childhood games and fantasies were never quite as audacious. We had spaceships flying to the moon. He had them flying past the moon to destroy a giant asteroid. We had car chases. He had a car chase complete with a truck covered in half tonne shipping rigs that he threw into the traffic as well.
Somehow he’s become the poster boy for the intellectually bankrupt action movie. Might it be because he’s seen as an unapologetic flag waver for the US military – frequently in the forefront of his films? In an era when a great deal of the world sees US forces as aggressive and unwelcome, Bay’s portrayal of them as the heroes in an endlessly just war leaves a bad taste in many mouths.
Or is it just his technolust? Take away ubiquitous shots of the American flag and you’re left with a serious case of mecha-worship; the weapons, soldiers, guns, flashing lights and buttons and the colossal explosions that result in them all doing their jobs.
It’s a reputation Bay himself has commented on. While promoting his last effort The Island, he told UK magazine Total Film; ‘I make movies for teenage boys, what a crime’.
But here’s a shock; someone likes him. Bay’s action-porn debut Bad Boys (1995) tripled its $20m budget. His high concept Alcatraz hostage movie The Rock (1996) more than doubled its $75m price tag. Armageddon (1998) doubled its money, and Pearl Harbor – Bay’s critical nadir – performed similarly. Even The Island (2005) turned a profit overseas after a lacklustre US release seemed to doom it as a flop. By contrast, many recent big hopes including Zodiac and Flags of Our Fathers arrived with resounding clunks at the US box office.
And here’s a bigger shock; the balls-to-the-wall action the critics hate him for is the reason it’s okay to like him. Just listen for the collective gasp in the audience when everyone thinks ‘No, surely he’s not going to…’.
He is. Whatever outrageous stunt you can imagine, he’ll do – and then some. Who else would turn the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor into a thrilling, Star Wars-like dogfight movie? Strip out the love triangle background (itself no worse than most plots greenlit in Hollywood) and the action scenes are not just some of the most thrilling but technically ground-breaking ever filmed.
We used to go the movies for the spectacle, the thrills and spills. When CGI and hundred million dollar budgets allowed directors to do things nobody had even dreamed – let alone tried – it only got more thrilling. Yes, the plots are hackneyed and the characters one dimensional, but with a masterful command of pacing, budgets that would get some small countries out of debt and a lust for pushing the visual envelope instead of being scared of the critics, odds are Michael Bay will give you the ride of the summer.