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Michael Bay Knows His Movies Are Trash

Like its four predecessors, Bay’s ‘Transformers: The Last Knight’ is big, bombastic — and mostly bad. But at least give credit to the blockbuster auteur for doggedly pursuing his own style.

(AP Images/Ringer illustration)
(AP Images/Ringer illustration)

All week, The Ringer will be celebrating Good Bad Movies, those films that are so terrible they’re endlessly amusing and — dare we say it? — actually good. Please join us as we give the over-the-top action movies, low-budget romance thrillers, and peak ’80s cheese-fests the spotlights they deserve.

Life is short and the world is probably ending, so let’s not argue about the merits of Michael Bay. No, really — it’s summer, and that debate just sounds like more hot air. Also, who cares? Bay is a director in love with his own bad taste. You’ve likely already made up your mind about that; no new movie will shake the impression. Bay’s newest excursion into the world of the Autobots, Decepticons, and Mark Wahlberg’s ego is a case in point. Transformers: The Last Knight opened on Tuesday, and it delivers on every wild promise you’d expect from the “The Fifth Transformers Movie,” save probably your imminent death. Watching it is like watching a pig do pirouettes in its own shit for almost three hours — which is only semiscathing, right? A good pirouette takes skill. Bay, a consummate technician, has that. And a hog in the slop is right at home amid the muck. So is Bay. He injects that love of trash into his movies — which is why, I’ve recently realized, I don’t mind watching them.

It’s not, for the record, that they aren’t bad. The cinema of Michael Bay is ludicrous, be it the outright and overbearing ridiculousness of the Bad Boys movies; the syrupy tribute to Hollywood heroism that constitutes Armageddon and Pearl Harbor; or a strange outlier like Pain & Gain, a movie that satirizes, among other things, people who probably love Michael Bay movies. The Last Knight is a movie in which Western history and mythology get so thoroughly rewritten that the magical power of Merlin, central to Arthurian legend, is shown to derive from the titular alien robots — which is pretty funny. It’s a movie in which the likes of Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, and Winston Churchill are said to have been members of a secret society that protected the Autobots’ status on earth — even funnier. But then come the Nazis. And Stonehenge. And on, and on. The Last Knight is the consummate Bay feature. Its main achievement isn’t to revise world history: It’s to recycle Bay’s own. The new movie is 70 percent Transformers movie (meaning: 70 percent ripped from its four predecessors) mixed with an Armageddon-core apocalypse and Pain & Gain levels of self-sabotaging idiocy. There’s a C-3P0 ripoff and a bad-guy montage copped straight from Suicide Squad. The script deploys the word “home” the way Fast & Furious movies overuse “family.” And about The Last Knight: Christopher Nolan much? I didn’t see any zombies or boy wizards, but would either have been so out of place?

It’s no wonder this new movie spends so much time lolling casually and comedically around a junkyard, just as Bay’s last Transformers film, Age of Extinction, made a point of dwelling in a rundown old movie theater. That’s where Bay’s heart is: These are junkyard movies. They’re paeans to Bay’s recycled artistry. And where any other summer movie coming out nowadays would make me think that this kind of cynical copycatting is the fault of studios and their IP retreads, this time, the explanation seems a lot simpler: It’s a Michael Bay movie.

Should we get into the plot, or you good? All you really need to know is that the Autobots want to get back home, but that a sorceress named Quintessa would rather use their native planet to eat ours. Telling this story somehow demands we leap backward 1,600 years to the time when Merlin called upon the Autobots for help. He was given their power in the form of a staff that his present-day descendant needs to find before the sorceress does. The staff is the key to destroying our planet. So, apparently, is Stonehenge. I haven’t even gotten to the subplot that justifies the movie’s early “You go girl!”–esque trailers, or to the fact that if you line all the Autobots up in a row you’d essentially have a Robin Williams career retrospective: Each one feels like a Williams impression.

There’s a lot going on. Very little of it makes sense. Does it need to? We can say Bay’s movies are stupid and leave it at that. The screenplays bear that out. We can’t really limit his movies to their writing, however; it’s clear that, for Bay, a plot is merely an excuse to get things onscreen, colliding, moving around, making a mess. If there’s one thing that defines Bay’s cinema, it’s his love for setting objects in motion: horses, people, meteors, flecks of metal — doesn’t matter, he’s democratic. Bay favors movement to logic. The redeeming quality of The Last Knight, and it is significant, is that the director’s fetish for hyperactivity largely works, even if it’s at his characters’ expense.

If “characters” are what you’d call them. Most Bay roles are just an excuse to fill the screen with bodies. Take the character of Vivian Wembley (Laura Haddock), a brilliant Ph.D. who’s nevertheless introduced to us as a giant klutz, tripping over everything, stumbling for no reason. It’s not a trait that sticks: She learns how to walk, apparently, before the end of the movie. Seeing her trip over things or ride a horse early on gives her a chance to be vibrant for the camera. That matters more than, or at least as much as, “character.”

Bay’s movies are nonsense — but they coalesce into their own brand of distinctly visual, uniquely vibrant nonsense. His movies play like ideology machines. Bay loves to mimic the travails of the working class, smudging his heroes’ faces with the dirt and grit of their labor, be they soldiers, oil drillers, cops, or, in Wahlberg’s case, mechanics. Bay wants us to see that his characters work hard — and that he works hard too. We’re always aware of the effort of his visual feats, and even more aware of how much money he’s throwing on the screen when he pulls it off. With an utter lack of irony, Bay insists on giving his junk the chrome plating and expensive polish of a movie that’s gunning for respectable genre prestige (like Gravity). But of course there’s no prestige here: Bay prefers to soak up the junk his cinematic worlds are made of. Watch him linger, again and again, with a slow-mo sense of carnage, over the minutiae of a broken Autobot reassembling itself, mid-somersault, in the midst of a fight. Or over the metallic expressivity of Optimus Prime’s face when he mourns his dying home planet. Bay wants you to see it all: every nut, every bolt, every digitally inscribed studio dollar. The older Transformers in these movies always seem to be falling apart as they transform, spilling parts of themselves everywhere. It initially seems like a dumb gag that Bay severely overplays. But it eventually stands out as a summation of Bay’s cinematic world.

It’s that sense of a worldview — not skill or intelligence, but an actual set of ideas, expressed visually — that’s lacking from most summer blockbusters today. That’s in large part because studios seem to prefer it that way. Just this week, the president of Warner Bros., Toby Emmerich, told The Hollywood Reporter that the studio planned to avoid “final-cut directors” in the future. Before that, Lucasfilm fired upstart directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller from the upcoming Han Solo spinoff over creative differences. They longed to do their own thing. Bay, meanwhile, already does his own thing. It’s not a thing I especially like. But his movies would be less notable if the ostensibly smarter directors sharing his lane were more adventurous — rather, if studios allowed them to be, or even better, if studios hired more directors with adventurous instincts to begin with, instead of just green indie twerps they know they can control.

Bay has a well-honed aesthetic that doesn’t always excite me. But as a consumer being bludgeoned to death by blockbuster banality, I’m at the very least coming to appreciate Bay’s overbearing effort to really, really not be boring. He still fails, by and large. But his approach to the material is, at the very least, distinctively his own, and Bay openly luxuriates in that fact. There is absolutely such a thing as a Michael Bay Movie™. To sell that point, I could close by naming entire studios’ worth of directors who cannot legitimately trademark their own work. But why start an Infinity War?