Transformers: Age of Extinction, Michael Bay’s latest vertiginous slow-mo cacophony, has reached a new critical nadir even for the franchise. With a mere 17% Fresh Rating on Rotten Tomatoes, it’s by all accounts even more incomprehensible, inexhaustible yet completely exhausting than 2009’s Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, a film which featured an Autobot urinating on John Turturro.
Not that it matters. To date, the latest Transformers film has grossed almost $400 million internationally, putting it on track for being the most lucrative film in the franchise. Which brings up a good question: Why do we keep on paying to see Michael Bay movies when, critically, they are almost universally hated? What is Michael Bay’s secret sauce? Over at the Every Frame a Picture, film critic Tony Zhou takes a good look at Michael Bay’s filmmaking techniques. By studying his compositions, he’s capable of distilling the director’s trademark Bayhem down to a single formula.
The thing about Michael Bay, insists Zhou, is that he’s a master of layering different types of cinematic movement. It is not enough for Michael Bay to film someone having a conversation on the telephone. In that shot, everything will be moving. The camera will swoop around the actor in one direction from below, as the actor himself will turn in the other, which in conjunction with layers of depth in the foreground and background will give the scene an effect almost like parallax scrolling. This makes quiet shots feel epic, and epic shots even epic-er. But the shots themselves are almost always the same.
In many ways, Bay is like a purple prose writer, always trying to knock it out of the park with every sentence, but never considering the subtle rhythms that need to work in the good of the whole.
“He’s a slave to his own eye, who needs to make every image dynamic even when it runs contrary to the theme of the film,” says Zhou.
This brings us back to Transformers: Age of Extinction, which is so interminable, confusing, and relentless, that the Detroit News‘ Tom Long suggested the next film should just be subtitled Hammer to the Skull. It’s the cinematic equivalent of spending three hours sucking down Pixy Stix.
So why do people continue to go to Michael Bay films? The issue is a disconnect between our eyes and our brains. Zhou says that Bay’s films prove that while we have become quite visually sophisticated, we’re also, by large, visually illiterate. Critics blast Michael Bay films because they are paid to think about what shots mean for a living, but the average movie goer only recognizes that their eyes have been given porn. And like all porn, the disconnect between critic and viewer comes when you realize how without content that porn really was.