The story sounds apocryphal, but Michael Bay has told it often enough that now it has slipped into something of legend.
It goes that when the famed director was about 13, he was obsessed with model train sets, and one day he blew one up with firecrackers and filmed it with his mom's Super 8 camera.
Bay's latest train set explosion is the new movie “Transformers: Age of Extinction,” opening in theaters today; it cost about $200 million to make. Hardly a gamble, though. It's the filmmaker's 11th movie. The first 10 have grossed more than $4.6 billion worldwide, according to Box Office Mojo. So almost everything he has touched has been gold for the studios. The new film is expected to take in $200 million at the box office in China alone.
The filmmaker's reputation among most critics and some movie fans is hardly sterling, though. Hostile might be a better word. The late critic Roger Ebert described the “Transformers” franchise as existing “to show gigantic and hideous robots hammering one another.” In his 2011 one-star review of “Dark of the Moon” — the third in the series — Ebert summed it up this way: “ ‘Transformers 3' has long stretches involving careless and illogical assemblies of inelegant shots. One special effect happens, and then another special effect happens, and we are expected to be grateful that we have seen two special effects.”
It's easy to find Bay detractors, but he also has his supporters. The Los Angeles native studied film at Ohio Wesleyan University, where one of his classmates was “Avengers” director Joss Whedon. Bay's senior project was a stylized short of a good-looking guy driving around very fast in a yellow Porsche. So even then, apparently, it was style over substance for the filmmaker.
He then did some graduate work at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, and eventually started directing commercials and movie videos before über-producer Jerry Bruckheimer tapped him for his first feature, “Bad Boys” (1995).
That was followed by “The Rock,” “Armageddon,” “Pearl Harbor,” “Bad Boys II,” “The Island” and three “Transformers” movies. After saying a number of times — at least since “Armageddon” — that he would like to do a smaller film, he finally did it. In 2012, 14 years after “Armageddon,” Bay made his first modestly priced movie, “Pain and Gain.” Its reported $26 million budget would have thrilled most of this year's Oscar-nominated directors; the winner, Steve McQueen, made “12 Years a Slave” for around $20 million.
But no one talks of Bay in terms of awards. Over-the-top mind-blowing/numbing explosions and action sequences are his hallmarks, which is why people either love him or hate him. It's hard to find a middle ground opinion about his filmmaking.
“Age of Extinction” is not likely to change anybody's mind about him. Last week, Bay and the film's stars — Mark Wahlberg and Nicola Peltz (A&E's “Bates Motel”) — were dispatched to China for its world premiere in Hong Kong, and for other high-profile screenings in Beijing and Shanghai.
This is not a surprise. Of “Dark of the Moon's” $1.12 billion total earnings, overseas box office made up more than 68 percent ($771.4 million) of it, and $168.2 million of that was from China, the No. 2 film market in the world after the U.S. A lot of “Age of Extinction,” in fact, was shot in that country, which is also featured prominently in the plot. Sexy Chinese star Li Bingbing has a key role in the film.
At 49, Bay is undeniably a talented filmmaker on a number of levels. Steven Spielberg, who chose him for the first “Transformers” film in 2007, once told Variety: “You can either look at his imagery as assaultive, transformative or deliriously entertaining.” James Cameron, another filmmaker who has created massive blockbusters, said in a GQ magazine article that he has studied Bay's films and “reverse-engineered” his shooting style for huge physical productions.
Hollywood filmmakers — even two as powerful as Spielberg and Cameron — are loath to say negative things about their compatriots, but there are things to appreciate about Bay's filmmaking. His rapid-fire editing — undoubtedly developed during his music-video days — is often filled with provocative images, while his fluid camera style can be at times breathtaking.
Bay may have the eye of an artist, but what does it serve? He rarely slows down from a breakneck summer-blockbuster pace in any of his movies, which tends to be anesthetizing. After a little of this, one can understand Ebert's “illogical assemblies of inelegant shots” comment.
There is no real character development, either. The protagonists of his films are inevitably male — essentially variations of a shallow frat boy. (One can picture them cruising around in that yellow Porsche.) They may feel the need to pull a prank or two and are suspicious of authority, but ultimately, they will stand with the government to fight some amorphous menace of doom. Even the attacking Japanese in “Pearl Harbor” were little more than cardboard cutouts, the equivalent of the asteroid headed toward Earth in “Armageddon.”
Wahlberg aside, the real stars of “Age of Extinction” are the Autobots and the Decepticons, the giant robots that wreak massive destruction on the world. Transformers started as a toy franchise and then an animated TV show in the early 1980s, cashing in on young boys' passions for cars and robots. The mythology basically comes down to this: There are good giant robots (Autobots) forced out of their home planet that have lived peacefully on Earth disguised as cars and trucks. The bad ones (Decepticons) have tracked them down and want to destroy them and the world.
With a fourth film, the story has become incredibly convoluted. Bay has been quick to say “Age of Extinction” is not a reboot, picking up in the aftermath of “Transformers 3,” but there are new characters — not that any of them likely have any more depth than the robots. Reviews of the new film note that characters run around screaming stuff like “Die, bitch!” or “This one's for you, A-hole!” Dialogue doesn't matter much if a large part of your audience doesn't speak English.
The running time of 2 hours and 45 minutes allows plenty of time for lots of explosions and inane dialogue in “Age of Extinction.” So far one of the biggest compliments for the film is that it's easier to tell the Autobots and the Decepticons apart. That's a little like sizing up a Super Bowl matchup by saying the teams have great uniforms.
Though rated PG-13, the violence likely will be like the other “Transformers” films: cartoonish. None of Bay's films packs nearly the punch of “The Dark Knight Rises.” While the Batman movie is also a fantasy with the same MPAA rating, director Christopher Nolan created a darker and more threatening world. But with four “Transformers” films in seven years, Bay still seems to be playing with train sets.
During his career, Bay has his succeeded in building some intricate train sets. There is a certain aptitude in being able to that, and you can admire some of the craftsmanship. But long ago, his movies passed the point of simply being excessive — too many explosions and dumb lines — to being ridiculous. There is one thing about train sets that is true: No matter how many tracks you add, the train always comes around to the same place — or goes off the track.