07/30/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Transformative : Le Cinema de Michael Bay

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, one of the most critically reviled major films in recent memory, nearly caught The Dark Knight for the biggest five-day opening in history.

I love the films of Michael Bay. In fact, they are so dramatic and compelling that ...

Gotcha! I actually do not love the films of Michael Bay. I don't hate them, either. And there are a couple that I like. But the fact that it is considered preposterous for a writer -- a writer who writes about anything, even wallpaper -- to not dismiss Bay's work in the most vehement of terms points up a dramatic disconnect between the critical community and the movie-going audience.

Bay's new flick, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, just took in an astounding $200.1 million at the domestic box office in its first five days of release. That's less than $4 million under the five-day opening record set last year by The Dark Knight. Considering that Transformers 2, I won't call it T2, is one of the worst-reviewed films in recent memory while Dark Knight is one of the best, it's a remarkable situation.

I saw the new Transformers over the weekend and, well, didn't think much of it. Not that I'm in the target demographic. After all, I have cowboy boots that are older than the two ostensible leads, young everyman-in-every-movie Shia LaBeouf and the preposterously sexy Megan Fox.

But I generally like action movies and science fiction, and thought I might enjoy this movie more than the first Transformers picture, which I found moderately entertaining. Though there are lots more giant robots from outer space able to ingeniously disguise themselves as General Motors vehicles, and they all fight a lot, it didn't do much for me. But then, it seems I'm not into movies based on a globally-popular line of toys. It turns out that a huge number of people, many much older than you think, since these toys have been around for a quarter-century, are into just that.

Transformers, based on a long-running line of toys, was a huge hit in 2007.

I actually liked the first Transformers better than the new one, because it focused more on the human characters. But that was one of the main criticisms of it from fans, who wanted a lot more in the way of noble and evil transforming alien robots emoting, wisecracking, and fighting with one another.

And so while the first movie was a nice and quite predictable -- except for the transforming alien robots part -- movie about a smart, dweeby young guy getting both his first car and the girl of his dreams, this one features a nice young guy turning out to be the most important person in the universe, or what have you, a central figure in this eons-long, complicated mythology battle between good and bad robots after not one but two, I think, McGuffins.

Aside from the Amos 'n Andy-like transformers, comic relief a la Jar Jar Binks of Star Wars prequel infamy, and the objectification of Megan Fox -- who doesn't do much besides languorous posing and some energetic running around in tight outfits (not exactly new in Hollywood) -- it doesn't seem like a huge threat to the republic.

It is what it is. So, what is it?

I've never met Michael Bay, but knew this movie was likely to be a phenomenon. So in the spring, I bought the DVD of the first Transformers -- which I've only seen one other time, in a theater -- and watched it with Bay's director's commentary track playing over the action. To see what I might have missed.

It was quite interesting, almost as much for what he didn't talk about as what he did.

The commentary was all about the military and the technology, a little on casting, nothing about writing, and an awful lot on the staging of gigantic set-pieces. Bay frequently comes off as cocky or defensive, mostly about his reputation, and sometimes both.

At one point in the action, he says, a little sheepishly: "You know, when you watch this movie...right here. You're actually rooting for a truck! Isn't that silly? But it works!"

That may sum up his view of these movies.

At another point, he says: "Sound is 50% of a movie."

I'd say that what Bay has done is take the conventions of action moviemaking, not all of which are in every action movie -- fast pace, violent action, fascination with tech, car chases, humor, elevated macho factor, elevated babe factor, and the conceit of the ordinary -- pare them down to bare essentials, pour it into a petri dish, and then inject the concoction with steroids.

The transformers-as-cool-vehicles is key to Bay's approach.

Bay is very proud of his close association with the US military on his pictures, such as The Rock, Armageddon, Pearl Harbor, Transformers. He gets huge cooperation, in terms of hardware, personnel, and set design.

Why? Because he makes them look good.

He gets so much cooperation that he actually showed some still functioning Navy ships in Pearl Harbor.

The first showings of the Osprey and the F-22 stealth fighter, both highly controversial aircraft, as it happens, came in Transformers.

Bay works a lot of military motifs into his movies, with heavy Pentagon assistance.

Bay talked a lot about the Transformers toys, and learning the lore of the toys, and the comics and animated show that grew up around them, and traveling around the world to promote the movie and all its tie-ins. He also talked a lot about learning to sell things hard and fast in commercials.

Most of his references are to other directors, producers, studio heads, technical people, and stunt men. A little on the actors. On casting LaBeouf, who was good in last year's Indiana Jones picture, as the sympathetic teenage protagonist and the inexperienced Fox as the uber-babe and providing them with motivation, by daring LaBeouf and angering the shy Fox. (Neither a shocking technique.) But no mention of the writers until the very end of the commentary, then only in passing.

Which is ironic, in that he's worked with the same writers -- Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, who wrote the very well-reviewed Star Trek reboot -- on his last three movies. Not that they have much to complain about, as they and another writer reportedly made $8 million on the script for the new Transformers picture.

In his commentary on the first movie, Bay delved not at all into the mythology of Transformers. His concept for the new movie, now exploding on screens? More robots, more fighting robots, bigger robots, more detail on robot faces.

The second Transformers picture has a big back-story grafted on to his usual formula of fighting robots, explosions, hot babes, inspirational montages, and a stalwart, propulsive, simplistic musical score.

If he's not into the mythology, why bother? Perhaps to make the movie seem bigger and more consequential to its audience. In fact, most of his movies are quite long. Which otherwise makes little sense, as he's pared down the other elements to such an extent.

Let's take a look at those movies. Now, if you're only into art house movies or domestic dramas, you won't like anything the guy's ever done. You also won't like any of the movies I write about, which tend to be things that have some impact in the popular culture.

1995's action comedy hit Bad Boys was the first film Bay directed.

1995's action-comedy Bad Boys was the first feature film directed by Bay, a veteran commercials and music video director. Starring Will Smith and Martin Lawrence as two wise-cracking Miami cops protecting a witness feistily played by Tea Leoni, the future Mrs. Fox Mulder and surely one of the most attractive women on the planet named after a beverage, it was good smartass fun and action.

It set Bay up to direct some of the biggest movies of the next few years.

The Rock starred Sean Connery and Nicolas Cage in 1996 and made Bay a top action movie director.

In 1996, Bay directed The Rock, which I think of as his Bond picture. Sean Connery plays Bond. Bond, that is, with a slightly different name, who absconds with some of America's darkest secrets and is clandestinely imprisoned for 30 years after breaking out of Alcatraz, the famed old prison in the middle of San Francisco Bay known as "The Rock." Only to be brought out of supermax confinement when a disgruntled Marine general and his men steal nerve gas and rockets, take over Alcatraz Island, and threaten to kill everybody in San Francisco if the White House doesn't apologize for covering up the deaths of Americans on secret missions.

Connery is brought out of the depths of the prison system to help a quirkily brilliant FBI chemist played by quirky Nicolas Cage and an ill-fatedly macho Navy Seal team to break into Alcatraz and stop the threat. It's clever, it's fun, it's preposterous but actually quite good. (I told you I like action movies.) There are a lot of character moments, clever dialogue (including Connery pricking the picture's balloon a bit by quoting Oscar Wilde's line that "Patriotism is the virtue of the vicious") and thundering if frequently over-wrought action. This is when Bay started getting military cooperation on his movies.

A superior popcorn picture, though the babe factor is lower than his other movies, as women are relegated to the roles of Cage's worried fiancee and Connery's daughter-he-never-knew-he-had. From when he escaped from Alcatraz and met a girl at a Grateful Dead concert, or whatever...

Armageddon was a huge hit in 1998, but fed the critical backlash against Bay.

Things went off the rails with 1998's Armageddon, in which a team of oil drillers led by Bruce Willis has to save the planet from a giant meteor, while Liv Tyler brings the babe factor as Willis's daughter engaged to his colleague Ben Affleck.

Beyond the picture's ludicrous premise, the movie is so filled with scientific inaccuracies that it's been shown in NASA management classes to see if trainees can pick out all the errors. I think this is the movie that sunk Bay with the critics. The action is heavily telegraphed and overly iconic, the music overwrought in its tear-jerking and flag-waving. And this is the movie that devalues smart people who know stuff in favor of a guy who hits golf balls against a Greenpeace ship. Bay gets huge military cooperation on the movie.

Pearl Harbor, a huge hit in 2001 that would have been bigger had it occurred after 9/11, accentuated the military involvement in Bay's films.

2001 brought Pearl Harbor, about, naturally, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that brought America into World War II. By this point, Bay was becoming a whipping boy for critics. Armageddon was a big hit, and I was entertained when not annoyed, but it left a a bad taste with the obviousness of its manipulation. I think also that, had Pearl Harbor come out several months after 9/11 rather than several months before it, it would have been better received and an even bigger hit.

Bay was dinged for plenty of inaccuracies with Pearl Harbor, but they were basically minor and in service of the flow of entertainment rather than any serious distortion of history. (Though the relative soft-pedaling of Japanese imperialism may have come with an eye on Japanese box office.) The babe factor is high, with Brit Kate Beckinsale leading a bevy of Navy nurses and actually being an authority figure in her own right as an officer.

But the most serious attempt at a romance in a Bay picture falls short. The chemistry of the love triangle between Beckinsale's nurse and Ben Affleck and Josh Hartnett as childhood friends-turned-pilots doesn't get much beyond lukewarm. Ironically, a pre-Alias fame Jennifer Garner, who later married Affleck, also in the movie as one of Beckinsale's Navy nurses, might have altered that equation had the casting gone differently.

Still, I like the movie. Perhaps because I'm fascinated by the lost paradise of Hawaii before the attack and the endless complications for America after that. And perhaps because it's a rousing movie filled with characters who have their hearts in the right place. Needless to say, Bay got enormous military cooperation on the picture.

Bay directed Bad Boys II in 2003, another big hit with Will Smith and Martin Lawrence, but I didn't see it, as I'm not really into cop shows. And it came out as the California recall election campaign was beginning, so there was more than enough real-life drama to deal with.

The Island, a relative think piece for Bay, didn't yield the usual box office results in 2005. His next movies would be different.

In 2005, Bay tried a different approach, a dystopic scifi thriller called The Island with Ewan McGregor as a guy who learns that the key things he thinks he knows about the world and his life are precisely wrong. Scarlett Johansson brings the babe factor as someone with whom he has more in common than he imagines. This downbeat story resulted in a rare non-hit for Bay.

But not long after, he got a call from Steven Spielberg, who, as a producer, seems to be the godfather of the Transformers pictures, asking him to direct a movie based on a line of toys.

And the rest, as they say, is history. Whether we like it or not, as Gavin Newsom might put it. Bay refined the formula he'd used in his previous action blockbusters, making the action even faster and choppier, to the extent that it's not always easy to know which robot is doing what. But to many folks today, that codes as exciting. And speed usually helps move things along, passing the preposterous, as we know from the sometimes lunatic thrill ride that is 24.

Accelerated action, louder sound, bigger explosions, more spectacular tech, more sexually iconic babe factor, more singularly important yet ordinary male hero. It's all there. Perhaps the new action cinema. At least for now.