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A Game of Ghosts

In Defense of Michael Bay

Yes. Seriously.

I enjoy movies that feature the following: Martin Lawrence liberally swearing, robots fighting on top of the pyramids, souped-up dune buggies jumping Grand Canyon-sized craters on the moon, Shia LaBeouf running, Shia LaBeouf shouting the word “no” hundreds of times, nighttime assaults on well-guarded buildings for the purpose of stealing heroin or chemical weapons, rocks hitting the earth, and Nicolas Cage hitting The Rock.

So I already know why I enjoy the movies of Michael Bay. But has there ever been a filmmaker whose work is so consistently popular while the man himself seems so loathed by the thinking public? His cinematic recipe of Peckinpah, Woo, and Spielberg has intoxicated audiences for more than 15 years. But what lies beneath his sci-fi epics, bad-boy buddy-cop movies, box office smashes, and spectacular failures that make us continually return to the theater to get punched in the face with varying degrees of awesome? What are the underlying themes that make his films resonate louder than any explosion contained in the movies themselves?

It’s the End of the World as We Know It
Spoiler: We are all going to die. It’s one of the few certainties we all share. And, times being what they are, we might all die together, though obviously I hope that’s not the case. But this collective fear, as well as what we would do in the face of this catastrophe (run and hide, eat all the canned goods and drink all the distilled water, finally read Middlemarch) is something Michael Bay understands very, very well.

What he also understands is that we would like to have a starring role in the grand finale; that we would like to either survive or stop an impending apocalypse. Now, in truth, we’d all probably be tweeting super-observant and wry one-liners up to the moment of comet impact, vaporized as we added the “#smh” hashtag. But Michael Bay understands our great, heroic longing and he’s made a couple of pretty awesome movies about it.

Armageddon, The Rock, the Transformers films and, in a different way, Pearl Harbor all feature characters who are called to duty, dragged out of their relatively idyllic if inconsequential lives, to stop or at least lessen the toll of violent, potentially apocalyptic events.

Whether it’s the deep-sea oil drillers in Armageddon, the bookish chemical biologist Stanley Goodspeed in The Rock, the awkward post-adolescent Sam Witwicky of Transformers, or the aw-shucks farm boys of Pearl Harbor, the heroes of these movies are always just a little out of their element. Sound familiar? Of course it does. It’s Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, it’s Robert McKee’s principles of screenwriting or Joseph friggin’ Campbell. And it always works.

With Bay’s movies, heroes are usually helped in their quest by experts (soldiers, scientists, Tom Sizemore), but it’s their initial fumbling and bumbling that makes their triumph so much more powerful at the end. In these films, these characters are stand-ins for the audience, and because of that, their successes feel like our own.

Star Power
To paraphrase Herm Edwards, one of the great film critics of our time, Michael Bay lets his playmakers make plays. By which I mean this: Michael Bay lets movie stars be movie stars.

This is the director who took the Fresh Prince of Bel Air, got rid of his disheveled private school blazer and turned him into a gun-toting, woman-seducing bad boy. The same director who took Nic Cage, known for well-meaning simps (Honeymoon In Vegas) and eccentric, self-destructive types (Wild At Heart, Leaving Las Vegas) and turned him into a “chemical superfreak.” And it’s the same director who made Shia LaBeouf, the kid from The Battle Of Shaker Heights and turned him into a heartthrob.

Bay takes an actor’s inherent qualities — in this case Smith’s undeniable likeability, Cage’s idiosyncratic unpredictability, and LaBeouf’s bumbling self-effacement — gives them guns and missions and turns his well-honed, commercial- and music video-trained eye on them, lovingly filming them in any number of iconic poses and acts.

But he does another very smart thing. He typically surrounds his pretty boys with some unusual suspects. Bay’s movies often have incredibly gifted ensembles. Just think of Armageddon‘s dream team of Steve Buscemi, Billy Bob Thornton, Owen Wilson, Will Patton, and Michael Clarke Duncan; The Rock‘s collection of suits and soldiers played by William Forsythe, John Spencer, and David Morse; Pearl Harbor‘s dog soldiers Michael Shannon and Tom Sizemore; Transformers‘ John Turturro, Kevin Dunn, and Julie White.

These supporting casts elevate bad dialogue to passable, and make good dialogue awesome. Take this Wilson and Thornton exchange from Armageddon:

Truman: “Two hundred degrees in the sunlight, minus 200 in the shade, canyons of razor-sharp rock, unpredictable gravitational conditions, unexpected eruptions, things like that.”
Oscar: “OK, so the scariest environment imaginable. Thanks. That’s all you gotta say, scariest environment imaginable.

The Set Pieces
The Best Bay Action Scenes Ever Filmed:

  • 1. Highway Car Chase, The Island
    Nobody talks about The Island very much. It’s probably the last movie you think of when you think of Michael Bay. It’s not even that it’s overtly bad, like, say, Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen, which, real talk, is a crime against human senses. The Island is just not particularly interesting; a hodgepodge of dystopian sci-fi and action with an overwhelming amount of product placement (at one point Steve Buscemi instructs his wife to go to the store and pick up a six pack of Budweiser … while she’s standing in front of a sign for Budweiser). But the car chase in the middle of this film, which features Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson being hounded by a shadowy hit team, is Bay at his collar-popping best. You can practically feel him letting out “Nature Boy” Ric Flair’s “woo!” with every three-car pileup.

    McGregor, riding on the back of a tractor trailer, unleashes multiton dumbbells which careen off the back of the truck, slicing pursuing cars in half, flipping armored trucks, and causing all manner of automotive mayhem. Bay’s camera starts thrashing around, cutting, zooming out, going through explosive debris, and generally having a nearly orgasmic reaction to all the mechanical carnage. The best part about this scene? The soundtrack is basically made up of the sound of the dumbbells hitting the pavement.

  • 2. Sinking of the Oklahoma and Arizona, Pearl Harbor
    Bay makes your stomach drop with descending, bomb’s-eye-view shots, makes you hold your breath as the camera, racing behind an underwater torpedo, strikes a ship’s hull. And then, in the poker game of sea-based historical tragedies, he sees and raises James Cameron with the sinking of the Arizona and the Oklahoma.

    The last hour of Pearl Harbor finds Bay in full Sorcerer’s Apprentice mode, bending the elements to his whims to recreate the tragic attack on the U.S. Navy base. However, the moments leading up to the bombing are equally worth noting.

    The prelude to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor features one blink-and-you-miss-it moment that I always loved. A nondescript radar operator looks at his screen and sees an ominous cloud approaching. He turns slowly, as, this being a Michael Bay movie, the camera tracks in and says, “I’ve got a large haze.” That’s Bay’s “We’re gonna need a bigger boat.” His, “That’s no moon.”

  • 3. Rasta Drug Dealer Shootout and Car Chase in Downtown Miami, Bad Boys II
    I mean do I really need to describe this? Isn’t that tag enough? OK, how about this: You know what the botched bank robbery/police shootout in Heat was missing? Rastas. And Gabrielle Union smashing a black SUV into other cars while the bullets flew. Also? Being bookended by two car chases, one which features a dude getting caught between a car door and a parking structure pillar and the other which finds a dislodged motor boat flying down a Miami highway, destroying everything in its path. Step your game up, Michael Mann.


  • 4. Space Station Disaster, Armageddon

    There are lots of set pieces to laud or loathe in this, my favorite of Bay’s movies, depending on how you feel about Paris being destroyed or Eddie Griffin running, dog in hand, from a sliced-in-half top of the Empire State Building hurtling towards the ground. In comparison to those scenes, the botched docking with the space station is practically quaint.

    Bay is best known for his expansive, scenery-chewing (and destroying) sequences. His car chases through urban areas (and farmers markets … and gatherings of window pane carts), often using landmarks and wonders of the world as backdrops for his explosions and firefights. But he also knows how to get trapped in a small room and turn up the claustrophobia.

    Soon after launching themselves and their equipment into space, Bruce Willis’ team of drillers and astronauts must dock with an aging space station, manned by Peter Stormare’s glory-hunting Russian cosmonaut, to refuel for the trip around the moon and onto the back of the runaway meteor. Something goes wrong with the fuel pumps (damn fuel pumps!), there’s an explosion, there’s a fire, and all manner of space hell breaks loose.

    The action is all closed quarters, banging off the walls, while sparks fly and tempers flare.

    The reason I love this scene is it’s such an amped-up version of Aaron Sorkin. Forget walking and talking, this is running and yelling. I don’t care how many times various characters scream about being out of time or how there is no time, I wish this scene went on forever.


  • 5. Building Being Thrown Into Another Building By A Decepticon, Transformers: Dark Of The Moon

    I haven’t seen the movie yet but it’s featured in the trailer and I almost spilled my coffee everywhere the first time I saw it.

The Human Element
Action movies need moments of humanity. It makes you actually care about the action. And movies like Armageddon have humanity, it’s just a Michael Bay version of humanity; sort of like real life, just with more meteor showers.

For example, my favorite scene from Armageddon is the William Fichtner-and-Bruce Willis showdown, when Fichtner’s pilot character pulls a piece on Willis’ oil-drilling cowboy over whether or not to prematurely detonate a nuclear weapon, due to Willis’ inability to hit the needed depth on the runaway meteor. Normal Wednesday afternoon kind of stuff.

Aside from Will Patton’s fantastic, “Man, what are you doing with a gun in space?” line, which is really a question we could ask of so many films, this scene also features an incredible exchange between Fichtner’s Colonel Sharp and Willis’ Harry Stamper. Countless writers, credited and uncredited (including J.J. Abrams and Tony Gilroy) worked on the Armageddon script. I don’t know who penned this particular scene, but I always like to think it’s, like, Tom Stoppard:

Stamper: I have been drilling holes in the earth for 30 years. And I have never, never missed a depth that I have aimed for. And by God, I am not gonna miss this one. I will make 800 feet … But I can’t do it alone, Colonel. I need your help.
Sharp: You swear on your daughter’s life, on my family’s, that you can hit that mark!
Stamper: I will make 800 feet. I swear to God I will.
Sharp: Then let’s turn this bomb off.

Come on! Classic Stoppard!

The Moviegoer
I think, in 1977, a 12-year-old Michael Bay went to the movies, the lights went down, and an Imperial Star Destroyer flew over his head and blew his mind. And his filmmaking career has pretty much been about not only recreating that thrill onscreen, but projecting that feeling, the sheer goose bump-inducing euphoria unique to moviegoing, back onto his audience.

Any Michael Bay movie is basically a pastiche of movies he likely admires or loves. Transformers is E.T. meets Jurassic Park (substitute dinosaurs for robots). Bad Boys is Lethal Weapon meets Trading Places. Armageddon is Titanic meets Apollo 13. But I feel like for as much as I can feel Bay’s love of movies, I feel his love of watching movies. There’s some kind of celebration of the film-going experience. Even when the movies are about disasters, even when the movies are disasters, you can feel him saying, “Put your tray tables up because the slow-motion-abusing, explosive-detonating P.T. Barnum of kicking ass has just taken over the cockpit. So I hope you like turbulence.”

We’ve got plenty of auteurs working today. We’ve got Johnnie To’s and Tarantino’s and Cholodenko’s and Refn’s. But when you walk into a dark theater on a hot summer day with a soda big enough to power a used Prius and your hands are already sticky from popcorn “butter” and you sit down, you might have paid at the Regal or Landmark or AMC box office, but when that title card flashes, “A Michael Bay Film” you are in his house now. And whether or not you agree with his sociopolitical point of view, his treatment of robots or his treatment of Megan Fox, you must admit that, for a couple of hours, it’s a pretty awesome place to be.

Chris Ryan is a Grantland staff writer.

Filed Under: Celebrities, Michael Bay, Movies, Transformers

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Chris Ryan is an editor at Grantland.

Archive @ chrisryan77