The Mother Brain Files: Michael Bay, Why the Hate?
By Mother Brain
This past week, Hollywood blockbuster director Michael Bay caught a great deal of heat from fans of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles series. Having recently acquired the rights to a reboot of the popular franchise from the late 80s, Bay was reported to be working closely with the original comic creators Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird to add complexity to the Turtlesâ€™ origin story. Rather than having man-made ooze turn the characters into life-sized turtles with teenage personalities, Bay wants to make the characters become descendants of an alien race. This â€˜complexâ€™ concept had been used previously with Bayâ€™s adaptation of Transformers which also drew a mixed response from fans of the original toyline and animated incarnations. So to be clear, Michael Bay is only making these changes so he can create commercially accessible entertainment as he has done with every one of his films since since 1995.
If Bloodrayne director Uwe Boll is notorious for making bad films with small budgets and a-list actors, Michael Bay is on the opposite side of the spectrum. His style of over the top visuals was heavily influenced by the early days of MTV where he got his start as a filmmaker. He has been associated with Hollywood heavyweights such as Jerry Bruckheimer and Steven Spielberg who have presented him with the biggest hits of his career. He has also turned television and long time character actors such as Martin Lawrence, Will Smith, Nicholas Cage, Ben Affleck, Megan Fox and Shia LaBeouf into bonafide movie stars by making them appear larger than life on the big screen. While commercially proven as well as entertaining, however, Bay has been heavily criticized for his overuse of stunts, explosions, sexualizing women, product placements, and special effects to make up for lackluster storytelling.
But is Michael Bay truly the man who symbolizes Hollywoodâ€™s commercialized garbage or is he the man building up his credibility as a filmmaker to make Hollywood films better? His early mentor in the business was George Lucas who utilized him as his apprentice at Lucasfilm in the early 80s. The spectacles that Lucas brought to the big screen with Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark inspired Bay to become a director. Yet ironically enough, the very man who Bay looked up to had already reached a point in his career where he believed that spectacle (and merchandising) was more important than good storytelling and intimate character development. Perhaps Master Lucasâ€™ view of Hollywoodâ€™s future was engraved in young Bayâ€™s mind.
Bay would spend the 80s and early 90s building up a body of work in music videos and commercials. The efforts paid off when the super-producing duo of Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer hired Bay to direct a $19 million buddy cop comedy called Bad Boys. The project would soon be plagued by multiple issues including script rewrites, budget concerns, and ultimately the original comedic leads, Jon Lovitz and Dana Carvey of SNL fame, dropping out. When Bay decided to make the characters African-American in order to take a chance on TV sitcom actors Martin Lawrence and Will Smith, the odds were immediately against him. But his ability to film Lawrence and Smith like major action stars as well as allowing them to rework the dialogue helped to elevate an otherwise terrible script into a three-star picture. The success of Bad Boys sent a shockwave throughout the industry as Bay became perceived as the future of the business.
The following year, Bay directed the action-adventure film The Rock starring Sean Connery and Nicholas Cage. With a bigger budget and a larger scope of storytelling involving mercenaries taking hostages on Alcatraz Island, Bay created an exciting thrill ride with top notch actors playing complex characters accompanied with a solid screenplay. Not only did he manage to make Connery into a badass at age 65 but he also turned the quirky character actor Cage into a leading man in the action genre (for better and for worse). Once again, Bay had another solid hit under his belt and he could write his own ticket.
For the most part, critics were initially divided on Bayâ€™s first two films. The ones who praised him believed he was a skilled director who knew how to tell a good story and make it exciting at the same time. The ones who bashed him perceived Bay as the master of dumb action porn. But when 1998â€™s Armageddon hit screens that summer, they were overwhelmingly negative. The spectacular premise of Bruce Willis leading a group of deep sea oil drillers to stop a massive asteroid was already destined to put butts in seats. To sweeten the synergy plan, the rock group Aerosmith scored the biggest hit of their career with the Diane Warren-penned â€œI Donâ€™t Want to Miss a Thingâ€ for the filmâ€™s soundtrack. Most critics looked past Armageddonâ€™s financial success and tried to dissect Bayâ€™s rapid editing and stylish camerawork as attempts to cover up the filmâ€™s narrative shortcomings. Studios, however, looked past the critics and continued to rely on Bay when it came to the bottom line of business: Money.
The 2000s brought more financial success and more harsh reviews to Bayâ€™s work. He began the decade with Pearl Harbor in 2001. Armed with a screenplay by Braveheart screenwriter Randall Wallace, a love triangle at the plotâ€™s core, an all-star cast, and a Diane Warren-penned love theme by Faith Hill, Bay was believed to have the next Titanic on his hands. Not even close. While financially successful, Pearl Harbor not only insulted critics but also the living survivors of that infamous day due to its historical inaccuracies. Even South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone wrote an entire parody song about how awful the film and Bay were in their all-puppet action comedy, Team America. Yet, it was Roger Ebert summed up the movie best at the time of the filmâ€™s release:
“The film has been directed without grace, vision, originality, and although you may walk out quoting lines of dialog, it will not be because you admire them”.
With no Oscar nomination for Harbor, Bay returned to the standard popcorn entertainment that made him big with Bad Boys II in 2003. Once again, he had a big financial hit with bad reviews. With a bigger budget than the original, the sequel was longer in running time, more violent, and more gratuitous in depicting women as sex objects, all of which covered up a bad script by multiple writers. Then came Bayâ€™s first film without Jerry Bruckheimer as producer which would also become his first flop, The Island, in 2005. The sci-fi thriller starring Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson as clones on the run from their creators had the usual ingredients for a big summer blockbuster by Michael Bay: Over the top action, lots of special effects, and lots of product placement. Unfortunately, the interesting premise was overshadowed by those ingredients which resulted in poor marketing and it failed to connect with audiences. During this period, Bay formed his production company, Platinum Dunes. The company quickly became notorious for remaking classic horror films including The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Amityville Horror, Friday the 13th, and A Nightmare on Elm Street just to name a few. All the films were trashed by fans of the originals but still managed to bring in young crowds anyway.
All the love and hate for Bay came to a head when Steven Spielberg hired him to direct the film adaptation of Transformers. He initially looked down on the robots in disguise as stupid toys until he researched the complex mythology of the franchise as well as the various incarnations of the characters. Fans of the original series were angered by Bayâ€™s creative decisions in making Transformers accessible to a mainstream audience. He discarded the original designs of the Autobots and Decepticons to look less robotic and more alien-like, altered their personalities, and put serious emphasis on human characters including the filmâ€™s heroes played by Shia LaBeouf and Megan Fox as well as the military figures played by Josh Duhamel and Tyrese Gibson. These same fans complained that Bay â€œraped their childhood.â€ But once again, dazzling special effects, explosions, over the top acting, and brand name recognition made Transformers and its sequels into worldwide box office hits.
As Bayâ€™s success with Transformers grew, so did the controversy outside the fanbase. The success of the 2009 sequel, Revenge of the Fallen, was overshadowed not only because of a bad script but also controversy over the characters Mudflap and Skids, two Autobots depicted as racist stereotypes. Then came the public war of words with hisÂ lead actress Megan Fox who complained about Bayâ€™s difficulty in working with actors as well as filming her the way a teenage boy likes to peek at the girl next door getting undressed.Â A similar situation also occurred during the release of The Island when Scarlett Johansson complained publicly about the way Bay handled her love scene with Ewan McGregor. All this added to the mystique of Bay as a commercial film director.
The future looks to be more of the same for Bay with a few interesting attachments. In addition to more sequels for Transformers and Bad Boys, his next film will be a $20 million heist movie called Pain & Gain with The Rock and Mark Wahlberg. It will be interesting to see how Bay handles a smaller budget film for the first time in 17 years since Bad Boys. Whether or not it will be more of the same of Bayâ€™s stylistic visuals and explosions remains to be seen. At the end of the day, Michael Bay loves movies, knows what the public likes, and loves to gamble with studio money. As much as fanboys and film buffs like to rip him apart on internet boards, audiences who enjoy the spectacle of popcorn entertainment will continue to see his films until the studios lose faith in him.