Despite being one of the highest-grossing directors of all time, Michael Bay is still considered a fool among men, and a clown to (and often by) his peers. But why? Don’t Michael Bay movies gross more money than the GDP of some small countries? Hasn’t he created some great quotable scenes (which, to be fair, are more memorable than the plot of the movies in which they appear)? Doesn’t he make people happy?
Director Michael Bay has come a long way from making Coca-Cola commercials for his university. Some would say he never lost the populist spark that inspired him to create such enjoyable art. You could conversely argue that Bay makes extended commercials glorifying capitalism, militarism, conservative social values, and blind patriotism, while bonking viewers over their heads with a dum-dum stick. Is Michael Bay a genius? Is what John Doe said in Se7en true, "Wanting people to listen, you can't just tap them on the shoulder anymore. You have to hit them with a sledgehammer, and then you'll notice you've got their strict attention"? Or did he luck his way into fame and fortune?
It’s more than likely there will never be an honorary Michael Bay director award given away by the Academy, or by the Hollywood Foreign Press, but does that matter when his films are essentially money-printing machines? The same question could (and will be) asked of whether or not Bay should weep into his caviar every night because he isn’t more lauded for creating a chaotic visual style that’s been co-opted by pretty much every action film since, say, 2005 or so. Whether you loathe the Michael Bay Transformers films or believe Bad Boys changed action cinema forever, there’s a lot to ponder here. Continue reading and prepare for sh*t to get real.
“He was telling me about the work he did on [the Transformers bots] – how he would refine them and go into the special effects guys and design them and get all the details of light on metal and all that. He told me all that at breakfast before I started on the film. I thought ‘This guy’s a genius. He really is.’ He’s the same ilk as Oliver Stone and Spielberg and Scorsese. Brilliance. Savants, really, they are. He’s a savant.”
But what does Anthony Hopkins know? For a moment forget he's in a few good movies and think about the fact that he's an actor. Actors are dumb. Of course he thinks Michael Bay is a genius, Michael Bay knows how to turn on his computer and Anthony Hopkins has an assistant to read his email. You can't trust Anthony Hopkins.
In defense of Anthony Hopkins, getting the lighting right for CGI makes a huge difference; it's a key factor in differentiating heinously bad CGI and well-integrated computer-generated imagery. Just ask director Alfonso Cuaron and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who spent more than a year finding light sources for Gravity.
In 2014, Michael Bay became the second highest grossing filmmaker of all time, behind Steven Spielberg. That's wild, but it doesn't make him a better filmmaker than someone like Jean-Luc Godard or Michelangelo Antonioni. Or does it? Maybe Bay has tapped into Jung's collective unconscious to give the world what it really wants, which you can't say about dorks like Wim Wenders or John Waters.
Despite all the money Bay's films rake in, they're typically lambasted by critics. In 2013, Mother Jones interviewed the director, who weighed in on his box office success and critical failure. "I really, really don't care [about the reviews]," Bay screamed from a helicopter as it transformed into a sassy robot.
"For instance, you look at the box office returns: Break it down, and you see that 120 million people went to see Transformers 3. So, you know, 500 critics are not going to take the fun out of it for me. I make movies for people. I make movies for audiences to enjoy. A few sour apples are not going to spoil my fun."
There's something to be said for the amount of post-production that goes into a movie like Transformers. The first film had a 10-and-a-half month editing schedule, and it employed five different editors with extensive visual effects experience, to make no mention the crew working under the editors. But does that mean the movie has artistic merit? Remember, this is the film in which a robot pissing on John Turturro's head. Does that sound like something that was cooked up by a cinematic genius?
For every bajillion-dollar transforming-robot-punch movie Bay directs, he produces a horror film with a minimal budget that makes hundreds of millions. He began doing this under the Platinum Dunes header in the 2000s and often partners with Blumhouse to crank out hit after hit. He obviously knows a good money-making scheme when he sees one, but can you equate having business acumen to being a creative maven in touch with something hidden within the psyche of filmgoers?
Judging from Bay's Platinum Dunes output (The Purge series, the Ouija films, and every remake of beloved '70s and '80s horror film you can remember) it doesn't seem like he has particularly good taste. So what if he remade Texas Chainsaw Massacre or A Nightmare on Elm Street? Those are both genre-defining films that would have been remade at some point (and one could argue their endless sequels had already drained the originals of whatever cache they once had), so it's not as if Bay is the oracle on top of the mountain who dictates the tastes of horror fans. A more apt metaphor would be that of a gambler who no longer has anything to lose.
Of all the low budget horror films Bay has taken a chance on, the only one that's lost money is Jonas Åkerlund's Horsemen (seriously, when will people realize that guy is a terrible filmmaker?), a 2009 snooze-fest that only made $2.9 million at the box office. But when you look at an $18 million loss (!) against multiple hundred million dollar gains it hardly looks like a bet that anyone in their right minds wouldn't take.