The trick to understanding Bay is not dismissing him. Any common-or-garden nitwit can, and frequently does, point a camera at girls, cars and carnage, and call it a movie. Not anyone can take those three elements and turn them into a film that can fill cinemas for weeks. Bay’s detractors often grouse that he has nothing to say: what they mean is they’ve heard what he says loud and clear, and don’t much care for it.
His films are unashamedly patriotic (heroes stand proud before fluttering Stars and Stripes), militaristic (conflict solves problems, diplomacy always fails) and materialistic (everything that’s shiny and expensive is fetishised to the point of parody)…. But Bay’s vision of a rad America — supersized, steroid-pumped, verging on self-parody — is one that can be enjoyed almost anywhere….
“I met this guy in Bali who lives in a hut with a television, and he loved The Rock,” Bay said in a 1998 interview. “That means something, doesn’t it?” Damn right it does: it means Bay’s films are exportable. The world wants to buy what he’s selling.
When he says “important,” Collin mostly means “influential,” a observation that, for better or worse, is difficult to argue. But he’s also genuinely admiring of at least some of Bay’s movies. Even “The Island,” the rare Bay production to fare almost as poorly with audience as critics, he calls “surprisingly thoughtful and moving.” (He’s in good company there: No less an authority than Neil deGrasse Tyson lists it among his Top 10 Science-Fiction Films.)
One point I wish he’d pursued further is the apparent disparity between the prevailing sexism of Bay’s movies and their relatively robust appeal to female viewers: They are, he admits, aimed at “the teenage boy in all of us,” but at the same time, an estimated 36 percent of early audiences for “Transformers: Age of Extinction” were female. Perhaps it’s because for all the ways he condescends to and minimizes the few characters he gives screen space to, Bay still regards them with genuine awe, as if they’re orange-hued goddesses in short shorts. Or maybe sometimes women just like to see giant robots blow stuff up.
Whatever its value as cinema, “Age of Extinction” is a landmark movie, not least in its blatant pandering to both the Chinese movie audience and, more problematically, their authoritarian government; the movie is unlikely to break $300 million at the U.S. box office, but it only took 10 days for it to become the top-grossing movie in Chinese history. One of the strangest aspects of watching “Age of Extinction” is the way it inhabits a kind of virtual U.S., created by an American director but intended for a global audience, one for whom an onscreen caption reading “Texas, U.S.A.” is not instantly laughable.
In his video essay, “What Is Bayhem?” Tony Zhou quotes Werner Herzog’s dictum that a serious student of cinema cannot “avert your eyes” from the prevailing trends, no matter how odious or dispiriting they may be. As high as you look, you’ll still see a giant robot blotting out the sun.