Michael Bay is basically an institution at this point. The only director to make his bones in the Bruckheimer machine in the 90s that is still working to this day on a massive level, he has reached a cultural level that few directors have reached since his debut.
In a world where directors are less important than the producers or the IP, Bay still has some name recognition. His critical reception may not be the greatest in the world (ie, it’s pretty god damn poisonous), he still has his defenders and a handful of movies that are generally well liked. He has a style all his own, a style that he learned during his time in the Bruckheimer school and perfected, so much so that his work has influenced an entire generation of action cinema.
Now that he has unleashed his 5th Transformers movie onto an unsuspecting (although maybe deserving) world, it seems like a good time to revisit his work. With an attitude more open to his style and not just the easy, reflexive dismissal of his work. Cause as we will see, his work has more personality and insight into his mind than most other blockbusters these days.
12. Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen
This is the only movie in Bay’s oeuvre (so far) that is completely unwatchable. There is nothing in this unholy monstrosity worth recommending on an earnest or ironic level. It’s just bad. Plenty of folk would say it’s just due to how bad Bay is in this series and it fits in with the rest, but it doesn’t. What we got here is one of many movies torn to shreds and put together with no real finesse thanks to the 2008 writers strike.
A haphazard story about some ancient Decepticon Lucifer type that wants to destroy the Earth for some unclear reason, it’s a movie that never gains any sort of momentum and just stumbles around from nonsensical scene to nonsensical scene, only getting one decent bit when they “kill” Optimus about a third into the movie in the only good action scene. Of course it gets reversed later in the movie in some deus ex robot nonsense which is was proceeded by Shia dying and going to autobot heaven to the be resurrected.
Unlike the other sequels, it never reaches any truly bizarre heights that reach into the pure id of Bay, feeling more like a collection of parts than a complete whole. While it isn’t the worst writers strike casualty (hello X-Men Origins: Wolverine), it’s damn near close and the only real unmitigated disaster Bay has dropped.
11. Pearl Harbor
Remember when Bay tried to be James Cameron for a hot minute? Because hoo boy, most people have (rightfully) tried to forget it. But it’s real hard to forget a movie this bland and lifeless that somehow goes on for 3 damn hours. Trying to follow the playbook that Cameron went with in Titanic but imbued with a more Bay centric patriotism and explosion heavy narrative, it’s an absurdly lifeless movie with no real spark in it’s romantic love triangle.
Bay has never been one to get real depth from his actors (for the most part), so trying to tell a story that is heavily reliant on chemistry and a connection to the characters is a real tough act for him to try out. But what keeps this from being completely worthless is the segment of the movie that has Bay’s name written all over it and what the movie could have used more of, instead of the love stuff.
When the Japanese finally attack Pearl Harbor, the movie comes to life and so does Bay. Some of the best action work of his career is in this movie, big and thrilling. He shows off why he was able to convince someone that he was the guy to helm this story. So while the rest of the movie may be a pale as hell imitation of the work of much better directors, he really gets a chance to shine.
10. Bad Boys
This is a movie that gave Bay his debut, showing off some of that signature style of his that would help define his career and action in the 90s. It’s a movie that launched the cinematic work of Will Smith and Martin Lawrence, helping turn them into massive stars. But looking back on it now, it’s not a really good movie. It’s not bad. Just that it lacks some of that special something. For it’s not really filled with a lot of action, nor is it all that funny.
The plot isn’t really all that interesting or original. The swapped identity subplot is kind of nonsensical and just distracting. It’s a middling little action movie that runs on the charms of it’s two leads. We don’t really get Bay to go full Bay as he’s just trying to keep the train on the tracks in his debut. It’s fine but lacks that special insane something that many of his better movies have.
9. The Island
This is a pretty solid little movie in the midst of Bay’s career, made right before he would dive into the world of misbegotten Hasbro adaptations. One could say that the disappointment of this and Pearl Harbor in such close succession is what made him jump into the series he obviously doesn’t like.
But what keeps it below the halfway mark for Bay is that it’s a relatively average movie that doesn’t have too many of the problematic elements of Bay’s best work. That and it’s shameless ripoff plot line that “borrows” from the like of Logan’s Run. But it’s a pretty well put together ripoff, well designed and shot as usual for Bay.
The action is decent, pretty propulsive and thrilling. It’s nice to see Bay go more sci fi in his action filmmaking before getting the self indulgent budgets of Transformers movies. It’s got a good cast that help connect us to the plot, doing most of the heavy lifting that Bay and/or his script do not do. There are more interesting and bizarre movies in Bay’s work, but this is a more solid entry than it gets credit for.
8. Transformers: Age of Extinction
Now this is where the fun really comes into play. Hoo boy, this freaking movie. It is absolutely bananas. For one, there’s Mark Wahlberg. There is absolutely no reason he should be in this movie with the role he has. Want him to play a soldier or a cop or what have you? Cool. That works. But to cast him as a Texan engineering genius named Cade Yaeger? Wow. Just stunning. There’s no amount of glasses in the world you can put on the guy to make him look/sound smart.
Bay tries, and it’s a sight. And hearing him say some of these lines is an absolute treat, cause you can almost hear him thinking “what the fuck does this mean?”. Then there’s his daughter. Or what we are told is his daughter, because they don’t feel like father and daughter.
For the beginning of this movie, they have the chemistry of bickering couple. So when we find out the truth? Stunning. Which then leads into her boyfriend stopping the movie in his tracks to give a speech about Romeo and Juliet laws in Texas which allows him to sleep with a minor. But what about the plot you say? Well, that’s cute. Seeing as how none of these damn movies have plots that can be easily differentiated between.
But as it is, we continue the downward trend of Bay’s feelings towards the American government. Now they are the bad guys, having turned the autobots into fugitives, illegal aliens to be hunted by a black ops unit headed by Kelsey Grammer and Titus Welliver. Optimus, dead a second time now, is revived and brought back while a bounty hunter is out to capture Optimus on a contract by a robot God. By the end of the movie, so much destruction and mayhem has been wrought upon the Earth, with death dealt with the ease of a stroll through a park.
By the end of the movie, Optimus is heading off to space to fight God. And the dinobots that the marketing sold us and the beginning hinted at? They’re only in the last ten minutes and just tossed aside at the end.
Although it gives the amazing scene where Optimus abuses them into obeying his command to ride into an epic battle. It’s just completely bananas, an unchecked look into the id of America and it’s worse impulses, as well as Bays. For all these absolute bonkers reasons, the continuation of the absolute wrongness that is inherent in this series, places this so high in the list.
7. Transformers: Dark Of The Moon
There’s no real narrative difference to this sequel that differentiates it from the others, asides from a (slight) concision that Revenge of The Fallen didn’t have. But it’s the first in this series that benefits from Bay being let off the leash, given whatever he wants with no control and it’s absolutely fascinating.
It introduces the continuing trend of the government being so distrustful of the autobots that it starts to become the true villains of the series, outside the never ending presence of Megatron. This is also the one where Megan Fox was replaced after comparing Michael Bay to Hitler.
In general this is a bad idea, but it’s also really stupid when Steven Spielberg is a producer on this series. So we get the off screen disposal of Fox’s role and the introduction of the new girlfriend for Shia, model Rosie Huntington-Whiteley in her big screen debut. Which adds a real ickiness to the proceedings, making Shia even more of an MRA wet dream. This whiny, preening little crap of a man that just falls into everything that doesn’t have to change his neurotic ways manages to get world class beauties that have to learn to accept him for his awful ways.
It’s real weird, weirdness that really helps the movie stand out and fit right in to Bay’s poisonous worldview. But the real standout in this movie, the one that places it above the other sequels without question, is the absolute jump in quality of the action.
By filming in 3D, Bay had to rein in his shaky cam aesthetic and film much more cleanly. So the action we get is clean, crisp, and also so much more dynamic. Filming in that style unlocked something in Bay, making him rethink his style and add some much needed dynamism to the action in this series.
It also has a, no joke, amazing third act. It’s balls to wall bayhem, a siege upon Chicago that goes on for so long but is so dynamic that it makes his past and future work in the series seem so lame. Big and epic in scope, it could have been a great ending to the series for Bay, as he had claimed (again) that he was done after this. But alas, he was not. And honestly, we’re all the better for it.