What is Michael Bay trying to say? We know he’s an entertainer, first and foremost (or so he thinks). So if one asked him directly, he’d more than likely answer: "I’m just here to blow your minds with these amazing transforming robots created by Hasbro, OK?" Of course. Whether through his not-so-exciting, yet oddly watchable misfire of Pearl Harbor or the weirdly invigorating carnage and surprising cleverness of Bad Boys II, the man is the Ethel Merman of action movies -- the hostess with the mostest (and biggest budget) on the ball. And with Transformers 2 he’s definitely in Ethel territory -- he wants to please everyone.
But again, what the hell is this man trying to say? And furthermore, what is his aesthetic? While watching the second installment of Transformers (Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen) my mind reflected on this for a good, long while (the picture is 2 hours and 24 minutes after all). While staring at a multitude of muddy looking robots flying by, or smashing about, in strangely (one would say poorly) crafted action sequences, or John Turturro revealing his rear-end in a g-string, or Shia LaBeouf running around Egypt yelling nonsense like “Bumble-bee!” or his continual hyperactive stream of “no, no, no, no, no!" my eyes scanned the enormous IMAX frame, searching for…meaning, for the Bay way.
And after settling into the second hour of the movie, dismayed I had over another hour ahead of me, it started to come to me: Michael Bay is a surrealist. He may not know he is, he may not like that I’m calling him one, but the money sucking action filmmaker extraordinaire would do well by Bunuel or Jodorowksy or Gilliam or hell, Aqua Teen Hunger Force (which is absurdist surrealism at its finest, especially the ingenious movie, and the characters would have featured brilliantly in this picture). If the filmmaker had some chutzpah, if he truly tapped into the melting pocket watch corner of his brain, if he understood his full dream weaving potential (because I do believe Michael Bay can get me through the night), the next Transformers would be titled Un Chien Andalou LaBeouf.
The story? OK…well…there’s a prologue set in 17,000 B.C., which is truly bizarre, and strangely gorgeous, and then we’re thrust into U.S. Army world, via Capt. Lennox (Josh Duhamel) and Sergeant Epps (Tyrese Gibson), whose elite squad (called NEST) use real live people and Autobots to smoke out Decepticons. If you understand the Transformers universe, you’ll know what the hell I’m talking about. If not, no matter. After aqua imprisonment at the bottom of the ocean, the bad transformers seek to free their leader, Megatron (voiced by Hugo Weaving), and then something about shards of a cube (called “the Spark”).
Enter Shia, or rather the ridiculously named Sam Witwicky (is he a character from Dickens?) who is trying to simply attend college like every normal kid but just can’t shake these damn deceptions. In this case, one comes in the form of a sexed up freshman girl (freshmen girls are deceptions…oh…that’s saying something). After Sam goes off on some nutty Rain Man prophesying created by the Spark (Rainn Wilson shows up as a college professor un-amused by Sam’s tic-like compulsion to save the world) he’s eventually pushed out of school and into Egypt where much scrambling around occurs. Yes, there’s a story, there’s a mythology, there’s even an ending, but you can decipher that for yourself. That, and just how Megan Fox’s white pants never, ever get dirty. OK, they get dirty, but they manage to magically clean themselves.
But then why should they stay dirty? In the Bay universe, time and space are suspended, action is indecipherable and sense isn’t important. Sensory overload is, albeit occasionally beautifully shot sensory overload, and again, surrealistic sequences of elegance that I noticed in the corners of the frame, almost as if Bay had sprayed acid in the theater -- something Gaspar Noe would heartily approve of. There’s a scene very near the end, in particular, in which Sam stands in some alternate universe talking to the robots that could have hatched from one of Hunter S. Thompson’s drug benders. But is that the point Michael Bay? If so, you’re on to something. And I want more of it.
But will he ever give it to me? The Wachowski’s did with their underrated and misunderstood Speed Racer, Ang Lee did with his gorgeously over the top, ridiculously maligned Hulk, Mel Gibson did with his compelling, gloriously insane bit of the old ultra violence, The Passion of the Christ -- better pictures, and ones many could not understand or get behind because, well (and I’m speculating here) they were actual works of art. Bay has artistry (or hires others to), and he has more power than the aforementioned directors so he could get away with murder, as he did, almost quite literally with the great Bad Boys II. I just wish he would have pushed it further with Transformers. Throw in a tiger emerging from a fish, give us an Elephant Celebes, make Meatwad the hero. Please -- you have the sensibility.
If, in the next Transformers he replaces Megan Fox midway through the movie with Jessica Alba (a la Bunuel’s That Obscure Object of Desire) I will have faith in him. As for now, I’m just waiting for his newest treachery of images. And if you dig Magritte, you’ll know I mean that as a potential compliment.