In 2005, Michael Bay was done. First, there was his risible reach for respectability with the rusty rah-rah shitpail of 2001’s Pearl Harbor. After that, the Bay plus ultra of 2003’s Bad Boys II, an epic act of sustained psychosis with fatal overdoses sponsored by Skyy and Cadillac-subsidized corpse abuse. This R-rated romp of gargantuan grotesqueries was great but its grosses had a clear ceiling. Finally, in 2005, the DOA dud of The Island, for which low interest in the high concept of Bay’s science-fiction foray yielded then his lowest-grossing domestic film. Eight days seemed enough to etch Bay’s tombstone; that’s how long it took after The Island opened for Steven Spielberg to solicit Bay’s services for a live-action adaptation of Hasbro’s Transformers toy line that Spielberg was producing.
Done. Had to be. Right? So certain did this sad development seem that I remember relaying my early eulogy for Bay’s career, moments after the news hit, at the desk of Daniel Pike — my friend and colleague at The State Journal-Register, a newspaper where we worked at the time.
Such is the effect Bay has on people. It’s easy to recall ancillary details about his films because he insists that you inhabit his sensorial hyper-awareness for a few hours. It’s why you remember how two random, cool adults bought you and your best friend tickets to Bad Boys after a snooty clerk denied you underage admission without a “guardian.” Or that, two years after figuring Bay was donezo, you still arrived more than an hour early for a good seat to Transformers. The price? Hearing Bon Jovi’s enduringly terrible song “(You Want to) Make a Memory” roughly 15 times in the pre-show.
But you are not here to watch me flip cars down memory lane about Michael Bay. Why would you care? No, you want to laugh at how wrong I was about what Transformers would mean for Bay’s career. Oh so very wrong. It’s OK! I laugh at myself, too, because 143 minutes of this loud, goofy juggernaut was all Bay needed to make me feel terrible for ever doubting him.
Under Bay’s watch, Transformers became a flagship blockbuster franchise.The time he spent with it also saw 15 MCU films, 15 versions of the iPhone (introduced days before Transformers opened), an equivalent number of Fast & Furious movies, and three American presidencies. (The Transformers series features terrible impersonations of two of them; guess which is shown wearing red socks and requesting Ding-Dongs.) To invert the Star Trek formula, Bay’s odd ones (and one is extremely odd) are the good ones.
After conscripting Bay, Spielberg reportedly warned him off returning after round three, but Bay persisted — kicking off a second Transformers trilogy that unceremoniously stalled out at 66%. Even at Bay’s worst, as he would scrape in servitude of this series, he is always interesting. So here’s a rundown of a decade of films in which there was … well, more than meets the eye.
The first film remains the franchise’s greatest merger of Spielberg and Bay’s sensibilities. Call it Ka-Blamblin.
The heroic Autobots’ arrival on Earth marries the pop-culture pomp of Superman to Bay’s own bombast. It also introduces the intriguing idea that our contemporary creature comforts come from Transformer technology and can be usurped for control. It also includes one of the whole shebang’s most iconic moments of destruction — a Decepticon named Bonecrusher speed-skating down an interstate into a bus. It’s emblematic of how well (and how much better than its mid-aughts contemporaries) Transformers holds up visually 15 years later. A seamless merger of practical explosions and digital effects, the sequence is infused with perspective to make Bonecrusher feel mammoth, persistence to make him seemingly insurmountable, and putrescence to make him unmistakably evil; after all, everyone on that bus is definitely a goner.
Transformers also introduces an underlying theme (stop laughing) that carries through the entirety of Bay’s endeavors: a generalized metaphor for open-armed immigration policies and peaceable coexistence. Humankind rarely gives the Autobots reason to rally behind all of us, but they continue to do so — an ideological high when we go low.
At the same time, the franchise’s six-different-movies-at-once schism arrives fully formed here. It just got increasingly dizzy (and occasionally dumber) as it went along. You detect faint strains of the approach in contemporary efforts like Godzilla vs. Kong with less success. Maybe it’s because that film didn’t include an injured dog named Mojo Witwicky that has a gender identity complex and a mounting addiction to pain pills.
Before its disparate threads converge, Transformers ping-pongs between Qatar (where American soldiers outrun evil Decepticons after they destroy a base by tossing tanks and aircraft like landscaping pavers), Washington, D.C. (where Jon Voight’s Secretary of Defense wraps his mind around the arrival of giant alien robots), and California, where horndog teenager Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) tries to hawk the wares of his great-great-grandfather (a legendary explorer) during a high-school show-and-tell session.
Sam cites the Witwicky family mantra: “If there is no sacrifice, there is no victory.” Certainly all Sam has had to sacrifice is the usual suburban pale-male standard-issue car to get around. Of course, it’s not long before he has a fly ride (actually a heroic Autobot named Bumblebee disguised as a 1977 Chevy Camaro), gains ground with his dream girl, Mikaela (Megan Fox), and becomes an unlikely ally in the Autobots’ quest to stop the Decepticons from resurrecting their villainous patron, Megatron.
LaBeouf generally became a sentient pull-to-scream doll in his latter two Transformers installments (and a real-life persona non grata not long after), but he conjures considerable charm here as Sam. It ran out by the end of Dark of the Moon, but at least the reservoir is there. And although Bay used this film’s follow-up as a cudgel of childish retaliation against Fox (with whom he infamously clashed), the actress embodies one of his stronger female characters in this introductory outing. That is a low bar for Bay, but it’s still a strong moment when Mikaela, whose family’s criminal history continuously throws up social barriers and emotional obstacles, asks Sam what he has ever had to give up as part of his perfect little life.
Then there’s John Turturro, establishing the series’ pattern of slumming pros in supporting turns as Seymour Simmons, a maniacal black-ops G-man on whom one Transformer splatters its equivalent of piss. Every one of the Transformers films also has a proxy for Bay. Here, it is Simmons, who rocks and rolls along with Bay’s tendency for whammy-bar riffs on American conspiracy theories. Watching Bay going full-tilt boogie on such a thing remains wild fun; frankly, this film (and Dark of the Moon) are as close as Bay has come to such the tease of the final scene of The Rock (still his greatest film after nearly 30 years behind the camera). Here, the elaborate conjecture is that America’s government erected the Hoover Dam as a giant prison to entomb Megatron. Naturally, Megatron escapes, and Transformers turns into Black Hawk Downtown in its finale (even more interesting since that film’s screenwriter, Ken Nolan, worked Bay’s fifth and final Transformers film, 2017’s The Last Knight).
Even in a full-bore finish, Bay seems to be holding himself back a bit. Then again, it had been nearly a decade since he’d been handed a four-quadrant anything, and that’s what happens when disappointments and duds force you to play with house money by house rules. It’s the last time he’d do so in any capacity during this franchise. Where most would succumb to an orgiastic digital blur, Bay is too shrewd for that. The tactility he brings to Transformers — aesthetically by shooting on film and viscerally by using the irreplaceable authenticity of practical effects — is crucial to how well it maintains that initial sense of splendor all these years later. What I believed would destroy him turned out to be a perfect pairing. Bay understands the power of smashing toys together: If you go so hard that you need to repair it later, or even buy another one, so be it. It’s the opportunity cost of a feverishly engaged imagination. Speaking of which …
TRANSFORMERS: REVENGE OF THE FALLEN (2009)
Unfortunately, Bay’s first Transformers sequel is a wholly wretched rhapsody of furious foolishness. It’s the only film in the franchise that feels like it’s trying to make you dumber. Plus, with the series’ worst robot combat, it’s a spatial clusterfuck of who-cares calamity and chaos pushed in so closely on pugilism that it’s barely perceptible. Although Revenge of the Fallen has defenders as some sort of intentionally gonzo nine-figure abstraction, it’s simply an excruciating, punitive experience unrivaled by anything Bay has made save Pearl Harbor. And yet … it’s still perversely fascinating because when Bay has to basically make a film without writers, this is what you get.
To avoid delays prompted by a prolonged Writers Guild of America strike, Bay and his credited writers (Robert Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Ehren Kruger) worked up a “scriptment” — fancy talk for “movie sketched on wet cocktail napkin.” If Orci, Kurtzman and Kruger were to be sidelined as card-carrying WGA members, the non-WGA Bay could press on unaffected. Too bad Bay’s (uncredited) writing approach is like watching someone with 10 broken fingers attempt to connect a straight line from Point A to Point B. When the heroes must quickly get to Egypt, a parachute-farting malcontent Autobot simply teleports them there. The movie stops mid-chase for a perilously unfunny comic argument. Mikaela, Sam and Leo Spitz (Ramon Rodriguez), Sam’s new college roommate, bicker about whether Sam was sexually violated by Alice (Isabel Lucas), a Decepticon with a spiked tail that emerges from … well, guess. The punchline? Sam vomits on the floor.
Sam’s mother, Judy (Julie White), mistakenly eats a pot brownie and then tackles someone, suggesting no one involved with Revenge of the Fallen has ever gotten high. Skids and Mudflap, the newly introduced twin Autobots, are proudly illiterate, shockingly racist and ceaselessly annoying. Wheelie, a Dobby-ish Decepticon, is voiced by Tom Kenny like a cross of Joe Pesci and Sam Kinison, and celebrates his flip to the heroes’ side by humping Mikaela’s leg. Speaking of humping: Mojo is back, inappropriately expressing dominance over his new dog-brother, Frankie. And someone allowed LaBeouf to say: “I can’t stay long because I have a web-chat date with my girlfriend.”
Speaking of that girlfriend: Revenge of the Fallen was Fox’s last appearance in the Transformers franchise after her infamous clashes with Bay. Largely left to his own devices, he seems hellbent on embarrassing Fox as much as possible — and only comes off like an egotist at his most foolish. Sam is headed off to college while Mikaela, conspicuously, is not. After everyone teleports to Egypt, Leo lands with his face on Mikaela’s crotch. In a crucial moment involving Sam’s well-being, Bay jams a helicopter in the frame to distract from Fox’s emotional response. He even makes her expert mechanic drive a Saturn. A Saturn. And the leg-humping. My word.
Beyond that, Bay seems to have told everyone to scream what sounds right to them. The most instructive instance of this comes from a now legendarily self-referential screed by Agent Simmons: “Beginning! Middle! End! Facts! Details! Condense! Plot! Tell it! Let’s not get too episodic!” Once again, Simmons is Bay’s proxy. But this time, instead of the conspiracy-theory collector, he’s a man on the corner muttering stories that make sense only to him and at a blistering volume. (It is also the first, but not last, Transformers film in which Turturro utters the word “scrotum”; all his years as a supporting shadow to Adam Sandler have nothing on this.)
For whatever grubby, oxidized penny it’s worth, the plot of Revenge of the Fallen hinges on Sam never shaking out the shirt he wore during the first film’s climactic battle. In it, there is a small shard of Transformer technology that downloads its information into his brain. Regrettably, this prompts LaBeouf to be the human equivalent of a squirrel with a flat, ratty tail that looks like it’s really seen some shit, the kind you’d cross the street to ignore. There’s also a sun harvester weapon beneath the Giza pyramid complex (which lets Bay film camels beside Camaros) that the long-exiled Fallen, founder of the Decepticons and Megatron’s mentor, wants to activate on Earth’s sun. Among many questions Revenge of the Fallen fails to answer is why — beyond, of course, the balance sheet of a fresh fiscal year — it takes so long for Decepticons to mount their retaliation.
Who can stop the Fallen? It’s Optimus Prime, returning leader of the Autobots, who now assists human soldiers with off-the-books Decepticon hunts. The opening sequence that reintroduces Optimus is surprisingly incredible, a HALO jump in one continuous shot all the way down to a road in China where Optimus takes down an evil-giant-unicycle Constructicon known as Demolishor. But after some Decepticons fatally pwn Prime, the remaining heroes must search for the Matrix of Leadership in an effort to resurrect him.
The notion of archaeological adventure in a Transformers film is promising on its face. It would just be eight years before Bay figured it out in The Last Knight. Here, everyone is more or less making things up as they go — a process this franchise employed often and which flip-flopped between “feature” and “bug.” There are a few cool new characters and moments, like Devastator, a giant beast formed from a combination of the Constructicons, or Optimus Prime’s flight mods. But it’s as ephemeral as the Matrix of Leadership crumbling under Sam’s hand. (Can’t spoil what’s already rotten!) By the time Sam communes in some sort of Transformers Valhalla with ancient Autobot mopes called the Seekers, Revenge of the Fallen feels like an unanesthetized transection of your sanity. Mercifully, it can be skipped for canonical continuity in favor of what would prove to be Bay’s mammoth mea culpa.
TRANSFORMERS: DARK OF THE MOON (2011)
The worst thing about Dark of the Moon is hearing Bono periodically warble “North Star,” a U2 song so unbearable it was left off the soundtrack’s main release. Beyond that? Well, to quote John Malkovich just before he’s tickled by a Transformer: “Fuckin’ awesome.”
Quite simply one of the century’s best action films, Dark of the Moon finds Bay channeling his own signature assaultive nature and the quite different torpedo-damning maximalism of James Cameron. It’s as if Bay considered Cameron’s Avatar to be a gentlemanly gauntlet as he envisioned this third film’s scale and scope. Filmed in 3D and employing the format well, Dark of the Moon has a more purposefully patient camera presence; if this doesn’t actually include the longest-held shots of Bay’s career, they still feel that way.
Kruger’s script, the best of any in this franchise, matches the improved visual cohesion and clarity. After his hand in the narrative gibberish of Revenge of the Fallen, Kruger’s threequel (for which he alone is credited) more elegantly manspreads its mammoth plot; it’s like an entire season of Saturday-morning cartoon narrative crammed into a 150-minute sugar rush. And while this remains Bay’s most believably realized vision of what a humans-versus-robots apocalypse might resemble, it also represents an emergence of Bay’s more politically and socially enigmatic side that has since dominated much of his work, Transformers or otherwise.
Dark of the Moon kicks off with a terrific idea that cranks and breaks Bay’s conspiracy-theory knob: America’s space race was actually a smokescreen to investigate the Ark, an Autobot ship that crashed on the moon after it escaped the war-torn planet of Cybertron. Before it was ripped apart by Decepticon fury, Cybertron was the Transformers’ utopian homeworld. When America’s men on the moon went dark, well, that’s when they explored the Ark. (Not content to stop there, we even get the real Buzz Aldrin later on talking to a Transformer. What a goddamn blessing.)
We cut from the majesty of this speculative prologue to … an undies-and-Oxford shot of Sam’s new British girlfriend, Carly (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley). Sam’s trusty car, Bumblebee, is out on secret missions, so Sam drives a Datsun that transforms into nothing but a sad piece of shit. He’s also desperate to find a job and disdainful that, despite a presidential medal for saving the world twice, nobody respects that enough to give him a shot. Sam’s parents are on his case most of all. Why, it’s a lot like someone stepping in to save a sequel as shutdown doom loomed and everyone screaming at him for what he did, isn’t it? Meet Dark of the Moon’s Bay proxy!
Eventually, someone takes a flier on Sam. It’s the supernaturally bronzed Bruce Brazos (Malkovich), the CEO of aerospace / telecom company Accuretta Systems. His desk is adorned with framed pictures of himself … in power poses of martial arts. Brazos has also color-coded each floor of the company, and his consternation for one worker bee’s verboten introduction of red on the yellow floor is one of the greatest gifts Malkovich has ever given us. (Those who claim Brazos as Bay’s proxy because of his fastidious color obsessions overlook that Bay’s signature lime-neon green favorite is not the shade in play.) Malkovich easily offers the finest slumming of any great actor to turn up in a Transformers film, but Bruce also imparts strong occupational wisdom to Sam: He should look at this job, not the job after this job.
After the events of Revenge of the Fallen, the rest of the world has learned its lesson about dealing with Transformers. There are long-range defense systems to prevent Decepticon incursions, and Megatron has been minimized into the far corners of a vast desert. So Optimus, Bumblebee and their ilk now intervene in geopolitical conflicts of the human variety. But after a rogue Decepticon makes a rumble at Chernobyl (for which Gary, Indiana, was the stand-in), and Optimus learns that Americans know about the Ark, it’s off to the robot-fighting races.
The Ark’s pilot was none other than the revered Autobot Sentinel Prime (voiced by Leonard Nimoy), who crashed before he could use a doohickey to save Cybertron. Initially, Optimus is pleased to learn he could potentially resurrect his Prime mentor. But it turns out Sentinel is just another maniac, working in tandem with Megatron and a cabal of human conspirators. (Like so many blockbusters of the early 2010s, Dark of the Moon hinges on a long con that the heroes will let a fox into their henhouse.) Sentinel’s plan is to activate hundreds of intergalactic pillars that will pull what remains of Cybertron across the reaches of space into Earth’s orbit, after which he and Megatron will enslave most of Earth’s population to rebuild Cybertron. That plan doesn’t sit well with Optimus, always striking that Jesus Christ pose in appreciation of his human brethren even as they constantly betray him. But Sentinel easily thwarts his efforts when he successfully encourages America’s government to expel Optimus and his Autobot army.
Dark days, indeed. Oh, the leader of said human cabal? None other than Carly’s boss, Dylan (Patrick Dempsey), the scion of a global accounting firm who has since become an oafish venture capitalist. The Decepticons, Dylan says, came to his family years ago with a plan to line their pockets in exchange for eventually selling out the human race. Minor demerits for not including the scene where Decepticons visited some CPA to pitch this plan.
At some point, the Decepticon conspiracy also sweeps up Jerry Wang (Ken Jeong), a spastic Accuretta scientist unafraid to either get in Bruce’s face or riffle contraband pulled from his own ass below Sam’s. Shockwave, a flying-assassin Decepticon, eventually throws Jerry through an Accuretta window to clean up loose ends, prompting Bruce to rubberneck in the ghoulish aftermath (“He’s in the bistro, he’s in the bamboo, he’s on the balustrade”). Although Jerry doesn’t make it out alive, Dark of the Moon has easily the most newly introduced characters you’d like to see return someday: Mearing (Frances McDormand), the no-nonsense U.S. Director of Intelligence; “Hardcore” Eddie, a harried former soldier played by Lester Speight of Terry Tate, Office Linebacker fame; Dutch (Alan Tudyk), the German manservant / bodyguard to now former government G-man Simmons; fussy Accuretta mailroom clerk Donnie (Andy Daly); and, naturally, Bruce Brazos.
As for returning heroes, it’s not long before Sam is lured back into battle — this time a guerrilla incursion into Chicago for which the strategically crafty Optimus Prime might yet still return. Dark of the Moon is one of those blessed blockbusters in which you can see every last cent on the screen, and the Battle of Chicago is Bay’s masterwork marriage of digital and analog swirls. The last hour is utter urban chaos, suffused with eye-popping scenes of skyline occupation and obliteration. From the skyscraper siege of a giant-drill Decepticon named Sideways to Optimus merking villains on the Wells Street Bridge, this juggernaut is also informed as much by the downbeat grubbiness of Children of Men or District 9 as by Bay’s own trustworthy instincts.
That’s because Kruger and Bay infuse the middle act with a melancholy musing that most of our generational heroes will age out into villainous values should they live long enough. Every Bay movie features an American flag; only this one billows it in blurry focus behind someone extolling uniquely U.S. virtues of people regularly kowtowing to money and power. (Hearing Dempsey hail Megatron as “Your Excellency” is also a hoot.) It feels like a full-blown reversal and rejection of the hooey Bay tried to huckster us with in Pearl Harbor. There’s also a sense of inevitable disappointment in those whom we trust to express our best interests. This is the second Bay film to feature a space-shuttle rocket launch, but it’s hardly a moment of rally. It’s one of resignation, as the Autobots retreat into exile at the demand of Sentinel Prime. It’s an acquiescence, an abandonment, an abdication of whatever the American way, such as it was, might mean.
No one could ever call a Transformers movie sad, at least not with a straight face, and this isn’t some sort of subversive swivel where the bad guys win. But Dark of the Moon is miraculously effective in how somber it feels. It’s the bizarre combination of visceral exhilaration and emotional exhaustion that, again, feels more like Cameron than Bay, but nevertheless filtered through Bay’s own idiosyncrasies. More than a decade on, no one has outdone this particular subset of sci-fi spectacle — not even Bay, who still gave it the old college try twice more.
TRANSFORMERS: AGE OF EXTINCTION (2014)
After Dark of the Moon, Bay took a break to try his hand at comedy with Pain & Gain — an eminently enjoyable cross of Fargo, GoodFellas and Catch Me if You Can with cocaine smeared on its sweaty upper lip and HGH coursing through its veins. At a crossroads to pack up and move on or press ahead, Bay stuck around for what is an essential franchise reboot. Gone were Sam Witwicky and his nattering-nabob parents, as well as Simmons and recurring soldiers Lennox and Epps. In were frustrated inventor Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg), arrogant and ambitious CEO Joshua Joyce (Stanley Tucci) and Transformer-hunting G-man Harold Attinger (Kelsey Grammer). The only returning performers were previous films’ vocal performers.
At 165 minutes, may the unbelievably lard-assed Transformers: Age of Extinction stand forever as the longest film with a Transformer in it. That is an awfully long time to watch Bay run in place, bristling against diminishment of his traditional tactility in favor of over-digitized mush. It’s hard to feel any heft about the existential plight of a Transformer when the all-digital background of their ships impart no spatial weight whatsoever. Plus, nearly all of the new characters are insufferable and uninteresting, and no Bay film should feature CGI dinosaurs.
Age of Extinction is perhaps Bay’s most subtly self-aware outing in the series, though. Of course, subtlety is always relative when comparison points are a name-dropped reference to Armageddon in Transformers and a Bad Boys II poster in Revenge of the Fallen. Here, the moment comes when Cade and his dipshit business associate, Lucas (T.J. Miller), find a truck parked in the middle of a dilapidated movie theater called the Uptown in Nowheresville, Texas.
“Sequels and remakes. Buncha crap,” moans the geezer trying to sell the place about the blight of modern-day movies while upholding the integrity of El Dorado. That Western essentially refreshed Rio Bravo and was in turn updated by El Lobo — all starring John Wayne in more or less the same role. Bay knows ersatz remakes kept the lights on well before he was around and at least acknowledges: In the absence of anything else promising to him, this was a payday.
Extinction is set five years after Dark of the Moon. In the wake of the Battle of Chicago (memorialized on fear-stoking billboards), America’s alliance with the Autobots is over. They have all gone into hiding lest they get knocked over by Cemetery Wind, a band of black-ops badasses formed by Attinger. Of course, the truck Cade and Lucas find is a deeply disguised Optimus Prime, content to rust in peace until Cade jumpstarts and befriends him.
It’s tough to swallow Wahlberg as a 35-year-old man in what is, chronologically speaking, the late 2010s — farting around in his barn and berating a robot that can’t paint well. At about the halfway point, Wahlberg essentially resorts to screaming like an insane person — as if Cade’s proximity to cool alien technology unleashes a Mr. Hyde who shouts things like “Don’t bitch out on me! Are you ready?” or “These alien guns kick ass!” or “Sweetie, hand me my alien gun!”
On that last point, he’s addressing his dunderheaded daughter, Tessa (Tara Reid reboot Nicola Peltz), and her doofus boyfriend, Shane (Jack Reynor). Age of Extinction is the sort of movie that pauses for a full-scene critique of the idiocy of Texas’s very real Romeo & Juliet law, the language of which Shane carries on a laminated wallet card to explain why it’s not statutory rape between him and teenaged Tessa (whose dialogue often consists of shouting “Daaaaaaaad!”). Bay is not endorsing that very dumb law but rather poking a hole in it. What’s actually more insulting is the constant dick-measuring conflict between Cade and Shane as to whether Tessa should be considered Cade’s daughter or Shane’s girlfriend. It’s even more empty bluster in a moment when Tessa is taken by a Transformer, as Cade pounds the ground in slow-motion with all the believable anxiety of someone who just blew a co-rec softball championship.
Meanwhile, Cemetery Wind has also somehow thrown its lot in with Lockdown, a Cybertronian assassin with a giant dick-nose cannon. He’s been dispatched by the Transformers’ almighty creator to find Prime and drag him back to space for judgment. Meanwhile, Joyce figures out a way to manufacture his own Transformers using … Transformium. Essentially, it’s a sentient 3D printer that can turn into a Beats Pill, a handgun or Galvatron, Joyce’s military prototype modeled after Optimus Prime. But why does he keep looking like Megatron, Joyce asks. Yeah. Why is that? Joyce is easily Bay’s Part IV proxy, a man overwhelmed by the mess he makes of good, if rampantly egotistical, intentions. Beyond a desire for Paramount+ to immediately greenlight a Transformers spinoff with Joshua Joyce and Bruce Brazos, Age of Extinction mainly makes you consider how Stanley Tucci would be a fun Blofeld in a ‘60s-era Bond reboot.
Perhaps the Transformers franchise’s shift into the military-industrial complex and corporate espionage was inevitable. It’s just not very interesting. Visually, Bay is in meatball Malick overdrive, indulging his cornpone aesthetic aphorisms about America as he did in Pearl Harbor. Meanwhile, Optimus faces bad-faith negotiation with an even more omniscient presence than the American government, but what should play out as the somber extinction of his pilot light for heroism is buried under the bluster. Once again, the movie collapses into a chase for a super-weapon that could destroy Earth (here called the Seed). The narrative here is so unfocused and ungainly that you wonder if returning screenwriter Kruger had uncredited help on Dark of the Moon or simply lost his mojo.
For all of this enervating excess, Age of Extinction is thankfully not a redux of Revenge of the Fallen. John Goodman has a great time voicing a joyously rejuvenated Autobot named Hound. There’s a nifty sequence where Cade, Tessa and Shane must cross a mile-high tightrope of anchors affixing Lockdown’s ship to Willis Tower. An air chase over the Chicago River and into Lower Wacker Drive is inventive. Plus, giving Prime a sword that allows him to activate the fire-breathing Dinobots is a fine ’80s-child flourish on which to finish, and the return to 3D means Bay’s cutting is again less chaotic. Age of Extinction is at least tolerable, but it’s such a tremendous comedown from Dark of the Moon that it’s comparatively more disheartening. But as Wahlberg says, in an oddly poignant and persuasive moment: “Sometimes out of these mistakes come the most amazing things” …
TRANSFORMERS: THE LAST KNIGHT (2017)
Although the Transformers franchise would live on in the spinoff Bumblebee, this fifth film represents Bay’s swan song with the series. After the palate cleanser of 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, Bay moved on to this five-alarm fire sale of every cockamamie concept and set-piece he had yet to explore in the franchise — including Transformers underwater! This go-for-broke grab bag of Anglo-Saxon treasure-hunting and indulgence of global conspiracies is the installment all those Revenge of the Fallen junkies should stan instead. It’s the gleeful byproduct of a filmmaker freed from self-imposed servitude after 10 long years, wilding out on any and every whim he can think of; it’s like high tea meets high T.
After opening credits that feel pre-condensed for TNT time constraints, The Last Knight opens in England circa 484 A.D. during the Dark Ages. “Magic does exist,” says Sir Anthony Hopkins in voiceover. “It was found long ago inside a crashed alien ship.” And as the stars of the Paramount Pictures logo transform into flaming catapults launched from a trebuchet, the giddiness starts to set in that yes, indeed, that magnificent bastard Michael Bay went and made a movie featuring (however briefly) King Arthur riding into battle beside giant Transformers. Meanwhile, Merlin (Tucci again, in perhaps the century’s easiest third billing so far) promises to protect a magic staff that belongs to the Transformers against a “great evil.” Even with incidental medieval content, The Last Knight is a better King Arthur movie from the summer of 2017 than the one with the legendary figure in the title.
We also learn that humans have relied on Transformers to save their bacon for centuries, and the Transformers have aligned themselves with protectorate patrons known as the Order of Witwiccans. (See what they did there?) Bumblebee’s prototype helped crush the Nazis during World War II. And in a hilarious Sgt. Pepper-like rundown that reads like a who’s-who of history, even Harriet Tubman is revealed as a Witwiccan. Again: Paramount+ spinoff show when?
Hopkins plays Sir Edmund Burton, the last surviving Witwiccan. He has a sociopathic robot bodyguard named Cogman and he screams: “Cogman! That weird thing we’ve been waiting 1,600 years to happen is finally happening!” Who’d have thought Hopkins, of all people, would show out so effortlessly as a high-class stand-in for Bay’s resident wild man Peter Stormare — pushing portly tourists off a decommissioned submarine to help turn the tide of human history and getting all up in the grill of Britain’s Prime Minister? There’s also a moment where Hopkins seems to marshal a mnemonic device to remember all the gobbledygook in his character’s full title. Hopkins often seems like he’s being paid by the word during his motor-mouthed late-period foray into blockbuster junk, but the Oscar-winning legend has never been more caffeinated and his crazed excitement over the world’s pending end is merely a warm-up for how deeply weird The Last Knight gets.
The Transformers remain an oppressed class worldwide (except in Cuba, where Castro lets them sun on the beaches). Although Cemetery Wind has gone still, the Transformers Reaction Force now hunts them. Meanwhile, Optimus Prime is floating in space, seeking the creator who wanted him dead in Age of Extinction. The Transformer creator is a female robot named Quintessa (voiced by Gemma Chan), who immediately fries Optimus’s circuits and turns him into an evil ally on her quest to — say it once more with feeling — destroy Earth. There’s a French-accented Autobot named Hot Rod who shoots a bubble that stops time. There’s a timid li’l guy named Sqweeks because someone figured Transformers needed its own BB-8. Also, Galvatron is just Megatron now because why not, and this is the other Transformers movie in which Turturro utters the word “scrotum” … twice!
Plot? Oh, yes. That. Earth has been the enemy all along … sorta. When energized horns emerge from the ground, Earth is revealed as the sentient planet Unicron, which has long been a mortal enemy to the Transformers’ planet of Cybertron. That staff Merlin swore to protect? It’s the only thing that can keep Quintessa from merging Cybertron with Unicron in a process that comes to resemble two giant intergalactic testicles swinging together like Newton’s Cradle.
Sounds like some sentient planet needs a spiritual descendent of King Arthur to roll with some giant Transformers again to save the day. Good thing Cade Yeager, that hunky monk, is still around! This time, Cade is paired off with Viviane Wembly (Laura Haddock), an English literature professor at Oxford who also happens to be a descendent of Merlin. There is an extended, narratively applicable discussion of Cade’s sexual dry spell and whether he can retain enough purity of essence to save the day alongside this sexy wizard (who also gets to visit her great-times-eight granddaddy’s tomb at the bottom of the ocean).
Blubbering disbelief at the surplus of crazy shit in which he’s caught up becomes Cade’s default mode here, yoinked from submarines to Stonehenge on wackadoo whims. Cade becomes Bay’s final Transformers proxy, a true tabula rasa for all the historical hullabaloo and IMAX-enhanced spectacle that a quarter-billion dollars could buy, Once again, Wahlberg musters up the moxie to bring meaning to meathead stakes when it matters most, and the climactic absurdity is truly awe-inspiring as Wahlberg slides around on an encroaching intergalactic ship while wielding King Arthur’s Transformium-enhanced sword to save Prime. (It’s stunning that Uncharted was so brutally bad when it could have just been even slightly like this slap-headed crossover between Transformers and Indiana Jones.)
Amid all of this gonzo glory is yet more enigmatic editorializing from Bay: Fools conflate his visual fetish for military technology with a conservative ideology that war rules. Anyone with a remotely open mind will see Bay finds these things cool in the way most of us find them cool. They are just the means to an end of great action cinema. It doesn’t mean Bay aligns himself with the ideology of those who wield the tools. Also, pretty much every Transformers movie finds the military getting its ass rocked in the futile pursuit of asserting its prowess. Here, the military actions also foster mistrust and make things way worse while King Cade and Hot Merlin try saving the day with Stonehenge magic.
What a way for Bay to shake this Etch-a-Sketch clean for someone else, even throwing in visual references that symbolically erase his awe-inspiring sights from the previous four films. By the time The Last Knight concludes four miles above sea level at an ignition chamber on Cybertron, it is operating at such a level of operatic oafishness that it’s hard for your brain to not simply capitulate. There are nine-season anime series with less narrative complexity, and it certainly seems to stack plates 21,000 feet high across 150 minutes.
This is one of Bay’s most underrated over-stimulations but certainly among his most thrilling. However, The Last Knight’s place in history is as a bridge built to be burnt, for there will never be a third film teased by a credit cookie featuring Chan in live-action form as Quintessa. That’s because relative to its massive budget, The Last Knight was a monumental flop and lost $100 million for Paramount. After this, Bay retreated to Netflix (for the popped-bottle bacchanal of 2019’s 6 Underground) and then back to a $40 million budget for this year’s AmbuLAnce, an exhilarating action film that has sadly usurped The Island as Bay’s lowest-grossing domestic film.
Sound familiar? Bay’s been here before. Surely, the man has yet more parachutes to pull. So yeah, Michael Bay is down. But I’m glad to say: He’s pathologically incapable of being done.