Michael Bay movies are abnormal. They are almost essentially unfocused and tonally inconsistent; he over-saturates and frames his shots as to be almost unsettlingly beautiful; and he cuts his movies together in a way that challenges even the most extensive theories on rapid editing. But Transformers: The Last Knight is abnormal even for Bay. The fifth Transformers franchise installment scrambles for the brash and unashamed confidence of the other films, but it instead lands with extremely apparent insecurity.
Amidst the bright colors and flying, fighting robots, Bay imbues his movie with a much less appealing element than the others: fear. Each frame is afraid to linger, all the characters are afraid they won’t hit the target audience, and Bay for the first time seems afraid he will not gain the monetary approval he’s used to.
It is nearly impossible to briefly summarize the plot of this movie. For the sake of this article, it’s important to know that fugitive Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg) and Oxford history professor —and polo champ— Vivian Wembley (Laura Haddock) are the only two people that can save the earth from having all of its energy sucked out of it by the Transformers home planet, Cybertron. Oh yeah and they’re falling in love in the process. The rest of the characters include a host of Autobots and Decepticons, family members and random children, and scientists and wizards (no, really). The dozen or so storylines immediately highlight Bay’s biggest issue in this film: insecurity of narrative.
No one is asking a Transformers film to logically make sense, especially not me. My favorite installment is the unashamed and incomprehensible Dark of the Moon. What Bay illustrates here though is a fundamental distrust of his narrative. Whereas in the past he has committed to and sincerely invested in the absurd storylines, here he actively works against the narrative conceit of the movie. The cuts from scene to scene come too early. For a movie with a 150 minute running time, it spends little time in any one space other than a few action scenes, including a well-staged but wholly insignificant war sequence in the Anglo-Saxon Dark Ages.
The character of Sir Edmund Burton (Anthony Hopkins) is one of the movie’s most absurd. Hopkins’s character goes from cheery-old British dude to angry and abrasive British dude to fast-talking-manic British dude and back again. These changes happen constantly and one moment shows him casually strolling through his yard while overhead we see the giant alien planet start to envelop earth. The consistent efforts of his character to find his own identity and adapt to and please the people around him personalize the movie’s insecurity
Bay’s films also always try to find their place on the spectrum between drama and comedy. Though his material offers him the same opportunity to go whole-heartedly sincere that Peter Berg successfully utilizes, Bay almost always leans toward a sarcastic and referential comedy. While this is often successful and other people in the theater clearly appreciated the comedy, it serves nothing other than to undercut every moment. As Hopkins’s character has been blown-up and lying near death, his Transformer butler, Cogman, who has served served Hopkins for 70 years eulogizes him as follows, “Sir, out of all of my masters in the 700 years I have served your family, you have certainly been… the coolest.” Even the audience was unsure how to deal with this betrayal. A few hesitant people laughed and the rest just stared, waiting for the action to continue. This insecure undercutting of a potentially emotional moment would not be so horrendous if the movie did not take itself seriously in other ways. But when you close your movie with a call-to-action voice-over delivered by the most boring of all the Autobots (sorry but Optimus Prime is the worst), it’s hard to claim that the movie does not take itself seriously. Bay seems to have filmed the serious moments in the movie and then decided people would only like those moments if they were constantly betrayed by sarcastic jokes.
Transformers, shot on 3 different cameras (98% of the film reportedly shot on IMAX cameras, a new record), displays a dizzying amount of aspect ratios. The aspect ratio (the ratio of the width to the height of the image on screen) varies with every camera. The issue is that there is no correlative value to when the ratio changes. We see shifting aspect ratios in many modern feature films. Some utilize it to masterful effect (The Grand Budapest Hotel), some use it because of the limitations of technology (Life of Pi), and then movies like Transformers use it for no real aesthetic purpose and it only serves to distract. In several dialogue scenes, the shot on Wahlberg may be in 1.85:1 (standard full-frame) and then the cut to Haddock can change the ratio to 2.00:1 (the IMAX ratio) which is a noticeably slimmer ratio where the image only takes up about two-thirds of the screen. While this may seem like an absurdly specific nitpick, when the aspect ratio changes constantly from shot to shot, it causes a disruption and disassociation from the on-screen action as the audience is momentarily removed and asked to reflect on whatever intention the director may have had in changing the aspect ratio so randomly. It’s hard to trust a movie that cannot commit to a single aspect ratio; one so insecure that it’s images are constantly resizing themselves to compensate for their own fear.
Compensation is often a discussion point around Bay’s films. The explosions are record setting, the running times are incomparable, and they often rewrite history. Here Bay does not stray away from these authorial techniques. Embedded in his movie, however, is a different compensation that stems from the obvious insecurity. He compensates for lackluster storylines by adding more. He compensates for lack of logical consistency by having the action be logical and easy-to-follow (not one of Bay’s trademarks). He compensates for his traditionally antifeminist female characters by having the main women in this be brilliant and essential (he still manages to fit in both a homophobic comment and an NRA advertisement though). These compromises and compensations reveal a much less confident director and final product. While some of these changes are good—the semi-interesting female characters being one good step forward— ultimately Bay’s insecurities show a distrust of his audience that he has not before displayed.
When I watched Transformers: Dark of the Moon, the third and best installment, it was clear that Bay had several visions and multiple movies in mind. He accurately executed that vision and delivered a jarringly fascinating movie. In The Last Knight he casts his vision aside in a fit of insecurity, and delivers a movie that may please some crowds but does nothing except cover its fear in bright colors and flashing lights. As the credits roll and an uncertain Optimus Prime starts spouting absurd wisdom and asks fans to make the world a better place, all I wondered was with what joke Michael Bay really wanted to undercut this faux-sincere moment.
Featured Image: Paramount Pictures