The definitive Michael Bay film (after the Meat Loaf music videos, anyway)
by Adam Miller
The release of TRANSFORMERS: REVENGE OF THE FALLEN is of some historical import to Camp Academy. My review of the original TRANSFORMERS (2007) marked the beginning of CA’s style of relatively serious, politically-minded reviews of schlock films. The oeuvre of Michael Bay (if not the director himself) became a punching bag for all that was “wrong” with the film industry. For these reasons I approached TRANSFORMERS: ROTF as seriously and faux-professionally as I could. I actually bought concessions: the largest caffeinated soda; the greasiest popcorn. I even brought a notepad into the theater with me. I was determined to do this thing right.
TRANSFORMERS: ROTF is a film as long as it is big as it is empty of “content” in the traditional, story-driven sense. The film runs for 150 minutes and yet the central plot can be summed up thusly: Despite the events of TRANSFORMERS, the war between the Autobots (good) and Decepticons (evil) is far from over. This time, a Decepticon known as The Fallen has hatched a plan to unlock an ancient weapon that will destroy Earth’s sun. The location of the key/trigger to this weapon resides only in the brain of college-bound Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf, reprising his role from the first film). Sam and his entourage of hacker roommate, lover, former secret agent, Autobot bodyguards, and parents are chased around the globe by the Decepticons before facing off in a climactic desert battle between, well, just about everyone.
The discrepancy between the relatively straightforward plot and the long run-time produces an effect of convolution in the film that makes it hard to pin down. TRANSFORMERS: ROTF might be referred to as an action/comedy, a summer blockbuster, a feat of sheer marketing, even an art film. For me, I can merely begin by labeling the film “expressionist.” It is, even more so than Bay’s other films, an expression of the Bay mind/film-catalog/universe (three terms perhaps synonymous). As such, if a viewer were (forced) to watch just one Michael Bay film, I would wholeheartedly nominate TRANSFORMERS: REVENGE OF THE FALLEN. However, the complexity of this expression makes a linear review difficult to achieve. So, my apologies to the reader, if this review seems to jump from one thought to another I assure you this is only reflective of TRANSFORMERS’ own on-screen logic.
Despite these challenges, I will attempt to map out the following argument. Relying upon the old form versus content warhorse, I will first examine the two most critical (and controversial) areas of content in the film: its treatment of sex and race. Second, I will examine the Michael Bay aesthetic which is simultaneously acutely self-aware and yet bafflingly inept. Thus informed, I will lastly consider the film’s climactic dream-battlescape which to me captures “Michael Bay” better than any other moment committed to celluloid.
It’s one of the most famous depictions of women in cinema. The crippled L.B. Jeffries (James Stewart) sleeps while his girlfriend Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly) quietly enters his darkened apartment. She approaches the sleeping Jeffries. Her shadow crosses his face before a series of static shot-reverse-shots depict Fremont’s ethereal visage as she leans in to silently kiss her lover.
Contrast this scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s REAR WINDOW (1954) to the opening shot of Mikaela Banes (Megan Fox) in TRANSFORMERS: REVENGE OF THE FALLEN. She straddles a motorcycle wearing a tank top and jean shorts hiked up just high enough to reveal the slightest exposed curve of her lower buttock. In this case the camera slowly moves towards the essentially static Mikaela.
Both directors seem to be acutely aware that they are filming the most sexually appealing women of their generation. It is almost inappropriate to refer to “Mikaela Banes” or “Lisa Fremont” because the real-life celebrity/sexuality of the actors in both cases overwhelms their characters. We are being shown the lips of Grace Kelly; the buttock of Megan Fox.
The TRANSFORMERS scene radically departs from REAR WINDOW in two ways. First, the REAR WINDOW scene establishes both Lisa Fremont’s sexuality and her agency (she moves, Jeffries and the camera remain static) which will be fully demonstrated later when the daring Fremont sneaks into a murder suspect’s apartment. The motionless Mikaela, though later shown running in slow-motion with brassiere oft askew, is generally relegated to merely reacting to events which are set in motion by often larger (they are giant robots, after all) and always masculine agents. Though it is true that humans in general are “small” players in TRANSFORMERS’ galactic struggle, both the members of the U.S. military and the hero Sam Witwicky are allowed moments of significant impact (usually violent) on the course of events in the film.
Second, the intention of Lisa Fremont in her opening scene is explicitly sexual. Her basic action is to kiss her lover. Throughout the rest of the film it is made clear that Fremont is a libidinous woman. She likes to engage in sexuality and is not ashamed of it. Rather, it is often Jeffries who fears romantic entanglement. Despite the fact that the Mikaela Banes sequence is clearly erotic from the viewer’s perspective, her actual activity in that sequence is revealed to be the detailing of a motorcycle. She is after all a mechanic by trade, and, despite her choice of garb, she’s just putting in a hard day’s work at the garage.
Thus in her opening shot Mikaela is stripped first of agency and rendered a sexual object/statue only to then have the ownership of that very sexuality taken away from her and placed in the hands of Michael Bay (who framed the shot) and the audience (who reacts in titillation to Bay’s framing).
Not long after, Mikaela literally strips out of said “mechanic’s clothes” to reveal a white dress underneath so as to impress (as if needed?) her boyfriend, Sam. The ensuing conversation has Sam describe Mikaela as “a girl with options.” This bizarrely understated, coded description of Mikaela’s beauty serves as a helpful phrase in the sexual logic of TRANSFORMERS: ROTF. Despite being a “girl with options,” Mikaela never seems to pursue any of them. Though she constantly threatens Sam with break-up, ultimately she remains committed to him even as he blows off her threats of separation, leaves for college, skips phone dates with her to go frat parties, and becomes embroiled in a quasi-affair with a co-ed (more on that later*).
True, Lisa Fremont also seems at times inexplicably attached to the often ambivalent Jeffries, but she takes the matter into her own hands. Whatever her reasons, Lisa aggressively pursues Jeffries. Mikaela, despite a brief tiff, usually acquiesces to Sam. As resolution to the aforementioned affair with the co-ed, Mikaela ultimately takes out her anger not on Sam—the person betraying her—but on the girl who attempts to have an affair with him.
The final instance of Mikaela Banes as sexual object/statue is easily the most bizarre. Throughout the first half of the film Bay chooses to insert images of dogs humping or, as one character puts it, “dominating” one another. One assumes these scenes are there for comic relief as they usually appear in juxtaposition to large-scale violence. The audience who saw the screening with me laughed every time. I, on the other hand, was bewildered as to what the point of the humping/dominating dogs was. Only later in the film does the act of fornication recur for a third time when a small Decepticon robot who has been captured and leashed by Mikaela begins to “dominate” her leg. Mikaela’s response, as the reader might guess by the thrust of this chapter, is to stand in place while it happens.
One of the more frequent, early criticisms of Sigmund Freud was that his theories on human development led inevitably to a kind of “pansexualism.” Sex could be—and ultimately was—everywhere and anything. As infants, according to Freud, any sensory experience—including such favorites as nursing and defecation—was inherently sexual. Only as humans developed from infancy into adulthood and civilization did sexual experiences become more rigidly codified.
Michael Bay makes an unholy marriage of these two tenets of Freud. Bay proclaims that sex is indeed everywhere but simultaneously decrees sex to be only the most stereotypical of male, heterosexual, Hollywood renderings. When Sam Witwicky attends college he finds himself in a co-ed dorm in which busty women run around half-clothed while their male neighbors leer after them. Every single female depicted at Sam’s college could find work as a model (and in real life I’m sure they do).
What’s more, the female population here, unlike Mikaela’s statuesque performance, is uncontrollably libidinous. Sam’s first night at school is spent at a frat party where he is immediately pursued by a gorgeous blond (Isabel Lucas) who makes her intentions towards him quite clear: she wants him sexually. Never mind the bizarreness of Mikaela’s desire for Sam; that some random girl would pick him out of a frat party is totally inexplicable.
Of course, it is revealed that (*and here comes the “more on that later”) this young woman is in fact an evil Decepticon in (what else?) disguise. While mounting Sam a spiked metal tail emerges from beneath the girl’s hiked up dress and panties and wags menacingly. Later the same spiked appendage emerges from the woman’s mouth (in a not-so-subtle reference to ALIEN ) with a flicking tongue still attached.
Ultimately this woman/robot is slain by Mikaela—smashed between a light post and a car.
The film’s statement is clear: there are two kinds of women—statues and agents. The Megan Fox-statues are to be trusted, desired, and dominated. The Grace Kelly-agents: destroyed.
Both TRANSFORMERS and TRANSFORMERS: REVENGE OF THE FALLEN utilize the “real life” President of the United States in their universes. In the first film, George W. Bush is the Commander in Chief and Barack Obama is America’s President in the second. Likewise, both TRANSFORMERS and its sequel featured “black” robots. Jazz (Darius McCrary) in the first film and Mudflap (Reno Wilson, a black actor) and Skids (Tom Kenny, a white actor) in the second.
The historical importance of Obama’s election has hardly been missed in America. After centuries of racism, the fact that America is now led by an African American is celebrated even by those who disagree with Obama politically. In response, some have wondered if America is finally “over” racism. After all, what is greater proof of America’s post-racism than the election of a black President?
Obama makes the briefest of appearances in TRANSFORMERS: ROTF. After Decepticons begin attacking American cities a newscast of Obama speaking is briefly flashed on a television screen. Otherwise, the office of the President is represented by the politician Galloway (John Benjamin Hickey).
Featured much more extensively are the Autobots Mudflap and Skids. Both speak in “jive” vernacular. They refer to a Latino character as a “taco,” constantly slap each other around, state that they cannot read, and sport a gold “tooth.” Furthermore, it is not a far stretch to note similarities between the Autobots’ body shape and that of an ape nor the potential metonymy between “Mudflap” and various racial slurs (the Urban Dictionary website even gives a definition of “mudflap” as “a racial slur for a really dark African American”).
Thus two constructions of the black male appear in TRANSFORMERS: ROTF. The first is Obama—educated, rhetorically gifted, and successful where no other African American has succeeded before. The second is of two animated characters (cartoons?) who share many traits in common with the minstrel stereotype that has suffused Hollywood films for decades. Just as Bay had a choice between two constructions of women to depict in his film, he also chooses between to constructions of the black male.
What complicates the issue is that neither Mudflap nor Skids are, well, black. Indeed, they’re not even human. Though they are given several characteristics or markers of a kind of “blackness” as machines they obviously have no “race” to speak of. On one level this serves Bay as a handy defense against accusations of racism, but ultimately it only undermines his supposed racial tolerance further. By featuring characters which exhibit black stereotypes but cannot, by traditional definition, be black Bay only underlines how transcendent these stereotypes remain for the American public. The fact that the behaviors exhibited by two robots communicate “blackness” to an audience as clearly as human skin color shows that despite the imagery of a non-Caucasian President, the larger sign system of racism remains alive and well.
Consider, by way of contrast, the character of Darth Vader from STAR WARS (1977). Memorably voiced by James Earl Jones, one would be hard-pressed to argue that any filmgoer in 1977 would have thought Vader was a “black man;” a man in a black suit to be sure, but there were no other “signs” of blackness attributed to the character. On the contrary, Vader’s helmet alludes to the Japanese samurai, and though he is voiced by a black actor, his body belongs to that of the white David Prowse. Later depictions of Darth Vader (aka Anakin Skywalker) would be embodied by Sebastian Shaw, Jake Lloyd, and finally Hayden Christensen. Indeed, in the most “recent” Star Wars film, STAR WARS – EPISODE III: THE REVENGE OF THE SITH (2005), after Anakin Skywalker’s “whiteness” has been established for several films, James Earl Jones reprises his role as Vader’s voice while Vader’s suit is worn by Christensen. Again, one would be hard-pressed to argue that Vader somehow becomes “black” in this final scene.
Thus Mudflap and Skids are not depictions of stereotypical black men, they are depictions of (Michael Bay’s perception of) stereotypical blackness which is featured in a mainstream Hollywood film far more prominently than an actual black man, and the nation’s first black President, Barack Obama.
Form: It’s just a movie…
There is a peculiar trio of posters hanging on the wall of Sam Witwicky’s dorm room. Two are film posters—Michael Bay’s own BAD BOYS II (2003) and Matt Reeves’ CLOVERFIELD (2008). The third poster is a reproduction of the 1942 propaganda “He’s Watching You” by Glenn Grohe.
The meaning of the posters is open for interpretation. As part of the film’s diegesis, they are reasonable posters for a college student to have (Sam’s roommate runs a conspiracy theory blog, explaining the propaganda poster). As meta-diegesis (?) the “real” bad boys Martin Lawrence and Will Smith are replaced by two nerdy college kids while the Cloverfield alien is replaced by Transformer aliens—both trying to destroy the planet. At the cinematic level Michael Bay markets himself. And would it be too far-fetched to imagine the “he” in the propaganda poster is Bay himself watching the audience—always calculating what he thinks will titillate them most?
I’ll leave the hermeneutics to others, sufficing it to say that the posters indicate a cinematic awareness on Bay’s part. He knows that his film is part of a cinematic tradition (of which he is already a part). The cinematic awareness of TRANSFORMERS: ROTF is carried on in not-so subtle references to films like CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (, Sam going into fits and painting symbols with household items), ALIEN (, the aforementioned girl with the robot tongue), STAR WARS – EPISODE V: THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (, Megatron, the villain from the first film, is revealed to be the “apprentice” of the emperor-like The Fallen in the sequel), and even WAR OF THE WORLDS (, where Sam shrieks “You gotta let me go dad!” just like the son of Tom Cruise’s character in the Spielberg directed flick). I won’t even bother to catalogue the mish-mashed quotations of films, pop songs, and media sound bites by the character Bumblebee.
(Here I must reference Bruce Isaacs’ book Toward a New Film Aesthetic (2008). Isaacs describes a departure from the old film aesthetic of realism. In its place has arisen an aesthetic in which the “reality” of a film is constituted wholly by its awareness and quotation of other films. No doubt Isaacs would have much to say about TRANSFORMERS: ROTF.)
Despite his well-defined sense of film history, Bay allows several goofs to slip into the otherwise precisely engineered TRANSFORMERS: ROTF which align it with more ignorant directors like Ed Wood Jr. (PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE ), Hal Warren (MANOS: THE HANDS OF FATE ), and Arch Hall Sr. (EEGAH ). These forefathers of the camp film canon were all doomed by their ignorance of coherent storytelling and filmmaking technique. They produced endearingly flawed films which, because of their flaws, reveal a human-touch behind the camera. The film “goof” has become, in the realm of camp cinema, an aesthetic expectation.
Consider these “camp” moments from TRANSFORMERS: ROTF…
The Decepticon plot to destroy Earth’s sun using a secret weapon is not too far off from the “solarmanite” featured in PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE—a weapon which “explodes sunlight itself” and by extension the universe. In one laughable moment, the top secret N.E.S.T. team—you know, the secret ops squad that no one knows exists—drives around in black military vehicles with the letters N.E.S.T. printed on the side! I suppose Bay’s need for perfunctory visual storytelling outweighs the government’s need for secrecy. Or how about the bizarre sequence where Sam and company visit the Dulles-based Air and Space museum in Virginia only to step outside the into an old airfield in the middle of the desert with a mountain range in the background (and trust me folks, these ain’t the Appalachians)! And while on the subject of deserts, how about when Sam and co. are teleported (!) into the middle of an Egyptian desert and Sam breaks his hand only to have Mikaela magically produce medical gauze with which to wrap it. The girl sure knows to plan ahead in the case of unexpected teleportation to Egypt!
So while Bay flexes his self-awareness on the one hand TRANSFORMERS: ROTF also exudes a degree of filmmaking incompetence/weirdness on the other. In a not-so-and-yet-very important scene, the aesthetics of bad-movie as self-aware movie are combined in a cameo by Deep Roy, perhaps now most famous for his depiction of the Oompa Loompas in Tim Burton’s CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY (2005). Roy, standing 4’4” tall, plays an Egyptian guard who briefly interrupts the progress of our heroes on their quest to stop the Decepticons. He eventually lets the heroes continue once they inform him they are from New York at which point he exclaims that he loves New York and gives them helpful directions. John Turturro’s character then begins wagging his finger at Roy and muses “I know I know you from somewhere…” and the scene ends.
Unlike Ed Wood, Bay has all the money in the world to make his films. Yet the eternal criticism leveled against him is that for all his technical prowess and gadgetry he utterly fails at telling a logical, personal story just like the worst directors of cinematic yore. So is Bay just an idiot? A robot as out of touch with human drama as his Transformer protagonists? Or is he really an auteur creating a product wholly his own out of the scraps of junk cinema?
Question: Is it kitsch? In his attempt to define kitsch in Kitsch and Art (Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996) Tomas Kulka writes: kitsch is “charged with stock emotions that spontaneously trigger and unreflective emotional response” (26). And further, “The aim of kitsch is not to create new needs or expectations, but to satisfy existing ones. Kitsch thus does not work on individual idiosyncrasies” (27). At the same, though, Kulka writes “… this accounts for the ultra-conservative and stylistically reactionary nature of kitsch” (33). Conservative though Bay’s films may be, stylistically they are at least somewhat innovative—but only to the point where Bay starts repeating his own cinematic style ad nauseum. See below…
Synthesis: Bay Dreams; all that ever met the eye.
To answer these questions I turn to the final battle of TRANSFORMERS: REVENGE OF THE FALLEN. The battle is many things: an explosive, animated set piece, a surrealist juxtaposition of the film’s “themes,” and also the most important artifact of Michael Bay’s cinematic legacy.
In the Valley of the Kings two races of Titan-like robots wage battle while under their “feet” scurry U.S. Armed Forces. The pyramids are being ripped asunder while John Turturro radios in to the nearby U.S. Navy to fire its top-secret “rail gun” weapon (the film gives no further details). Nearby, Mudflap and Skids battle a giant Decepticon whose central attack seems to be inhale everything sight. Sam and Mikaela make their way to the heart of the battle. Sam is carrying a gym sock filled with metal dust which he intends to use (even he does not know how) to resurrect the fallen super-Autobot, Optimus Prime. Optimus’ body has been airdropped into the middle of the battle as well. As Sam and Mikaela arrive on scene none other than Sam’s parents are teleported to the location. A cat-like Decepticon has its “spine” ripped out. Sam’s dad tells Sam to run and hide. Sam says, “I have to go, Dad.” Sam runs across the battlefield, gym sock in hand, to resurrect his fallen hero. He gets blown up. His family and girlfriend surround his lifeless body. The operating commander of the U.S. military gives him CPR. Mikaela tells Sam she loves him. (While we’re on the subject, let me just throw out the eery similarity between the names Mikaela Banes and Michael Bay). And then, then, we are transported inside Sam’s mind (?) to Heaven except that Heaven is ruled by Autobot-angels. The angels inform Sam that he it is his destiny to bring Optimus Prime back to life. The gym sock of pixie dust then bring Sam and Optimus back to life. Optimus defeats the Decepticons. Sam declares his love for Mikaela.
This final sequence, and you’ll have to forgive me as this recounting is from memory, is the perfect call to arms for a psychoanalytic reading. Psychoanalysis is no stranger to film studies. Historically, the field has been used to study either the ways films make meaning of the subconscious (see studies on PSYCHO ) or the ways in which films subconsciously make meaning. Usually, in the latter approach a single shot or character choice might be analyzed (like a character’s decision to remove her glasses), but rarely is a sequence of film approached as if it were an encapsulated “dream.”
This is partly because analyzing an extended piece of film as a dream doesn’t make much sense. In a sequence as long as the final battle of TRANSFORMERS: ROTF, it would be hard to argue that a single id was being manifested on screen. For one thing, while Bay may have made the final decisions as to what appears on screen, the final battle was written, presumably, by Ehren Kruger, Robert Orci, and Alex Kurtzman. The more outlandish content—the gym sock, the Pyramids, the parents, the Transformer-Heaven—are as much their creations as they are Bay’s.
So perhaps to call this final scene the most important artifact of Michael Bay is not entirely accurate. More accurately—and more frighteningly, depending on your point of view—this last battle is the greatest artifact of Bayness. Earlier in this article I noted that in his depiction of race Bay doesn’t actually depict black men in the characters of Mudflap and Skids. Rather he depicts stereotypical markers of blackness, allowing those stereotypes to transcend their historical points of origin. The same effect, I believe, has taken place with Michael Bay himself.
Few working directors have created such a cohesive sense of style and content throughout their films as Michael Bay. Off the top of my head I might nominate Martin Scorcese (crime drama), Quentin Tarantino (genericity), Joel and Ethan Coen (nihilistic comedy), and Andy and Larry Wachowski (futurist dystopia) as other directors who, from only snippets of their films, might be as readily identifiable. Ultimately even these directors are not as consistent at creating a product/work-of-art as consistently identifiable as Michael Bay.
Michael Bay is Hollywood’s one and only true, contemporary auteur.
He has achieved this by an unwavering commitment to what he has done before. Since his big screen debut, BAD BOYS (1995), Michael Bay has never produced a feature film without explosions, chase sequences, beautiful women (THE ROCK  might be the notable exception as the Bay film in which the female body is least scrutinized—even ARMAGGEDON  had the infamous Liv Tyler animal crackers scene), and helicopters (okay, so PEARL HARBOR  gets a pass on this one, but I bet you there were plenty of scenes shot from a helicopter!). Likewise, Bay has never made a feature film without frenetic zooms and cuts, slow motion tracking shots, whirling/panning establish shots… You know the drill. Of course you do, and that’s the point.
So recognizable is Bay’s auteurship, so dominant is his aesthetic, that it incorporates, like that giant vacuum Decepticon, all content into the Michael Bay form. Consider, briefly, PEARL HARBOR. The film was met with some outrage by the historically-minded who balked at the artistic license Bay took with the Japanese attack. One of the accusations leveled against the film was that it neglected the actual history of the sacrifice of military servicemen in exchange for special effects and a trite love story between Ben Affleck, Josh Hartnett, and Kate Beckinsale. Contrast that to, say, James Cameron’s TITANIC (1997). The film also centered on a fictional love story and dedicated its entire second act to the spectacular destruction of the Titanic. Two historical events rendered melodramatically; one was almost universally panned by critics, the other won eleven Oscars.
There are palpable differences between the two films (though it be damning with faint praise, James Cameron does have a better grasp of the dynamics between “real” people than Michael Bay), but ultimately I believe that PEARL HARBOR is the film which revealed that Michael Bay was not producing movies, he was producing Michael Bay in film form. Because PEARL HARBOR’s content was ostensibly “real,” the fact it was treated so unrealistically (Hyper-realistically? Surrealistically? Bay-realistically?) highlighted that Bay’s only interest was reproducing his own aesthetic. The content would always be subject to the aesthetic, which might as well be synonymous with Bay himself who, like the “black male” robot, does not really exist in his films, but whose constructed, artificial essence nevertheless pervades it.
So as to TRANSFORMER: ROTF’s final battle, I would suggest that to psychoanalyze it as a dream would not be to psychoanalyze Bay, but rather the artificial, unreal Bay aesthetic. Dreams, after all, in the traditional Freudian sense, are not the same thing as the unconscious. Rather, they are the expression or translation (dare I risk it, transformation) of the id through the flotsam of language into a text which can be “read” by the conscious. The subconscious, by its very nature, can never be known, spoken of, or depicted. Nor can Michael Bay be known through the language of his films, nor can Megan Fox be known through the language of stereotypical sexual symbols, or Barack Obama through the language of stereotypical blackness.
For many film critics, this is stating the obvious, but it is also what makes Bay’s auteurship so paradoxically unique. He is an auteur without individuality. He exists as auteur only because he has sounded the same aesthetic note over and over again to the point that in rings in one’s ear like an exploding bombshell. Michael Bay exists as auteur because he has created only stereotypical Bayness—to the point where it is not stereotypical at all, merely typical.
So there is work to be done on that final battle in TRANSFORMERS: ROTF. What does the fall and resurrection of Optimus Prime mean? Early in the film, a character ponders of the Transformers: “If God made us [man] in his image, who made them?” The question is dubiously answered when Sam briefly visits a heaven filled with Transformer “gods.” Why are Sam’s parents in the middle of the desert? Why, of all the wonders of the world, destroy the Pyramids? What does the gym sock represent? Why must Megan Fox always and only be a sex symbol? Barack Obama always and only a black man? And most inscrutably of all, what does any of this tell us about Michael Bay?
Again, I'll leave that work to others, but I have a hunch as to the answer…
Everything and nothing.