Sax von Stroheim writes:
One of the lazier ideas that currently holds sway among folks who consider themselves to be film cognescenti is that Michael Bay is simply the worst director ever. I’d argue that while he’s no genius, he has made quite a few entertaining blockbusters over the years (Bad Boys, The Rock, the first Transformers movie), a flat-out masterpiece (the dumb-ass criminals on steroids movie (Pain & Gain), and a nutty, personal sci-fi film maudit (The Island). And, of course, he did make at least one movie that really is as bad as his detractors would have it (Pearl Harbor).
His newest movie, Transformers: Age of Extinction falls somewhere between “entertaining blockbuster” and “nutty, personal sci-fi film maudit”, although as it was a big commercial smash, it can’t have been very maudit. It’s big, loud, and goofy. Like the rest of the Transformers movies, it’s unevenly paced (the middle section goes on too long), but unlike the last two installments, it has a point-of-view that’s close to Joe Dante’s style of low satire – albeit Joe Dante-style satire on steroids: dumber and louder than in Joe’s movies, though still managing solid hits on deserving targets (i.e., the dronification of the U.S. military, the dangers of unrestrained libertarianism). It’s also a lament over the death of analog (film-not-video, machines-not-programs, people-not-drones) culture: a blockbuster movie about the obsolescence of blockbuster movies. (The movie practically opens in a decaying movie theater that Our Hero, an inventor, is picking over, looking for parts for his inventions. And it actually opens with the extinction of the dinosaurs).
It’s also an improvement over the last two installments in that it has replaced Shia LaBouef, and his child-actor’s, always-on mania, with Mark Wahlberg, by default, Our Greatest Male Movie Star.
Filmmaking at this scale, especially this kind of fx-driven filmmaking at this scale, must be kind of crushing to the creative spirit. What separates Michael Bay from the other big blockbuster guys is that at their best, they get everyone to show up in the right place. Bay, though, is also a great image-maker. And it’s those images, and his seeming delight in coming up with them, that drives his best movies. (Here, I especially liked the side-of-a-Hong Kong apartment building chase: it more than one-ups the top-of-a-building chase from the third Bourne movie).
The reflexive dislike of Michael Bay has more to do with a political stance against this type of movie than anything else. That is, I’m not sure why it’s so silly to take Michael Bay seriously and not just as silly to take, say, J.J. Abrams seriously.
Snowpiercer, on the other hand, is a nutty sci-fi movie that critics are taking seriously. It’s the first film in English by Bong Joon-ho, the Korean filmmaker who made the monster movie The Host. The intent of the movie seems to be to cross a phantasmagoric allegorical Terry Gilliam sci-fi film with a video-game inspired sci-fi Paul W.S. Anderson actioner, but the sci-fi allegory here is boneheaded and tone-deaf. It’s another movie that tries to play up the conflict between the 99% and 1%, but its insights seem limited to the same kind of platitudes we’ve been hearing for years.
It’s one of those movies that, while watching it, all I could think about were other, similar-but-better movies that I’d rather be watching, like Brazil or Resident Evil: Retribution. Even the part I liked the best, a well-choreographed fight scene in a sauna, reminded me of the fight in the baths in David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises and thinking of that movie reminded me of Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis, a better takedown of “the 1%” which also features a character on a linear journey through a sci-fi allegory.