The only Michael Bay movie that ever really registered with me as a kid was 2005’s The Island. My dad loved Bad Boys and The Rock and I got a kick out of Armageddon and a couple Transformers but The Island was the one I rewatched and still do. It’s a TNT movie, meaning it’s a movie on at odd times of the day and you’re glad to have a reason to stop switching channels. Or at least, it was when I was growing up. It’s been a minute since I’ve had cable.
Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johannson star as survivors living in what they’ve been led to believe is one of few habitable colonies of civilization left, a shining tower full of men and women who wear Puma-branded tracksuits, drink Aquafina water, play nextgen virtual reality XBox games, and never question where any of these products manage to come from in a post-apocalyptic world. Everyone in this final bastion of human hope awaits their chance to win “the lottery,” a contest that lets one lucky member of the community go to the Island, the last uncontaminated bit of land on Earth. McGregor’s character, Lincoln Six-Echo, thinks all of this is bullshit, his childlike curiosity often curdling into adolescent outrage when certain aspects of his life, like who cleans his clothes or decides if he can’t eat bacon, don’t add up. Eventually, he breaks out of the compound after realizing the true nature of the facility: everyone there, apart from the guards and Sean Bean, is a clone of a wealthy donor who needs a replacement body part. So, like Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, except less sad and sweatier (also, if you can believe it, both this movie and Ishiguro’s book came out the same year).
The Island is as close to a movie of ideas as Bay has ever come. Some will argue that 2013’s Pain & Gain has ideas, but it’s merely the closest Bay has ever come to making a movie about actual people (that includes Pearl Harbor). For Bay, even Pain & Gain seems more like a formal exercise than a project motivated by genuine curiosity. Meanwhile, all of the hallmarks of his filmography up to The Island, to say nothing of the steroidal overkill that would come later — excessive product placement, horny jingoism, sexist sex jokes, hot dumb women, mild racism, huge explosions, government conspiracy, capitalism, more huge explosions — make a kind of narrative sense.
The corporation that runs the cloning program, along with the actual donors themselves, is painted as a bunch of blowhards who are afraid to get their hands dirty, a character designation Bay usually reserves for annoying teachers, government bureaucrats, and weak men. Because the clones are physically “born” as adults, they’re incapable of the kind of complexity actual adults possess, which allows Bay’s teen boy tendencies to mesh well with a commentary (or what passes for it in a Bay movie) on both what it means to be human and the childishness of various aspects of everyday life. Steve Buscemi gets a hilarious scene where he has to explain and justify the concept of money, as well as his character’s own flimsy form of misogyny.
As a science-fiction thriller, The Island is middling, though still entertaining, and made all the more so by Bay’s ludicrous sense of visual composition. The camera never stops moving, everything is saturated to hell, and somehow it all looks zoomed in no matter how wide the shot is. But we’re grading on a curve here. It might be more accurate to say that the concept of The Island was given to Bay to direct and through some production miracle, most of the interesting ideas, which would be table scraps for any mediocre anime, were left intact.
Of course, no one goes to a Michael Bay movie for the ideas, but his work does represent something. His obsessions are, perhaps more so than any other director, always fully on display, with giant neon signs pointing to them. He has never seemed to be apologetic about what he thinks is important: masculine valor and hot chicks. In Bay’s early work, his worst impulses are a little easier to ignore. He seems to be cognizant of the dumb fun he’s supplying, ridiculous stakes complemented by ridiculous action and acting that is adequate to the task. The rah-rah fervor of the mid-late ‘90s feels harmless compared to whatever the hell is going on in the later Transformers movies. For Bay, it’s always been as simple as “is this awesome or not?” It’s just that “awesome” to him means blowing shit up, which, fair enough.
Oddly enough, this resolute unwillingness to be anything other than what he is has ended up serving Bay well. His movies stay the same, while all the other ones get worse . In a media landscape full of visually stale, aesthetically tame drivel, Bay’s films stand out because they are both sonically and thematically cacophonous. It’s harder and harder to come by competently-made mass market films that feel like they have any sense of personality. The two-and-a-half minutes I glimpsed from the Ambulance trailer were some of the most interesting (though not necessarily good) shots I’ve seen in a long time. A drone shot flying down the side of a building and down onto the street. An insanely high angle track of Jake Gyllenhaal walking inside a bank. I’m not better than Bay’s movies, but that sentiment feels crazy to say. The guy who got pissed about a Guinness World Record from 20 years ago, who restarted a screening of his own movie so he could watch it (the same screening where he apparently forgot the producer’s name), who walked offstage during a presentation when the teleprompter stopped. I am looking forward to watching this guy’s new movie.
It is all a bit odd though, this reconfiguration of the things that we all used to agree were pretty bad. The villains of the past have become weirdly heroic because the alternatives are so much worse. Barnes & Noble and Borders used to be the business that was single-handedly ruining books. Now, with Amazon guzzling every last good thing out there including books, everyone misses Borders. Bay used to be the man single-handedly ruining cinema. Now, with the everlasting MCU, everyone’s excited to have him back. The most American director still working, whose macho obsessions with the worst aspects of sports, success, grandeur, and material excess have fueled every movie he’s ever made, from his 1993 Got Milk? commercial to 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, seems like one of the rare bastions of decent popcorn cinema left. It’s indicative of a low bar, a timely reevaluation, or the fact that, deep down, Bay’s antics are, in the right place and time, exactly what people want to see.
Nicholas Russell is a writer from Las Vegas. His work has been featured in The Believer, Defector, Reverse Shot, Vulture, The Guardian, NPR Music, and The Point, among other publications.