Maybe the most distinctive quality of Michael Bay’s screeching, explosive, jostling film style — one that has changed over the years only in accordance with the size of his budget — is that they don’t actually play that well on the big screen. Sure, they garner added force from the dark theater and the surround sound. But the pummel-you-into-submission aspect, the way the noise and editing and digital overdrive shatter any sense of aural or spatial continuity, is only exacerbated at the movies. On the big screen there’s no place to hide.
Take The Rock (1996), Bay’s inversion of the “escape from Alcatraz” model, in which Nic Cage and Sean Connery infiltrate the island prison to combat domestic terrorists threatening San Francisco with nerve gas. It’s a film I’m always delighted to find on cable. Because it’s so reliant on the geography of secret passageways and escape hatches, Bay limits his cutting to what’s necessary. Volume turned down a notch, it becomes a great cat-and-mouse game, heavy on suspense yet wryly written. Sneaking around to avoid detection, contained in small, dim spaces, Cage and Connery achieve a tense quiet, without trickery or forced technique.
The Rock, despite some silliness about the “real” killer of JFK and a villain straight out of every 80s action flick, is Bay’s best work. Yet even those movies that mistake seizures and panic attacks for thrills and chills, like the two Transformers sequels, make a better impression on the small screen. Unless you have a fancy stereo system, the sound is muffled, and thereby less destructive of brain cells and eardrums. The very fabric of the televisual experience, with happenings beyond the frame that can pull you out of the movie, mitigates the feeling that the Transformers films are composed largely of jumbled visual and narrative information. I still don’t get Transformers. I’m not quite sure what they are, or why they’re here, or what they have to do with Shia LaBoeuf, and that’s after more than seven hours of storytelling. But on a plush couch with periodic naps, I can survive them.
I can’t say the same about Pearl Harbor, the exception that proves the rule. The purpose of the film, I suspect, is Bay’s self-conscious Spielberg moment, an interminable take on the 1941 attack that has none of the raw emotion and pure fear of the virtuosic opening to Saving Private Ryan. Pearl Harbor devotes about as much time, however, to the saccharine Ben Affleck - Josh Hartnett - Kate Beckinsale love triangle, which as both narrative convention and character arc is a sorry excuse for romance. Watching Pearl Harbor, I was reminded that television and a hangover can hide a general lack of taste that seems glaring on the big screen. As for Bay telling a good love story? I may have to start drinking again to make that one fly.
[Transformers: Dark of the Moon photo and trailer courtesy DreamWorks; Pearl Harbor photo and trailer courtesy Touchstone Pictures; The Rock trailer via ThomThomson/YouTube.]