Transformers 1

Michael Bay’s Transformers movies are incoherent. That is not a controversial claim; I doubt many would argue otherwise. Yet two questions remain: How do they achieve their incoherency? And is that incoherency of any value? In this article, I will try to answer both questions.

Before I begin, though, I should address one objection. No doubt some readers will think this analysis unnecessary, even ill-founded. I can already hear the following comments being typed below: “Bay’s Transformers movies are stupid and not really even films”; “You’re just over-thinking things”; “You’re putting more thought into his movies than he himself does.” These potential objections—which are commonly applied to “dumb summer blockbusters”—are at heart arguments meant to forestall critical consideration, and imply that popular filmmaking is devoid of craft. This article is a refutation of those assumptions.

I. Why Are Michael Bay’s Transformers Films Incoherent?

Perhaps the most common complaint about Michael Bay’s Transformers films is that they are rapidly cut, a complaint commonly applied to other contemporary Hollywood movies, as well. It’s certainly true that today’s movies are more rapidly cut than the films made a generation ago—see Barry Salt’s Film Style and Technology for more on this topic, as well as this graph:

See also this video essay, where Matthias Stork documents the rise of what he calls "chaos cinema."

But since everyone is cutting more rapidly these days, can rapid cutting explaing Bay’s Beyhem? After all, the films of Edgar Wright are, if anything, more rapidly cut than Bay’s, but are nowhere near as disorienting as the Transformers quadrilogy.

Another problem with looking solely at editing speed is that it doesn’t distinguish between different types of cuts—the different uses to which cutting can be applied. For instance, it doesn’t distinguish between cuts that occur within scenes (intra-scene cuts) and cuts between scenes. Nor does it distinguish between crosscutting (when the film cuts between two simultaneous scenes), elision (when a cut is used to omit an action or the passage of time), jump cuts (when a shot cuts to a similar version of itself), cuts between different angles or perspectives, cuts to close-ups or long shots, or cuts to insert shots.

In order to understand why Michael Bay’s Transformers films give people headaches, we need to look more closely at what’s actually happening in the shots themselves, as well as how he’s cutting between them.

Take, for instance, the first six minutes or so of the second film, Revenge of the Fallen (2009). I analyzed the first 380 seconds, in which a military strike team and some Autobots assault a Decepticon. We get 133 shots, yielding an Average Shot Length (ASL) of just under three seconds (2.9). This is very rapid cutting. And in reality, the cutting is even faster, since one shot is twenty-nine seconds long. (Taking that out yields a revised ASL of 2.7.)

What the ASL doesn’t tell us, however, is that this opening sequence also features no fewer than twenty-six scenes. In other words, the scenes last, on average, just under fifteen seconds each.

We begin in the Stone Age, in 17,000 B.C., as some early human hunters come across alien robots. (Already this summary sounds like self-parody, but we really do begin there: a title tells us so.) After eighty-five seconds of watching Transformers assault cavemen , we cut (via the main title) to Shanghai, China, “22:14 HRS – TODAY,” where some kind of industrial accident seems to be underway. We mostly see people being evacuated by the police. That lasts nineteen seconds. We then cut to an interior—“PENTAGON – NEST COMMAND”—where for twenty seconds we watch military personnel watching the situation in Shanghai (on screens, just like us). We then cut to thirteen seconds of an ice-cream truck ambling about somewhere in China (it passes under a bright neon sign in Chinese) and making threatening announcements. And so on.

Yes, these scenes are rapidly cut (the ASL of the first 143 seconds is 3.8). But consider what else is happening besides mere cutting. In these opening minutes, we’ve been treated to scenes set on three different continents, occurring across two millennia. In the present day alone, there have so far been four separate locations (the factory, a nearby city, the NEST base, and wherever the ice-cream truck is—it’s presumably near the factory, but it doesn’t look the same). There have also been dozens of actors. And in the next few minutes, rather than focusing on any of those locations or actors, the film will introduce yet more characters—the NEST strike team, Sideswipe, other Transformers, Decepticons—and stage action across yet more locations. (As it turns out, the toxic spill is a cover so a secret US military strike team can attack a hiding Decepticon. How the U.S. military has gotten permission to carry out raids on Chinese soil is left unexplained.)

This style is consistent across Michael Bay’s work. Bay is rarely content to allow one storyline to play out with interruptions. Instead, his preferred method is to keep scenes short, and to cut between simultaneous actions, which are usually taking place in wildly different locales. His most recent Transformers film, Age of Extinction, recalls Revenge of the Fallen in that it presents, in short succession, an opening prehistoric sequence (this time featuring dinosaurs), then contemporary action set in the Arctic, Texas, a derelict cruise ship, and a secret CIA headquarters. We are thus rapidly introduced to numerous characters (whose precise relationships with each other are sketchy at best). Their scenes rarely play out to completion. Instead, Bay starts the scenes only to interrupt them, cutting elsewhere, then cutting elsewhere. The helpful titles that appear onscreen, informing us about new locations (“THE ARCTIC”), are so cursory they might as well not exist. (One doesn’t need a title to distinguish “THE ARCTIC” from “TEXAS”—but these titles do announce that a new scene is starting, a fact that might otherwise be unclear.)

Compounding this interruptive storytelling further is Bay’s tendency to include multiple scenarios in the same scene. In Age of Extinction, we get an early scene where Mark Wahlberg’s conflict with his teenage daughter is repeatedly interrupted by his assistant’s jokey attempts to get a robot butler to deliver him a beer. A more sincere moment is thus juxtaposed with more absurd humor. Similarly, the fight scene at the opening of Revenge of the Fallen is occasionally interrupted by the comical antics of the two Autobots comprising the ice-cream truck, Mudflap and Skids.

It would be easy to describe Bay here as a frantic, hyperkinetic man-child with ADHD, and leave it at that. But if we take these films seriously, and consider Bay’s direction intentional—or “up to something”—then we have our first insight into his aesthetic. He prizes juxtaposition, and his goal is to disorient the audience, unable to tell where the action will jump to next, or whether it will be dramatic or comical. The narrative, then, remains lurching, unpredictable. All we can say with confidence is that whatever comes next, it will most likely be dramatically different than what we’ve already seen. Bay’s cinema is one of constant difference.