It is no exaggeration to say that the Transformers franchise has occasioned the fiercest disparagements of Michael Bay’s audio-visual style. The films are viewed by many as the apotheosis of the director’s much remarked hyperkinetic aesthetic, as tanks, trucks, muscle cars, motorbikes, helicopters, ‘Stealth’ fighters and mechanical aliens chase down highways and soar through the air, filmed by a frenetically mobile camera in a plethora of shot scales and angles edited together at a fast pace (1). While the films’ leveraging of an existing property (the Hasbro toy range of ‘robots in disguise’ and the comic books, television cartoon series and movies it generated) prompted some of this cynical comment, critics’ derision predominantly focuses on the unwarranted duration of the films’ action sequences and their attendant sensory surfeit which, even for relatively accommodating reviewers, produce allegations of incoherence or discontinuity. Phillip French, for example, complains that Transformers (2007) ‘goes on and on’ and is ‘unbearably loud’ (2), A.O. Scott bemoans the ‘symphonies of excess and redundancy… purged of nuance’ in Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011) (3), and Peter Keough tartly suggests that Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014) is ‘the cinematic equivalent of being tied in a bag and beaten by pipes’ (4), while even more positive reviewers like Jay Weissberg admit that the action sequences ‘become just a mess of flying wreckage and random explosions’ (5). Yet this critical opprobrium appears at odds with ticket sales: in box office terms the Transformers films have become the most successful of Bay’s directorial output, with every chapter in the franchise so far (four at the time of writing, with the fifth slated for 2016) managing a top-three spot amongst the highest grossing summer tent pole movies in its year of release (6).
In fact the Transformers films’ elongated action sequences are not particularly out of step with those of other recent action-fantasy blockbusters that depend for their spectacle on computer generated images (CGI). In the long, kinetic action sequences of franchises like The Amazing Spider-Man (2012, 2014), Iron Man (2008, 2010, 2013), The Avengers (2012) and the Transformers films (2007, 2009, 2011, 2014), the extension of movement, not just across space but also across extended duration, frequently exceeds the traditional conventions of continuity editing, a trend noted by Sean Cubitt (7) and critiqued by commentators like David Bordwell, for whom it results in ‘overbusy, incoherent, inconsequential action’ (8), and Jim Emerson, for whom it generates ‘sensation without orientation’ (9). While not a completely new phenomenon (critics had begun to notice action sequences ‘consciously, even joyously, sacrificing clarity’ back in the 1990s (10), this extending and exceeding is intensified by the affordances of digital visual effects, which provide virtual cameras unfettered by a human camera operator, gravity or the temporal constraints of time-limited storage media, and the capacity to realise a quantitative proliferation of physics-defying twists and turns over extended durations that would be impossible to achieve on a routine basis in non-digital film production.
What interests me in this article is the frequency with which the frenetic movement in these extended action sequences resolves into figures of rotation that are acted out repeatedly by bodies and cameras. One thinks, for example, of the common sight of two antagonists locked in a rolling or spinning movement as each fights for supremacy, such as Doc Ock and Spider-Man’s tumbling battle across buildings and a moving train in Spider-Man 2 (Sam Raimi, 2004) or Agent Smith and Neo’s spiralling city-wide battle in The Matrix Revolutions (Wachowski Brothers, 2003), the preponderance in many films of martial arts moves that obtain their force from momentum generated by torque, and the spiralling of airborne opponents in various parts of the ‘Battle of New York’ sequence in The Avengers (Joss Whedon, 2012)). We also see this trope of rotation manifest in the digitally produced virtual camera, whose intense, dynamic mobility frequently constructs the object of interest as a pivot around which it circles, resulting in a figure of rotation enacted by the camera — around a frequently rotating body or bodies — that has proliferated from its iconic iterations in The Matrix (1999) into a wide range of action-fantasy fare, such as the Lord of the Rings (2001, 2002, 2003) and Hobbit (2012, 2013, 2014) movies, various super-hero franchises, or moments of intense spectacle within individual films, from Swordfish (Dominic Sena, 2001) and King Kong (Peter Jackson, 2005) to Oblivion (Joseph Kosinski, 2013) and Edge of Tomorrow (Doug Liman, 2014). Indeed Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity (2014) would appear to be a particular peak in this trend, visually fascinated as it is with bodies endlessly tumbling through space, and with using a spinning, tumbling camera to attempt to replicate in the spectator the characters’ resulting disorientation.
Since the technical affordances of digital visual effects do not in themselves determine the specific shape that action or movement takes in these sequences, how might we understand the prevalence of this visual preoccupation with rotation in recent popular cinema? Following Erkki Huhtamo, we can categorise rotation as a ‘commonplace’ or ‘topos’, that is, a motif that circulates in media culture that can be analysed in terms of its cultural valence, its media-cultural histories, and in the ways it might illuminate the context in which it is embedded (11). In order to understand why rotation emerges as a cinematic ‘commonplace’ now, at this cultural moment, we need to look at how the trope of rotation speaks both to material histories of rotational motion and the cultural ideas that cluster around them, and to a current digital media culture in which ‘[c]omputing and media merge’ (12). To fully understand why it emerges specifically within the contemporary action sequence, we must also assess how the trope helps to express or modulate the narrative and thematic project of these sequences. In other words, in what ways might rotation be, following Kristen Whissel (13), emblematic of narrative concerns, character aspirations or larger cultural preoccupations in such scenes? Using the Transformers films as an indicative case study, this essay will historicise and contextualise the trope of rotation, and examine its cultural force and its connotative and thematic utility within the contemporary action sequence — to understand why, in French’s rather disparaging formulation, such sequences do go ‘on and on’ spinning.
Before we even set eyes on a transforming robot, the first Transformers film begins with a metallic cube rotating, slowly, in deep space. First only the microscopic detail of its unevenly grooved surfaces is available to a camera that tracks speedily backward, bringing more and more of the object into frame as a booming voice-over explains that this mysterious cube existed ‘before time began’ and (in a neat analogy for the contemporary capacities of CGI), has the power to ‘create worlds and fill them with life.’ When the whole of the giant structure is in view — its spin now shifting as if either it or the camera has tilted on its axis — the camera reverses direction, tracking forward to follow the cube’s receding form, catching its collision with an asteroid field that knocks it into a leftward spiral that threatens to take it beyond the confines of the frame altogether. All at once the camera seems to jolt itself into a similar spiral, joining the cube in a tumbling trajectory towards an Earth that, just at that moment, enters the frame. On a pragmatic level, this opening sequence functions to lay out the narrative set-up: the image of the cube locked in an endless intergalactic spin complements the voice-over’s tale that it was lost to space during a war between robot brethren that also destroyed the robot home world, prompting a lengthy search that eventually leads to Earth (and the events of the film). But it also establishes a figure of regulated rotation through space that will recur persistently throughout the franchise.
In its uniform rotation (to be expected in the frictionless environment of deep space, but subsequently repeated in the robot and vehicle rotations that populate the franchise), and its metallic surfaces (which call up the sharp lines of machined objects, the first of many we will see across the Transformers films), the cube evokes the materiality of modern machine movement, from the regulated, repeated movements of automated or computer controlled machinery, to the spooling of a celluloid projector or the spin of a disk drive, and the familiar sights and sounds of contemporary robotics, from the automated robotic arms of the modern car production line, to the frequently exposed mechanical architectures of the latest ‘intelligent robots,’ such as NASA’s planetary rovers or MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory’s robotic head, Kismet (14).But the cube’s movement and appearance also evoke material histories of automated machine movement, such as the visible piston-driven wheels and turbines of the steam- or water-powered machines of the Industrial Revolution, the regulated rotations of the clockwork movement that could be inspected in timepieces from seventeenth-century pendulum clocks to twentieth-century pocket- and wristwatches, and the hidden or partially obscured clockwork mechanisms which simulated animal or human movement in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century automata like Jacques de Vaucanson’s Digesting Duck (1738) or Henri Maillardet’s Juvenile Artist (1807). All these examples have a shared basis in mechanical rotation (cogwheels, balance wheels, turbines) that finds its echoes in the spinning wheels, rotary guns, grenade launcher barrels, robots and vehicles that populate the Transformers film world, and in the gears, wheels and pistons (and the metallic whirring, clicking and hydraulic sounds that accompany them) that are in evidence in every robot interaction or vehicle-to-robot transformation across the franchise.
They also share a ‘rhetoric of the technological sublime’ (15) in which technology ‘constitutes a new ground for human definition and for our obsession with infinite power and possibility’ (16). All these rotation-based machines are connected by their provision of what Giuliana Bruno calls spectacles of ‘infinite movement,’ articulating a fantasy of ‘superseding corporeal limits’ that is crucially founded upon the idea of endless energy production (17). In other words, machine-driven rotation becomes culturally associated with compelling notions of power and progress. For example, Barbara Maria Stafford has pointed out the importance of notions of energy and energy production in the cultural reception of clock-work automata and other cog-driven machines: she notes that automata were, significantly, self-propelled, and as such exemplified ‘the Enlightenment ethos of unlimited progress’ in which ‘[s]heer record-breaking energy became a virtue’ (18). Claudia Springer has suggested that similar ideas shaped the mechanisms and erotics of Industrial Revolution-era rotational machinery (19), while Leo Marx traces the ‘rhetoric of the technological sublime’ through Transcendentalist literature, noting for example that Ralph Waldo Emerson ‘repeatedly draws upon the facts of technological progress to illustrate his exultant sense of human possibilities… of man’s power to impose his will upon the world’ (20). And Fredric Jameson reminds us of the ‘excitement of machinery in the moment of capital preceding our own, the exhilaration of futurism, most notably, and of Marinetti’s celebration of the machine gun and the motorcar’ (21). The many cultural texts that this material history of movement and energy production produce, from the eighteenth century on in nautical cartography, hydraulic exhibitions, moving panoramas, and cinema itself, a tradition of ‘mechanically produced flow of images’ that Bruno suggests constructs a ‘fluid, haptic geography’ of shifting viewpoints (22). Where Bruno proposes a ‘fluvial’ aesthetic, that emerged as locomotion became more achievable, more visible, and more simulatable, and which sought to explore the ‘locomotive capacity of the body and its kinaesthetic perception’ (23), I want to suggest a rotational aesthetic that offers similar opportunities to explore the capacities for movement in our digital culture.
Fantasies of power and of exceeding physical limits have always been integral to the drama of the action sequence, but they find a particularly intense manifestation in the infinite machine movement suggested by recent action-fantasy films’ soaring and circling bodies and cameras. The cube’s perpetual motion and the ubiquitous trope of rotation it exemplifies thus connects films like the Transformers franchise to a history of machine movement (in Jameson’s periodisation, ‘generations of machine power’ or of ‘technological revolution’ (24) rooted in an aspiration towards infinite motion, the energy production that could make it possible, and the power it might therefore convey. That action-fantasy cinema has become preoccupied with this form of movement now may speak not just to rotation’s long and culturally loaded material history, but also to the intensity with which the aspiration to achieve infinite motion is felt in a contemporary age of increasing energy consumption and increasing anxiety about energy security, including the truculent endgame of fossil fuels, and the struggle to secure alternative forms of power.
In the face of cultural anxieties about technological progress and contemporary energy crises that are often expressed in terms of speed or acceleration (25) — ‘can we keep pace with such changes?’ commentators frequently ask — it is clear that the trope of rotation as a signifier of power might have an important compensatory function. In the Transformers films, as in several other current franchises, figures of rotation are rooted in the physics of power generation built through torque and momentum, and in the linking of propulsion with spatial reach and its consequences, that is, the spatial penetration achieved by cars across landscapes, bullets across distances, bodies across space, and so on. Indeed, the Transformers franchise operates as a highly elaborated exemplar of this compensatory connotative nexus. Its enthusiastic celebration of the automobile and the vehicular robot repeatedly connect propulsion and spatial reach with power in an enthusiastic display of an array of machine rotations. This vast array encompasses not only the spinning wheels of racing cars and muscle cars and giant trailer trucks, but militarised forms of propulsion, from the revolving barrels of the alien robots’ arm-mounted rotary guns and grenade- or rocket-launchers, to the propeller-spinning military helicopters, fighter planes and air transport and assault vehicles deployed by both robots and humans, a combination that prompts Manohla Dargis to designate the Transformers universe as ‘part car commercial, part military recruitment ad’ (26).
In tandem with this generalised compensatory function, propulsion’s logic of rotation and penetration has a particular utility in action-fantasy and in the action sequence specifically, in that it provides a highly apposite visual vocabulary for the expression of power asserted, gained or lost. As a result, the Transformers films are not alone in deploying the trope of rotation to convey the shifts in power between warring characters, as robots and humans alike dive, somersault, shoot and roll in attack, or pitch, spiral or tailspin in defeat (27), resulting in physical impacts or penetrations — of debris, the surrounding built environment, or of opponents’ bodies — that serve to further underscore the power trajectories propulsion traces. Yet the Transformers films also evidence an overdetermination in their figuration of the penetrating power of rotation that is worth examining a little further. Each of the first three films features an antagonistic non-humanoid Decepticon that uses its rotating body as a drill that can effect significant physical destruction. In the first Transformers film this is ‘Skorponok’, a scorpion-shaped robot who tunnels through the Qatar desert to hunt down the soldiers who escaped the Air Force base attack. With a briefly glimpsed rotating ‘engine’ in its chest, rapidly spinning claws that can open out to reveal cannons, and a retractable blade-tipped tail, Skorponok penetrates not just the sand dunes but buildings, walls, and, fatally, the bodies of several soldiers, before burrowing away to evade an airborne military counter-attack. In the second film’s final extended action sequence amid the Egyptian pyramids, the ‘Devastator’ Decepticon robot — which constructs itself out of an excavator, a bulldozer, a dump truck, a scoop loader, and a concrete mixer truck — displays a roaring tiger-like visage mounted on a neck of rotating metallic rings that, when the mouth opens wide enough, generates a magnetic vortex that pulls any surrounding metallic structures into the Devastator’s bladed throat cavity. The third film offers ‘Driller,’ a worm-shaped Decepticon with spinning drill wheel-tipped rotating tentacles who appears early in the Battle of Chicago, erupting from the ground under the wheels of Optimus Prime to upend Prime’s trailer (containing the flight pack that gets him airborne) before boring back into the asphalt. The robot reappears later, tunnelling through an office block from which Sam (Shia Laboeuf), Carly (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley) and Epps (Tyrese Gibson) and his team are preparing to launch a rocket at the portal’s control pillar. When Driller fails to locate the humans, it tries to dislodge them from the building by wrapping itself around the block and constricting, snake-like, to tear the building in two. Driller’s head is in the shape of a large spinning drill bit, at the centre of which is the machine-and-metal equivalent of a ‘mouth’ with revolving ‘teeth.’
The recurrence across the franchise of villainous, tentacled robots whose very shape and motion displays their primary function to destructively penetrate any object, along with the gendered specificity of Driller’s mechanical take on the vagina dentata myth, exemplify the extent to which these non-humanoid Decepticons’ perceived threat is dramatised by figures of rotation rooted in hyperbolic, normatively gendered visions of castration and penetration. The deployment of the trope of rotation in these action sequences visually configures power persistently in terms of an outwardly displayed capacity and desire to penetrate; this is mastery as a (frequently slow motion) ‘screwing’ of the space of action, or of opponents’ bodies. It’s an intensification of the ‘phallocentric bias’ that Scott Bukatman finds at the heart of science fiction’s technological sublime (28); and one that we might, at first glance, dismiss as an expression of the alleged machismo of Bay’s directorial approach, hinted at in his notorious description of his aesthetic as ‘fucking the frame.’ But while these connotations are repeatedly made available through the franchise’s visual elaboration of its narrative action, to understand the rotational aesthetics of the action sequences only in these terms risks perpetuating the essentialising, binary conception of gender that underpins both phrases like ‘fucking the frame’ and the easy designation of visions of penetration — spatial or physical — as masculinist. Equally, in Bukatman’s discussion of science fiction films like Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Steven Spielberg, 1977) that figure the technological sublime in terms of a pronounced ‘spatial probing’ (29), he reminds us that the ‘overdetermined phallocentric thrust’ of these visions ‘should not blind us to the overwhelming need to map ourselves into the anxious spaces of first industrial and now electronic culture,’ which they both reveal and for which they attempt to compensate (30). If we are looking to fully understand the compensatory effects of the trope of rotation, we first need to understand how films like Transformers and its sequels are thinking through the digitally mediated context from which they emerge (31).
Visions of vehicular propulsion register as somewhat anachronistic in what Jussi Parrika has called our ‘codec culture’ (32), where spatial reach is speedily and regularly achieved not with physical locomotion but through proliferating digital communications networks whose underlying algorithms and processes are, to paraphrase Alexander Galloway, fundamentally indeterminate (33). Might the persistent trope of rotation we find in contemporary action-fantasy allow us to ‘map ourselves into the anxious spaces of … electronic culture’ differently? One possibility is that the rotation of objects and the cameras that scrutinise them function to better display — and therefore, visually master — the virtuosity of current digital visual effects technologies, and their realisation of impossible action and fantastically metamorphosing bodies. Certainly the action-fantasy film’s highly mobile camerawork frequently resolves into a rotational figure that seems to seek to capture the action from all sides or angles. Bruce Bennett has associated this intensely mobile virtual camera with an exploratory, scrutinizing, imperialist gaze. ‘Implicit in the mobility of the camera that cranes over, arcs around, and probes the film’s diegetic space is a desire to see more and to observe more intimately,’ he points out (34). In the Transformers films circular pathways around the action are most evident in the transformation sequences that depict the transition of the robots from vehicular to humanoid robot form. But the relationship of the visual articulation of the robot transformations to the probing gaze of the circling camera does not function quite as expected, and reveals something important about the effects of our digital literacy — that is, that we are aware that we are witnessing something that is, wholly or in part, computer generated.
To help us explore this further, let’s examine two relatively typical transformation scenes. Early in Transformers (2007), an unidentified and unresponsive military helicopter has landed at the U.S. Air Force base in Qatar, and has been surrounded by troops ready to fire at will. The camera offers a shifting medium shot of the helicopter as the rotor blades unexpectedly rise and fold themselves away. A wider shot from behind the assembled troops plots a circular track around the helicopter as now the rotor blade axle rises, two bulkheads at the front of the vehicle twist round, and whole sections of the helicopter bulge out, wind in or lose their outer casing to reveal new configurations underneath, accompanied by an expressive range of mechanical sound effects. As the camera pivots round the transformation, the back end of the vehicle moves up and over, coming to rest at the front of the robot; gun turrets push towards the ground to become ‘legs’; and as these new ‘legs’ step backward (soldiers have opened fire by this stage) other sections of the helicopter are rising to form shoulders, perhaps arms. And yet complete visual access is denied, the transformation interrupted by shots of a commander watching from the windows of the command centre (‘My God…’ he exclaims) and then of a soldier firing a heavy machine gun, so that by the time the camera returns to the helicopter location, a slow pan up from the ground reveals a fully (trans)formed robot body shooting back at the cowering soldiers. Later in the sequence the robot (called ‘Blackout’) spawns another, smaller robot (‘Skorponok’) that falls away and burrows into the ground, but once again the detail of the transition is elided, the moment of spawning obscured by sharp black shadows.
The transformation of a villainous Decepticon robot might merit obfuscation for dramatic purposes, for example to lend the character an air of mystery or threat (it certainly seems to motivate the dark shadows in the Air Force base attack scene, for example), but we find a similar level of obfuscation in the presentation of friendly Autobot transformations, in spite of the presence of a probing, circling camera. When teenager Sam and girlfriend Mikaela (Megan Fox) find themselves being introduced in a dark alleyway to the complete Autobot team later in the first film, vehicle headlamps from the amassed robots banish darkness from the alley and light up gleaming automobile and robot bodywork. The lighting gives the sense that everything will be available to view, and camera angles seem to confirm this: Autobot leader Optimus Prime (voiced by Peter Cullen), in his red and blue super-truck disguise, trundles into close-up, so that we see clearly the upper engine split into two halves as the grille opens to reveal further details of the beginning of his metamorphosis. As Optimus rises, the sequence cuts to a high angle shot that looks down from above, capturing his head and shoulders folding out of his metal innards, and the camera then tracks around his still mutating body as the final external pieces click audibly into place. When the camera reaches Optimus’s tyre-shorn ankles, it reframes and turns to take in each of the transformations of the wider robot group in turn. Where the first transformation on the Qatar military base was obscured by shadows, here they are brightly lit; where in Qatar visual access to the transformation was significantly interrupted, here transformation shots are held for longer, with only brief cutaways to the human bystanders’ reactions. Yet even in these most well lit sequences, as Mark Bould has pointed out (35), there is no attempt to clarify the minutiae of the high-speed transformation process or to assert it as a physically achievable or believable transition from one vehicular form to another. Across the sequence, the changes in Optimus’s structure accelerate so that they become difficult to discern, as chunks of metal and mechanical parts unfold, spin or slide into different configurations, so that the mechanics of the process are effectively obscured in plain view; similarly the other robot transformations going on around Optimus and glimpsed in the background of the roving frame are only legible in terms of their general movement, not their detail.
The circling camera might suggest 360-degree visual access, but what we are presented with is something much less complete, and more impressionistic. Interestingly, the process by which the transformations were designed and animated is equally impressionistic, and arguably equally obfuscating. Bay originally selected robot concept designs that were quite a distance from the vehicle shapes they had to transform to and from, but after becoming concerned that they would read as too fantastical, he asked for recognisable car parts to be added to each robot’s external body to better suggest vehicular correspondences (36). These same car parts were then foregrounded in the transformation scenes by being thrust into the camera’s path, ‘gears, wheels and pistons moving into position as the camera sees them,’ according to visual effects supervisor Scott Farrar (37). These momentary car part close-ups literally obscure the mechanics of the transformation’s process, and contribute to a lack of available visual detail in the CGI depiction of the transformation. In narratives directly concerned with robots who have the power to change their appearance, and in a digital era in which, theoretically, any fantastical process can be imagined and depicted in intricate detail by computer generated imagery, the presentation of these transformations seems, therefore, oddly partial. The spectator is left not with a compelling sense of how these machines transform but instead with a general impression of change. Rather than offering, as Bould suggests, ‘a powerful fantasy of mutability’ (38), these moments offer maelstroms of illegible mechanical reconfiguration sprinkled with occasional glimpses of recognisable car parts, an irreverent collapsing of the signifiers of car culture, as wheels are repositioned to the equivalent of wrist or ankle bracelets, windscreens turned into breastplates, colourful bodywork providing decorative highlights against the metal hues of the robot substructure, in an arbitrary (in terms of functionality), anachronistic (in relation to the advanced futuristic robot technology to which they are attached), and frequently ostentatious mode of robot adornment.
Such sequences reveal something interesting about the consequences of our wired culture’s evolving awareness of the ubiquity of digital interventions into cinema. The display of virtuosic digitally generated metamorphosis is not the awe-filled spectacle it once was (39). Since we now take for granted digital imaging technologies’ capacity to generate or mutate any representable object, the robots’ capacity to transform (and be depicted transforming) is something to be taken for granted in the same way; not pored over in detail, but grasped in general terms, a sideshow or a stage that must be passed through — with a wry nod to the audience — to get to the ‘main event.’ The box office success of the Transformers films lies not, then, in their provision of spectacles of CGI metamorphoses. The main event that the action sequences actually focus on tells us much about what it is that concerns as well as exhilarates us in our digital mediated culture, and what the trope of rotation might have to offer as a ‘commonplace’ in this contemporary moment. To explore this, we need to take a detour into the mechanics — and crucially the extended durations — of Bay’s elaborate action.
As I noted earlier, like other contemporaneous action-fantasy films the Transformers action sequences are routinely extended. Indeed, each instalment of the franchise ends with a sequence so significantly elongated that it problematises the use of the qualifier ‘climactic.’ The first film, for example, ends with a thirty-minute sequence, while the second film supplies a twenty-minute sequence at the halfway point before its climactic thirty-minute sequence. Justin Chang suggests that the final battle sequence in the third instalment, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, ‘occupies more than a third of the film’s 154-minute running time’ amounting in his view to ‘some kind of exhausting tour de force’ that ‘just keeps going and going’ (40). He is almost right: it is about thirty-seven minutes. As we can see from Chang’s comment and the critical responses I glossed in the introduction, such durations are a common cause for criticism, but, once again, I would want to caution against seeing Bay as an exception in this regard. As far back as 2003, Neo and Agent Smith’s struggle for supremacy across large expanses of a desolate urban landscape, towards the end of The Matrix Revolutions, ran to thirteen minutes, while the Battle of New York in The Avengers runs to roughly 24 minutes. What, if anything, do these kinds of extended durations make possible?
Lengthened duration invites a veritable proliferation of multiple strands of action, as the final third of Transformers: Dark of the Moon illustrates. This section of the film traces the convergence of different narrative strands and character groupings towards Chicago city centre, where the Decepticons are about to activate a portal that will allow thousands of evil robots to teleport to Earth for the purposes of planetary colonisation. Short action sequences separated by brief ‘pauses’ bring different characters back into play ready for the final showdown: the Autobots, having been driven into exile by an anxious U.S. government, reveal their return by quashing a Decepticon attack in a Chicago side street; Sam rescues his girlfriend Carly from her imprisonment by human Decepticon collaborator Dylan (Patrick Dempsey); and after being warned of the Autobots’ arrival by Dylan, the Decepticons move into defensive positions around Chicago to protect the portal. The ‘Battle of Chicago’ then unfolds over thirty-seven minutes, cutting between parallel strands of action that follow the fortunes of particular groups of characters, and are staged across different levels and areas of the Chicago urban landscape. One team of soldiers, led by Epps and joined by Sam and Carly, is engaged in a ground battle as it attempts to cross the river and reach high ground in order to direct rocket fire at the crucial ‘control pillar’ that threatens to activate the portal. Two further military teams led by Lennox (Josh Duchamel) are incoming by air (one via wing suit, no less), and are tasked with laser-targeting the control pillar for an air assault. Meanwhile, Autobots draw fire from the humans and engage in aerial fire-fights and road-bound battles with Decepticon attackers. As the battle develops, and the momentum shifts from one side to the other, the parallel strands multiply further: Sam and Carly are separated from their military team, then Carly is separated from Sam, while Optimus Prime gets embroiled in a number of one-on-one face-offs with a series of the strongest Decepticon robots, including the tunnelling, tentacled ‘Driller’, a Cyclops-like one-eyed robot sporting a spinning cannon called ‘Shockwave’, and the elder statesman who has betrayed the Autobots, the dual sword-wielding ‘Sentinel Prime.
The pattern of cross-cutting between these strands of action varies in terms of pacing, so that sometimes the film is alternating between clearly defined and spatially oriented scenes, and at other times between more impressionistic glimpses of different aspects of the ongoing situation. For example, when Lennox’s men attempt to wing-suit to the ground, the spatial coordinates of the sequence are relatively clear, the movement — from jumping out of carrier jets under attack from flying robots to mid-descent evasive manoeuvres between Chicago skyscrapers — articulated through wide shots from above and below that clearly locate the characters along the vertical axis of action, and in relation to a legible urban landscape. Similarly the subsequent scene in which Sam, Carly and Epps’ team evade a Decepticon scout robot in a listing, battle-damaged office block uses screen direction consistently in order to illustrate the direction of pursuit and attempted escape across leaning office floors and windows. At other moments, the development of a scene is captured in ‘glimpses’ from various different perspectives and angles whose orientation to the main action is only latterly clarified. Sam’s attempt, later in the Battle of Chicago, to disable Decepticon ‘Starscream’ is a good example. The initiating action — Starscream’s opening attack and Sam’s reply, which is to fire a grapple hook into Starscream’s eye and thus attach himself to the flailing, half-blinded robot — is elaborated in a highly spatially legible manner, screen direction and axis of action maintained across close-ups, medium shots and long shots. As the scene continues, other characters begin to appear, but in shots that do not immediately clarify their orientation to Sam and Starscream’s tussle. Lennox and his men run forward and take up positions ready to fire, but their spatial relation to the main action is withheld; Carly screams and cowers behind a wall, a swipe pan only at the last second connecting her spatially to Sam’s predicament. It takes a few more minutes before Lennox’s relation to the scene is confirmed: as Sam is swung upwards by Starscream and smashes through a window, Lennox runs forward from his position and joins Carly behind the nearby wall.
On this evidence, and counter to the many generalisations about Bay’s aesthetic that allege incomprehensibility, we can see that Bay’s elaboration of action consists not of sustained disorientation, but of strategies of delayed orientation, alternated with roughly sketched but generally legible spatial orientation and consistent screen direction. There is the temporary withholding of spatial coordinates to infuse scenes with a sense of battle-induced chaotic disorder; the registering of each key character’s intense, individual attempts to enact a particular trajectory in the moment; and the provision of climactic moments at which spatial orientation is clarified and these parallel trajectories converge or collide. Similar to the transformation sequences, we acquire an overall impression of the processes by which parallel strands of action converge, rather than seeing every detail; we thus receive a general sense of each main character’s exertion towards an outcome, rather than seeing every step of their endeavour. And while the underlying pattern of convergence of parallel strands, and emerging orientation, is to be expected in a conventional narrative film, it is the kineticism of the experience that registers most strongly in these scenes, constructed through endlessly proliferating and repeating strands of action, and a cacophonous stream of thrusts and rolls, spinning bullets and bodies, that we cannot fully make sense of or consistently orient ourselves towards. These are action sequences in perpetual motion, consisting of chains of figures of rotation that offer the possibility of endless rotation and infinite movement, connotations first set in motion by the rotating cube at the franchise’s outset.
It is in these action sequences that machine movement, and the trope of rotation, have the time to find their most vivid and elaborate expression. What is created is a vividly embodied analogy for the experience of the ‘anxious spaces … of electronic culture’ (following Bukatman) that we are very familiar with today: endlessly overstimulating social media communications, inscrutable but far-reaching and fast-moving networks of information and action, significant forces of control moving in ways and at speeds that are difficult to grasp or resist (41). I contend that these extended action sequences are a way of thinking through the nature of our experience of contemporary digital culture, and that the trope of rotation has a utility in both constructing a cinematic vision of this chaotic experience, and in offering potential responses to it. Rather than seeing the extended action sequences as staging a mode of response based only on spatial penetration as a phallocentric fantasy of mastery (although as we have seen, this is made available to the spectator), we need to recognise the extent to which the trope of rotation in these long scenes also evokes the contrasting connotation of contingency, a connotation that forms the basis of a different kind of response to digital culture’s speeds, scale, and uncertainties.
Duration and multiplying strands of action engender a hyperbolically reiterative structure that, in its endless oscillations, undermines any sense of stable endpoints for its visions of asserted and achieved spatial penetration. Just as rotation connotes not just propulsion but cyclical return, the circling bodies and cameras of the Transformers film world point to contingency as well as control. For example, it would be easy to categorise the intensely mobile camera’s dynamic movement — swooping, circling and somersaulting through diegetic space and around objects and characters — as an analogy for the propulsive spatial penetration achieved by key characters at the moment of success, but it is more accurate to see the camera enacting cyclical iterations of power being lost as well as mastery achieved. So Optimus Prime’s shifting fortunes in his battle with Driller and Shockwave, Decepticons in Transformers: Dark of the Moon, are conveyed in the camera’s modulation between smooth, sweeping and curving trajectories when Optimus is in control, and jerky rotational whip-pans when his fate is less certain. At other moments the unpredictable nature of the camera’s rotational movements (in terms of directionality, and what will be captured in the frame) works to forcefully underscore the contingency of diegetic action. In the Devastator attack at the pyramids in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, for example, the uncertain outcome of some of the smaller Autobots’ attempts to overcome the giant Decepticon — including lashing themselves to it in order to get close enough to attack, and throwing themselves into its maw in order to attack it from the inside — is suggested by a camera that swoops and dives vertiginously as if it, too, is lashed to the violently bucking antagonist. Duration is key to foregrounding this contingency: just as in the rotating cube sequence, where the cube is knocked onto a new rotation by an asteroid field, across the franchise sequences illustrate that the longer an object moves or spins along a particular path, the more likely it is to encounter a counter-force – an obstacle or opponent – that will trouble or interrupt that path. In the battle sequences of each film, robots hurl themselves into balletic, spinning trajectories that end in crunching impacts, spiralling headlocks, or a skip and a jump to retain balance that would make any dancer proud. If spatial reach is one aspect of propulsion the films are interested in, then, the problem of maintaining stable trajectories in the face of competing forces is another. Why, in a franchise that seeks to offer fantasies of propulsion and spatial mastery, would duration operate so insistently to introduce contingency and thwart forward momentum in this way?
To answer this, we need to acknowledge the ludic dimensions available in momentum and contingency, in general and as they manifest in digital media culture. Like skimming pebbles across the surface of a lake, the Transformers films put bodies in motion and then invite us to wish for their continued forward momentum. Like a NASCAR race or a demolition derby, the franchise pits hulking, speeding machines against each other and invites us to take pleasure in the interplay of risk, assertion and multiple impacts that unfold (no wonder Justin Chang calls Bay a ‘mass-demolition maestro’ (42). And just as the ludic task of skimming pebbles across water can absorb us for minutes or hours, the long durations over which we are invited to witness the Transformers films’ reiterative spiralling trajectories-at-risk might work in the same way. In his seminal work, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (1990), Mihály Csíkszentmihályi suggested that when a person single-mindedly pursues an activity which is intrinsically rewarding over an extended period, they enter a pleasurable state of mind that he terms ‘flow’ (43). More recently Jay David Bolter has pointed out that this state of ‘flow’ is promoted by various forms of contemporary media culture:
Flow is the aesthetic of first-person shooter games and techno and ambient music. Flow is the state induced by selecting one short YouTube video after another or by monitoring Twitter and Facebook feeds for minutes or hours on end… the state of flow wants to continue forever, with minor variations in the intensity of involvement’ (44).
Although Bolter conflates physically passive activities such as listening with interactive tasks that more accurately correspond with Csíkszentmihályi’s model (playing a videogame, scrolling through Twitter feeds, selecting a video), he is right to suggest that contemporary media culture displays an ‘aesthetics of flow’ which competes with the longer standing aesthetic function of catharsis (45). Each Transformers film seeks to provide the emotional release of catharsis in its rather overwrought concluding scenes of restored equilibrium: Earth saved for another day, a romantic clinch, robots standing guard as the sun sets. However, the extended action sequences, in their durations, their preoccupation with perpetual motion, their rotational trajectories and cyclical impacts over time, are more clearly structured by this aesthetics of flow, an aesthetics which references, and may actually produce, the pleasurable flow that spectators are familiar with from other similarly flow-based media forms.
Bolter’s inclusion of video games in his list of these forms reminds us that this state of flow is associated in digital media culture with digital environments that register as a space for play. From the simplicity of the straight trajectory of a virtual ping pong ball repeatedly redirected by virtual paddles in the arcade game PONG (Atari Inc., 1972), to the digital avatar’s intricate trajectories in the first person shooter videogame format, to the evolving built structures of Minecraft (Mojang, 2009), or the latest retro tablet-based platform game (such as Thomas Was Alone (Bossa Studios, 2014)), spectators find their most pleasurable interactions with digital media are in the digital environments which provide opportunities for playful trajectories and repeated figures of movement. Just like in these examples, the ludic and flow pleasures of Transformers lie in its repeated unleashing of objects on trajectories through digital space, and the resulting contingency of those trajectories over time. The fact that the Transformers robots and much of the debris and urban landscape through which these robots barrel, skip and somersault are digitally constructed simply intensifies this association with other digital environments in which play and flow intersect, inviting a playful engagement with the dynamics of digital movement in digital space, and with what Anthony Vidler has called their ‘autogenerative nature’ (46).
It is here, then, that we find the most insistent compensatory dimension of the trope of rotation, as a thinking-through of how one might orient oneself in relation to digital media culture. The extended action sequences of the Transformers films and other action-fantasy fare offer a rotational aesthetics that gestures towards older compensatory forms, such as the fantasy of spatial penetration offered by the automobile or its military-science-fiction extrapolations. These connect to cultural preoccupations with and material histories of locomotion and machine movement that extend back through the centuries, and which mobilised a recurring rhetoric of the technological sublime that attempted to mitigate against the disorienting, alienating speeds of each generation of machine movement. But this contemporary manifestation of rotational aesthetics also speaks to the accelerating contradictions of our increasingly digitalised lives, where proliferating digital platforms allow endless virtual locomotion and reiteration in the face of dwindling real world energy sources, within a globalised digital network where the balance of power is difficult to discern. Rather than directly attempt to address the problem of representing the underlying structures of this digital world (which Jameson presciently pointed to (47) and theorists like Galloway and Mark Hansen, among others, have returned to more recently (48)), current action-fantasy cinema deploys the trope of rotation most persistently to propose an orientation to this digital world – and its stand-in, the chaotic, spectacular, CG spaces of the film world – that prioritises the pleasures of contingency and play above traditional fantasies of mastery.
This article has been peer reviewed.
1. The user-populated Cinemetrics Database (http://www.cinemetrics.lv) reports that the first film has an average shot length (ASL) of 3 seconds, and the second film an ASL of 3.4 seconds. The third film jumps to an ASL of 4.6 seconds, although this is most likely related to the fact that the third film was released in 2D and 3D, and stereoscopic presentation demanded slower cutting rates (Chang, Justin. ‘Transformers: Dark of the Moon.’ Variety, July 11-17, 2011, 17).
2. French, Phillip. ‘Transformers (review).’ The Observer, July 29, 2007, paragraph 2. http://www.theguardian.com/film/2007/jul/29/stevenspielberg.actionandadventure (accessed 10 August, 2014).
3. Scott, A.O. ‘One Small Step for Man, One Giant Leap for Autobots.’ New York Times June 28, 2011, paragraph 1. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/29/movies/transformers-dark-of-the-moon-theyre-at-it-again-movie-review.html?_r=0 (accessed 1 August 2014).
4. Keough, Peter. ‘A loud explosion of CGI in Transformers: Age of Extinction.’ The Boston Globe, June 27, 2014, paragraph 3. http://www.bostonglobe.com/arts/movies/2014/06/27/transformers-age-extinction-review-loud-explosion-cgi/tZIusWCujRuQgQGRUHZh9J/story.html (accessed 10 August).
4. Weissberg, Jay. ‘Toys will be toys.’ Variety June 25 – July 8, 2007, 46.
5. Transformers (2007) was the third highest grossing film of its summer season; Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009) was the highest grossing of its summer season; and Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011) and Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014) were second highest grossing in their respective summer seasons. Source: www.boxofficemojo.com.
6. Cubitt, Sean. The Cinema Effect. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004. Cubitt associates this with what he calls the ‘Hollywood baroque’, in which ‘[c]lassical decoupage… no longer governs because, with one swooping sequence-shot, we can establish the diegetic space without stabilising it according to the 180 degree rule’ (224).
7. Bordwell, David. ‘Bond vs. Chan: Jackie shows how it’s done.’ Observations on film art blog, September 15, 2010, paragraph 2. http://www.davidbordwell.net/blog/2010/09/15/bond-vs-chan-jackie-shows-how-its-done/ (accessed 1 August 2014).
8. Emerson, Jim. ‘In The Cut, Part I: Shots in the Dark (Knight)’ video transcript. Scanners blog, September 21, 2011, paragraph 25. http://www.rogerebert.com/scanners/annotated-transcript-in-the-cut-part-i-shots-in-the-dark-knight (accessed 14 October 2014); see also Bukatman, Scott. ‘Why I Hate Superhero Movies.’ Cinema Journal 50.3, Spring 2011, 118-22.
9. Bordwell, op. cit., paragraph 2.
10. Huhtamo, Erkki. ‘From Kaleidoscomaniac to Cybernerd. Towards an Archeology of the Media.’ Leonardo Vol. 30, No 3, 1997, 222.
11. Parikka, Jussi. What is Media Archaeology? Cambridge: Polity Press, 2012, 38.
12. Whissel, Kristen. Spectacular Digital Effects: CGI and Contemporary Cinema. London: Duke University Press, 2014.
13. Such mechanical architecture circulates in news reports and videos such as this one of Kismet engaged in social activities: http://video.mit.edu/watch/kismet-2850/ (accessed 10 August, 2014).
14. Marx, Leo. The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000 , 230.
15. Bukatman, Scott. Matters of Gravity: Special Effects and Supermen in the 20th Century. London: Duke University Press, 2003, 103.
16. See Bruno, Giuliana. Atlas of Emotion: Journeys in Art, Architecture, and Film. New York: Verso, 2002, 147-8.
17. Stafford, Barbara Maria. Artful Science: Enlightenment Entertainment and the Eclipse of Visual Education. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1994, 195.
18. Springer, Claudia. Electronic Eros: Bodies and Desire in the Postindustrial Age. London: Athlone, 1996, 17.
19. Marx, op. cit., 230.
20. Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism: Or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke University Press, 1991, 36.
21. Bruno, op. cit., 182-3.
22. Ibid., 254.
23. Jameson, op. cit., 35, emphasis added.
24. Critiques of the accelerating speeds of modern life include Paul Virilio. Speed and Politics: An Essay on Dromology. trans. Mark Polizzotti, Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2006 , and Rosa Hartmut. Social Acceleration: A New Theory of Modernity. trans. Jonathan Trejo-Mathys, New York: Columbia University Press, 2013 .
25. Dargis, Manohla. ‘Car Wars With Shape-Shifters ‘R’ Us.’ New York Times, July 2, 2007, paragraph 1. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/07/02/movies/02tran.html?_r=0 (accessed 10 August, 2014). We can certainly locate the franchise within an ongoing trend for heavily militarised spectacle that was already ingrained by the time the first instalment appeared (see Clover, Joshua. ‘Dream Machines.’ Film Quarterly, Winter 2007-8, 6-7, and Der Derian, James. Virtuous War: Mapping the Military-Industrial-Media-Entertainment Network. Oxford: Westview Press, 2001. Alongside digital visual effects houses like ILM and Digital Domain, the franchise’s collaborators include General Motors and the U.S. Department of Defense (Mirrlees, Tanner. ‘How to Read Iron Man: The Economics, Geopolitics and Ideology of an Imperial Film Commodity.’ Cineaction Vol. 92, Summer 2013, 7).
26. It is no coincidence, for example, that the robots’ fighting styles and choreography draw on rotational martial arts moves (see Duncan, Jody. ‘Bots & Mayhem.’ Cinefex 111, 2007, 77), so that each film supplies the familiar sight of robot machines delivering roundhouse kicks, crescent kicks, and rotating sword slashes that are highly effective in their reach, force and capacity to slice through or destabilise an enemy.
27. Bukatman, op. cit., 107.
28. Ibid., 95.
29. Ibid., 109, emphasis in original.
30. Here I am indebted to Daniel Frampton’s notion of ‘film-thinking’, elaborated in Filmosophy. Chichester: Columbia University Press, 2006.
31. Parikka, op. cit., 36.
32. Galloway, Alexander. The Interface Effect. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2012, 74.
33.Bennett, Bruce. ‘The normativity of 3D: cinematic journeys, “imperial visuality” and unchained cameras.’ Jump Cut No 55, Fall 2013, 3. http://ejumpcut.org/currentissue/Bennett-3D/index.html (accessed 14 August 2014).
34. Bould, Mark. ‘Transformers (review).’ Science Fiction Film and Television Vol. 1 issue 1, Spring 2008, 166.
35. ILM model supervisor David Fogler quoted in Kadner, Noah. ‘Unleashing CG Robots in the Real World.’ American Cinematographer, August 2007, 50.
36. Quoted in Kadner, op. cit., 50.
37.Bould, op. cit., 166.
38. For example, the way that the detailed realisation of the digitally rendered face, contemplated by a slowly circling camera, was showcased in Peter Jackson’s King Kong (2005).
39. Chang, op. cit., p. 17.
40. See Galloway, op. cit., 78-100.
41. Chang, op. cit., 17.
42. Csíkszentmihályi, Mihály. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2008 , 4.
43.Bolter, Jay David. ‘The Aesthetics of Flow and the Aesthetics of Catharsis.’ In Rania Gaafar and Martin Schulz (eds). Technology and Desire: The Transgressive Art of Moving Images. Bristol: Intellect, 2014, e-book location 2667-79.
44. Bolter, op. cit., e-book loc. 2667.
45.Vidler, Anthony. Warped Space: Art, Architecture, and Anxiety in Modern Culture. London: MIT Press, 2000, 8.
46. Jameson, op. cit., 36-7.
47.See Galloway 2012; Galloway, Alexander. Protocol: How Control Exists after Decentralization. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006; Hansen, Mark B. N. Feed-Forward: On the Future of Twenty-First-Century Media. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014.