Chaos Cinema: A Breakdown of How 21st-Century Action Films Became Incoherent

If you read Open Cul­ture, you prob­a­bly love watch­ing movies. I’d wager, how­ev­er, that you don’t love watch­ing action movies. I don’t mean that you oper­ate at an intel­lec­tu­al lev­el far above any such pal­try enter­tain­ments; I mean that the craft of action film­mak­ing has itself declined. You’ve sure­ly felt that today’s big-bud­get spec­ta­cles of chase, fight, and explo­sion — Trans­form­ers, the Jason Bourne films, last few Bonds, the lat­est Bat­man tril­o­gy — don’t thrill you as did those of decades past — Hard Boiled, Raiders of the Lost ArkThe Wild BunchDie Hard — but per­haps you can’t pin down quite why. Have action movies changed, you may won­der, or have I? Ger­man-born, UCLA-based film schol­ar Matthias Stork argues for the for­mer, break­ing down the cor­rup­tion of mod­ern action film­mak­ing in his video essay Chaos Cin­e­ma. “Through­out the first cen­tu­ry of moviemak­ing, the default style of com­mer­cial cin­e­ma was clas­si­cal,” he begins. “It was metic­u­lous and patient. In the­o­ry, at least, every com­po­si­tion and cam­era move had a mean­ing, a pur­pose, and movies did not cut with­out good rea­son.”

No longer. Where action film­mak­ers once “prid­ed them­selves on keep­ing the view­er well-ori­ent­ed” in time and space, they now throw dis­parate images togeth­er hap­haz­ard­ly, enslaved to “rapid edit­ing, close fram­ings, bipo­lar lens lengths, and promis­cu­ous cam­era move­ment,” trad­ing “visu­al intel­li­gi­bil­i­ty for sen­so­ry over­load,” leav­ing it to the sound­track to pro­vide a sem­blance of con­ti­nu­ity. Stork exam­ines the qual­i­ties and effects of this new style of “chaos cin­e­ma” in three parts. The first cov­ers the visu­al dis­in­te­gra­tion of action sequences them­selves; the sec­ond cov­ers the defi­cien­cy’s pen­e­tra­tion even into scenes of dia­logue and music and the emer­gence of the “shaky-cam”; the third sum­ma­rizes and engages respons­es to the first two parts. Whether or not main­stream com­mer­cial film­mak­ing will ever cure itself and return to con­vinc­ing, coher­ent action rather than the impres­sion­is­tic “gen­er­al idea of action,” we now have a fas­ci­nat­ing diag­no­sis of the dis­ease. (For fur­ther dis­cus­sion of Chaos Cin­e­ma, con­sid­er lis­ten­ing to Stork’s appear­ance on Bat­tle­ship Pre­ten­sion, a favorite film pod­cast of mine.)

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Dark Knight: Anato­my of a Flawed Action Scene

Alfred Hitchcock’s Sev­en-Minute Edit­ing Mas­ter Class

The 10 Hid­den Cuts in Rope (1948), Alfred Hitchcock’s Famous “One-Shot” Fea­ture Film

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture and writes essays on cities, Asia, film, lit­er­a­ture, and aes­thet­ics. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on his brand new Face­book page.

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Comments (12)
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  • Dennis says:

    I am cur­rent­ly watch­ing the James Bond movies start­ing from Dr No. As I was watch­ing the old­er ones I became aware that I could remem­ber their sto­ry lines, but all I can remem­ber of the lat­est Bond films is some of the action scenes.

  • Lucas says:

    The first exam­ple I recall see­ing of this style was the open­ing sequence to Sav­ing Pri­vate Ryan. There the style was used expert­ly by Spiel­berg to gen­er­ate a feel­ing of hyper­re­al dis­ori­en­ta­tion and fear. It’s hard to watch that scene; it push­es some of the ter­ror and con­fu­sion of that day and that bat­tle onto the view­er.

    I sus­pect this is the effect a lot of direc­tors are going for when they make these intense, con­fus­ing action scenes. How­ev­er, few direc­tors are as skilled as Spiel­berg, and much of the psy­cho­log­i­cal effect of the Oma­ha Beach scene is gen­er­at­ed by the fact that the scene depicts a real­is­tic set of events that reflects the expe­ri­ence of thou­sands of sol­diers in that bat­tle. It’s hard­er to be dis­turbed and shak­en by giant shapeshift­ing robots rip­ping up a high­way over­pass.

  • Marcos El Malo says:

    “We all approach action movies with the same mind­set.”

    It’s too bad Mr. Stork did­n’t start with this state­ment. It would have saved me a lot of time.

    Let me get a few things out of the way: most movies are bad. In any one year, we are lucky to have one great film, four or five good ones, and five that are OK.

    I find it humor­ous how far Stork had to dial it back in the third episode where he answers his crit­ics. The best crit­i­cism was the short­est: the tweet that accused him of “get-off-my-lawnism”.

    I’m going to try an make this short:

    1) Stork has a con­stric­tive, sim­pli­fied and lim­it­ed idea of the con­cept of art if he believes that exper­i­men­tal film­mak­ing is a her­mit­i­cal­ly sealed box. Per­haps it is not enjoyed by the mass­es, but it is not a rar­i­fied thing unto itself iso­lat­ed from pop­u­lar art, or rather, if Stork had his way, quar­an­tined.

    2) Stork lacks basic (basic for a schol­ar of a pop­u­lar art form) knowl­edge of oth­er pop­u­lar art forms from oth­er ages, most notably paint­ing. In fact, his rant sounds amus­ing­ly like crit­i­cal reac­tions to the Impres­sion­ists more so than Abstract Art. He also fails note the obvi­ous par­al­lels between changes in paint­ing styles and film styles.

    3) Stork fails to exam­ine the deep­er con­text for the vis­cer­al style of film­mak­ing he abhors, although he comes close (and then veers away) when he dis­cuss­es first per­son shoot­er video games. Obvi­ous­ly, there are dif­fer­ences (his exam­ple of the con­tin­u­ous diagetic space in games) because the media rare dif­fer­ent. But the feel­ing is the same, or rather, the inten­tion to elic­it an adren­a­line rush.

    The more inter­est­ing ques­tion is why do we need or want this? What is it about our soci­ety, today, that makes this a valu­able enter­tain­ment expe­ri­ence. That is the inter­est­ing ques­tion.

    4) because that is what chaos cin­e­ma a is: it is a vis­cer­al style, a style meant to evoke bod­i­ly sen­sa­tion (when done well). Like a first per­son shoot­er, it attempts (and some­times suc­ceeds) to put us into the action. It gives us those flash­es of impres­sions that are not always lin­ear or intel­li­gi­ble. It is a cin­e­ma of phys­i­cal sen­sa­tion.

    5) para­phras­ing Stork because I don’t want to watch that thing a sec­ond time: An action sequence is a record of objects mov­ing from point A to point B. This is his argu­ment against chaos cin­e­ma being abstract (or, I would argue, impres­sion­ist). The name he gives this is “genre con­text”. Tl;dr If it does­n’t fit Stork’s per­son­al needs or expec­ta­tions, it is bad.

    6) Final, because this isn’t my job: Stork is an aca­d­e­m­ic scold, and not even an inter­est­ing one. It’s not that he is over­ly intel­lec­tu­al or is too deeply attached to for­mal­ism. His intel­lec­tu­al­ism is shal­low, his cri­tique is reac­tionary and unin­ter­est­ing. He wish­es to impose sim­ple nar­ra­tive struc­ture “to show the audi­ence what is hap­pen­ing”. His idea of cin­e­ma is lim­it­ed and child­ish.

  • David says:

    I real­ly appre­ci­ate this video essay for nam­ing and artic­u­lat­ing the mess that has become action film­mak­ing.

    It’s been a LONG time since I enjoyed watch­ing an action film, for many of the rea­sons that Stork out­lines.

    More often than not, I fall asleep watch­ing action films that I had intend­ed on enjoy­ing. Dis­trict 9, Grav­i­ty, Iron Man (all of them), Man of Steel. The act­ing is bad enough, the paint-by-num­bers sto­ry-telling is bad enough, but then you add into it incom­pre­hen­si­bly long, con­fus­ing and vapid action sequences and whole movies become loud, brash wastes of time.

    I under­stand the eco­nom­ic incen­tive for mak­ing crap like this: Peo­ple with home the­atres need con­tent to feed their 7.1 sur­round sys­tems and 800″ TVs. And movie the­atre chains need a gim­mick to get bums into seats. That gim­mick is the sen­so­ry over­load of watch­ing a mod­ern action film: see­ing it on a huge screen with deaf­en­ing sound helps to solid­i­fy the sen­so­ry expe­ri­ence of dis­ori­en­ta­tion and pan­ic.

    But I agree with Stork that it does­n’t make for good film­mak­ing.

    I think Stork does an excel­lent job of trac­ing the roots of the visu­al style of ‘chaos cin­e­ma’ and in artic­u­lat­ing what its con­ven­tions are, IE, inten­tion­al­ly shaky cam, shred­ding the 180 degree rule, dis­joint­ed edit­ing, etc.

    And as for his lament for a more ‘clas­si­cal’ approach to mak­ing an action film, I could­n’t agree more. I real­ize this might not be the pop­u­lar view and it might not make films that get bums in seats in a the­atre, but it would be watch­able for the great num­ber of peo­ple out there who don’t live on a diet of FPS video games and UFC fights.

    I’m not say­ing any­one should stop mak­ing chaos films. I’m say­ing I’d like to see an action film with char­ac­ters I could give a shit about being thrust into an excit­ing sit­u­a­tion and filmed in a way that does­n’t pro­mote sheer sen­so­ry over­load over good sto­ry-telling and com­pre­hen­si­bil­i­ty.

  • David says:

    I just want­ed to add that in my opin­ion one of the most fan­tas­tic action sequences of all time is the scene from Chil­dren of Men where Theo is escap­ing the Fish­es. The entire sequence is filmed with one epi­cal­ly long take, com­plete with action inside and out­side of a mov­ing vehi­cle. It is absolute­ly grip­ping, ter­ri­fy­ing and effec­tive. THAT’s the kind of action film­mak­ing I would to see more of.

  • Robert Pascual says:


    re: Sav­ing Pri­vate Ryan and the unsteady cam­era.

    Steven Spiel­berg was mim­ic­ing the films record­ed by the cam­eras car­ried by sol­diers dur­ing the sec­ond world war. One can see many such scenes in World War II doc­u­men­taries. Spiel­berg was evi­dent­ly try­ing to achieve the same atmos­phere in “Sav­ing Pri­vate Ryan.” The shots are unsteady because the sol­diers car­ry­ing them are in the line of fire in an actu­al war!

    Why oth­er direc­tors would employ jit­tery cams in movie scenes set dur­ing mod­ern times is puz­zling.

  • Ken says:


    Joy­less and sad and with­out a sin­gle kid per­mit­ted upon their lawn.

    They are bor­ing at par­ties and impos­si­ble to talk to.

    Off to my movie shelf to put on Sky­fall and a smile. Have fun, every­body.

  • Joshua says:

    Mar­cos, you sound a lit­tle defen­sive. Or should I say Jer­ry Bruck­heimer, you sound a lit­tle defen­sive! Your cov­er is blown!

  • Robert says:

    I think Mar­cos hit the nail on the head, and he sums up well the rea­son I stopped watch­ing Mr. Stork’s assess­ments.

    What sad­ly is miss­ing, and what I’d hoped would be addressed, is the vis­cer­al impact of mod­ern cin­e­ma — espe­cial­ly action films.

    I recall the moment when it hit me that we are in a dif­fer­ent age — I was in the the­ater when I first saw the trail­er for ‘Bad Boys’. I tru­ly felt assault­ed.

    After­wards I recalled the reports of faint­ing at the first screen­ings of Franken­stein in 1931, and I final­ly had a vis­cer­al under­stand­ing of what that was real­ly meant.

    I’d have loved a dive into how enter­tain­ment has changed our expec­ta­tions and how our expec­ta­tions have changed enter­tain­ment.

  • Robert says:

    I just checked YouTube and it was the Bad Boys II trail­er.

    …my bad.


  • Lenny Geo says:

    I liked the essay and I think it pro­duces a good syn­op­tic com­par­a­tive exam­i­na­tion of two dis­tinc­tive cin­e­mato­graph­ic approach­es. I dis­agree with Mr Mar­cos El Mal­o’s response, I believe it to be poor­ly con­struct­ed on invalid argu­ments, espe­cial­ly in regards to the futile attempt to cor­re­late cin­e­mat­ic art with sta­t­ic illus­tra­tive expres­sion. It is a bla­tant mis­take, obvi­ous­ly, since the par­a­digm used is wrong — it is not an ana­log based on the com­par­i­son of expres­sion­ism and impres­sion­ism. If we want­ed to draw a par­al­lel, the cor­rect would be the tran­si­tion from a renais­sance era to the style of baroque. Just as such, “chaos cin­e­ma” is flam­boy­ant, exces­sive, deca­dent. Impres­sion­ism requires a high degree of dis­ci­pline and skill, so that the desired imprint on the view­er’s mind reflects the pur­pose of the artist, instead of being a ran­dom trig­ger of an entire brain recep­tive area. It is sub­tle and refined, pin­point­ed and pre­cise, not a mere shot­gun approach of inflict­ing mas­sive sen­so­ry over­load and adren­a­line rush.
    But Mr Stork’s inten­tion was not to declare a win­ning style or to defend a per­son­al pref­er­ence of clas­si­cal artis­tic forms and man­ners.
    It is clear­ly an obser­va­tion of the abu­sive and exces­sive uti­liza­tion of cer­tain tech­ni­cal tools and the choice of spe­cif­ic direct­ing meth­ods that lead to movies of infe­ri­or sequen­tial coheren­cy com­bined with equal­ly inad­e­quate nar­ra­tives.
    Sim­ply put, I don’t have a prob­lem admit­ting that most of the high­ly acclaimed action block­busters of our time are just pieces of shit that pre­fer to mind-fuck me and eye-stub me, instead of emo­tion­al­ly and men­tal­ly pro­vok­ing and chal­leng­ing me.
    When an appli­ca­tion is bad, it’s bad. End of sto­ry. It may be a tech­ni­cal mar­vel, but thin as por­ridge. Real­is­tic or hyper-real­is­tic, framed pur­pose­ful­ly out of focus and paced faster that what a brain can process, what­ev­er. Sure it’s art. And a prod­uct that makes big bucks. But it can still, be a pile of shit. And it usu­al­ly is.

  • michelle says:

    Every­one always rips on the new James Bond movies but Bond movies are sup­posed to rep­re­sent the trends and tropes in the cin­e­ma scene of their time. So of course they use Bay­hem, that’s whats in right now.

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