Michael Bay’s promotional aesthetic.

Bruce Bennett, Lancaster University, UK

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A new teaser trailer for the forthcoming action film, Transformers: Age of Extinction, the fourth in this series of films directed by Michael Bay, was circulated on the internet earlier this week. There is a lot that might be said about these films (that are derived from a series of Japanese toys and a rudimentary transnationally produced children’s cartoon). For example, they might be discussed as symptomatic examples of:

  • the serial status of commercial cinema
  • the apparent convergence of cinema with other media
  • the apparently infantilising address of what Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer termed “the culture industry”
  • the cultural practice of what Georges Bataille termed “non-productive expenditure”
  • popular culture’s eschatological preoccupation with narratives of disaster
  • or the dominant ideological configuration of mainstream cinema.

Regardless of the critical distaste with which Michael Bay’s films are generally regarded, they provide us with rich source material.

The latest 150-second trailer is, however, a striking piece of audio-visual material in its own right. It is highly condensed and elliptical, repeatedly interspersing shots with fades to black. Brief lines of dialogue from the human characters are scattered through the short piece, and the sound design blends this dialogue with droning incidental music and emphatically synthesised sound effects. As the sequence moves towards a climax, cutting together spectacularly intricate and dynamic shots of the Transformer robots battling and metamorphosing, spacecraft, flying machines, and the cityscapes of Chicago and Hong Kong, the diegetic sound becomes muffled and indistinct beneath the electronic noise, before dropping briefly into silence.

The schematic narrative appears to concern a manual labourer (played by Mark Wahlberg), who has bought a decrepit truck to rebuild in order to make the money to pay his daughter’s college fees. In a gesture of ironic intertextuality typical of the contemporary action film the truck is almost identical to the vehicle used in a car chase in Terminator 2: Judgment Day (Cameron, 1991), and, indeed, as Wahlberg stares at the truck, preparing to go to work on it, he mutters to himself, ‘Come on, you old wreck. Judgment day’. He realises that he has found a Transformer, bringing it to life by connecting it to a car battery, whereupon a shadowy security team descend upon his house, demanding to know the whereabouts of ‘Optimus Prime’, one of the principal robots in the earlier films. At that point, the sound design changes and there is a generic shift from the codes of the family melodrama (with a father and daughter struggling to make money) to a science-fiction action film, marked by explosions and images of destruction, extensive use of visually baroque CGI, mobile cameras, slow-motion, dramatic lighting, aerial shots, and a diegetic expansion or perspective shift from the intimate scale of the mid-West farmhouse in the opening shots to a global scale with shots of vast spaceships orbiting the earth. The short montage concludes with three shots showing ‘Optimus Prime’ fighting in a canyon with a robotic Tyrannosaurus in another gesture of intertextual citation, linking this film with the Jurassic Park series of films, directed and produced by Steven Spielberg (who, as producer, persuaded a sceptical Bay to direct the first Transformers film).

There are certain formal conventions that are specific to the teaser trailer, since they are designed to be incomplete and ambiguous – to seduce the viewer through a brief indication of what will be offered liberally by the film itself – but what is striking about this trailer is how well it works as a film in its own right. In some respects, it is far more exciting and more arresting because of its extreme condensation. It invites the viewer to assemble the narrative speculatively from these semantically dense fragments.  If we have seen the previous three films – or, perhaps, any films – we can anticipate how the full-length film will unfold, but I suspect the fascination and richness of these spectacular, suggestive images will be dissipated rather than amplified and elaborated over the course of two hours or more. Writing in 1915 on the emergence of the feature-length film in the wake of the ‘nickel boom’ in the US, the pioneering Chicago-based film theorist Vachel Lindsay wrote that:

There is not a good film in the world but is the better for being seen in immediate succession to itself. Six-reel programmes are a weariness to the flesh. The best of the old one-reel Biographs of Griffith contained more in twenty minutes than these ambitious incontinent six-reel displays give us in two hours (Lindsay 1915, 46).

The same might perhaps be said of this trailer; this 2½-minute, $165m blockbuster (which is the estimated budget for this film) is certain to be far more exciting and rich than the epic film that will be released later this year (just as the re-released ‘director’s cut’ of a classic film is rarely an improvement). In this sense, the teaser trailer is the ideal form of the narrative film. It follows the same structural principles of the feature-length narrative, providing just enough narrative and generic cues for us to be able to construct the narrative as spectators, but eschews the exposition, redundancy and overstatement that are deemed to be essential elements of the conventional narrative film. In other words, overturning the hierarchical relationship between the two texts, we might argue that the commercial feature film embodies, or aspires to reproduce, the promotional aesthetic of the trailer. Michael Bay’s films are often dismissed as extended music promos, spot ads, or trailers because of their emphatic stylisation, narrative incoherence, and tonal uncertainty, but in this respect there is a formal purity to the films. They reduce mainstream cinema down to its essential commodity form.

Reference:

Lindsay, Vachel. (2000 [1915]), The Art of the Moving Picture, New York: The Modern Library

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