Chaos Cinema: How to Trade Visual Intelligibility?

Written by Jiawei Chen

Despite being strictly commercial cinema, action movies were meticulous in their use of cinematographic language and the construction of their characters and plots during much of the 20th century, but that has changed during the last two decades. We all remember classic action films for their precise camera work and impeccable staging. This kind of cinema also paid attention to spatial dimensions to avoid disorienting the audience and allowing it to emotionally engage with the story, one of the most important tasks of good cinema: the ‘suspension of disbelief’. Some of the examples cited in video essay “Chaos Cinema” by Matthias Stork to illustrate this kind of cinema are: Bullit by Peter Yates (1968), The Wild Bunch by Sam Peckinpah (1969), Hard Boiled by John Woo (1992), Die Hard by John McTiernan (1988) Ronin by John Frankenheimer (1998), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid by George Roy Hill (1969) and Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989).


According to Stork (2011), over the last two decades action movies have become faster, overloaded and exaggerated. They “trade visual intelligibility for sensory overload.” In fact, the movement in commercial filmmaking over the past two decades, in which a sense of spatial unity has been displaced by a deliberately less coherent (and sometimes incoherent) aesthetic. Shaky camerawork and quick-cut editing are the base markers of chaos cinema, but lighting, film speed, and zoom are also exploited in the distortion of the “clear” image.


David Bordwell (2002) has already identified this trend and given it a name: intensified continuity. Bordwell (2002, p17) has argued that many of these techniques ultimately service a classical agenda but in modified manner. classical techniques of cinematography and editing, the idea is that they can fill in the blanks when a particular sequence removes some of visual clarity. This technique can serve a variety of purposes. In the classic narrative sense, it can mirror a character’s disoriented state or it can signal the chaotic environment of war or panic. But Stork (2011) looks at this trend as usurping traditional concepts of visual cohesiveness and becoming a new base aesthetic of popular cinema (and action films in particular).

Transformers3 Explosion

On the other hand, amazing soundtracks characterize the deficiencies of Chaos Cinema as compensation for what the director cannot transmit visually. As matter of fact, the sound is important but should complement a cinematographic language capable of speaking for itself. And in this genre of cinema the dialogs are generally informative and are too short, revealing the actors’ lack of talent.


Bordwell, D. (2002). Intensified continuity visual style in contemporary American film. FILM QUART55(3), 16-28.

Stork, M. (2011) Video essay. ‘Chao Cinmea’. Available from cinema-the-decline-and-fall-of-action-filmmaking-132832/  [Accessed 13 March 2017]

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