Aug 102015

jurassic worldThis movie was terribly enough written that I almost walked out. I didn’t, because blockbuster marathon, but when it was over I was actually angry.

Why is the mother always crying? Why does the opening goodbye scene between the teenagers happen? And if is going to happen, then why have the teenage girl disappear never to return and the teenage boy act like a creep with every girl he sees? Is the point to make his character an asshole? And why does it matter that the parents, who are completely incidental to everything, might be getting a divorce? So we can think “poor, crying kid” at least once before the monsters start chasing them? Do we need that moment to make up for their nastiness toward the aunt who gave them a free, round-trip VIP visit to her park (because she’s not been around, /sadface)? And on and on and on.

That may all sound picky but its just lazy writing. Consider this: there is a helicopter kept on site but no pilot. Why can’t the company guy who is the only person ever to fly it just be a pilot rather than a trainee? I mean you’re making these people up, so just make him a pilot. Yes, you lose the lame joke about the tough female lead being scared when she’s in the air (hahahahahahaha, oh god, that was hilarious right?), but that deletion would probably improve the script by forcing the writers to imagine a legitimate exchange between her and her boss. And get this: nothing says that that exchange couldn’t be (wait for it) … legitimately funny.

My guess is that whoever created this script started from required moments and set pieces and then worked backwards, creating narrative bits that would stitch them together. Same with characters. That’s fine. I have nothing against that process, and when it’s done right, I have huge respect for it. (I love well-done genre pieces.) But in this case everything seems so lazily done that nothing (and no one) can withstand being thought about or considered for even a moment.

Just a terrible movie from start to finish.

Mar 112014

Ender’s Game and Aeon Flux are surprisingly similar films and stumble over nearly identical narrative problems: both want to be sci-fi epics with surprise endings. I’d never recognized this as a potential problem, but after seeing these films, I realize that sci-fi world-building and the generation of surprises or twists actually depend upon two very different approaches to providing narrative information.

World building is judged by how completely (and suggestively) an imagined world is explained. Exposition necessarily comes early and is extensive. In this, successful world-building seems to me a bit like a rocket trying to hit escape velocity: it roars full force early on, and if everything goes right, it can power-down and sail to its destination. The long and detailed voice-over narrations that open Ender’s Game and Aeon Flux but then disappear are examples of what I mean.

Surprise endings work in just the opposite direction. Viewers supply a probable ending that the narration cultivates (or at least permits) by providing only incomplete information in the early portions of the film. When at the film’s end the missing information is provided or the overlooked information is brought to the foreground, the surprise reshapes the details of the story into a different plot. In Ender’s Game, for example, Ender (and in the book, the readers) discovers that the game he has been playing in preparation for a war is in fact the war itself. In Aeon Flux, Aeon discovers that she and everyone she know is a clone and that the villain she’s been sent to kill is a hero attempting to save everyone’s life.

The problem these films run into is that no reader can supply an unsurprising ending against which the “true” ending appears a surprise because the initial world and any story outcomes have to be built by the narration. Stated differently, there are no viewers competent to provide an adequate starting point from which a twist can register as surprise. If you tell me Ender plays a game, he’s playing a game. If you tell me he’s fighting a war, he’s fighting a war. I have no basis to assume anything about what is normal or likely in this imaginary world. And if you tell me one thing is going on and then later reveal that that’s not the case, it feels like a cheat. (I think sci-fi novels have a few more easy tricks up their sleeves than films do to work around this problem.)

There are, of course, examples of how to get around this problem. The Matrix and Terminator both have it both ways by beginning in an imagined world that appears to be exactly like our own. As a result, this world needs little explaining and a set of audience expectations are built in. The surprise–which in both cases boils down to different versions of “things are not what they seem”–is also revealed early, roughly at the end of their first acts. In both cases, the familiarity of the initial world and the early presentation of the unexpected “ending” reduces the conflict between surprise and world building. In a sense, in both cases surprise is used as a tool for the world building.

(I also wonder–although I can’t come up with a good example right now–whether, generic expectations can offer a substitute for an initially familiar world as a way of getting around the problem…)

Whatever the case, judging by Ender’s Game and Aeon Flux, pulling off the late surprise in sci-fi is clearly tough to do. And when it fails to come off, the consequences seem pretty dire. It’s easy to wind up not caring. And then everything fizzles.

Oct 202013

Last year I watched the first season of Damages after a friend recommended it. I loved the first half of the show. Patty Hewes is a strong, complex and ambiguous character, and a fan of Glenn Close, I was happy to see what she did with the role. I also thought the double temporality created by the opening clips was very effective at introducing and developing tension in a show that suffered from regular, necessary lulls. The opening and closing segments offered a tool for offsetting and giving room for these lulls to develop into something more than exposition.

But then midseason, these two features began to appear like a trap, a gimmick to sell the show that the writers were now trying to write their way out off. Yes, its certainly raises the stakes to have your plot rumbling forward to the moment when your second lead, covered in blood and wandering the streets, will be arrested and charged with murder, but eventually, you have to account for what’s going on. And if you want to have her come back, you have to get her out of the situation.

The writers pulled some twists out of their hat, none very convincing but they made it to the last episode alive, well and ready for another season.

Well, now, nearly a year later, I’ve started the second season, and after watching the first episode I just want to make a note before moving on: the writers are still stuck and have made their situation worse with some very bad choices. They have maintained the opening segments but have chosen to put the same character at their centre: the gimmick now feels more gimmicky, we know it’s a trick. The second lead is not going to go wack-o rogue and kill someone assassin style in her apartment. The villain from the first season, shot and “dead” at its end, is also back working through boring “why don’t people like me issues.” Patty and Ellen are both dealing with last season’s “issues” too: but who cares? These could have–and should have–been dropped between seasons.

But the worst set up is the whole Ellen working as a mole for the FBI angle. It’s a poor source of conflict between her and Patty, because again, it’s just not possible that Patty will not last out the season, and the segment makes it clear that Ellen will survive it too. So the stakes are simply not there. The only question is How is this not what it appears?

It’s frustrating to see such bad conceptual work built into the foundations of the narrative. But I’m still watching because of Glenn Close. I’m worried they are going to reduce her character to a simple villain (the writers don’t trust power), but we’ll see.

To be continued…