Rulebook Casefile: Morally Descending in The Avengers and Pacific Rim

Finally: All-Too-Common Flaw #13! 

To a startling degree, Pacific Rim has the exact same ending as The Avengers, and I don’t just mean that they nuke their enemies to death:

  • There’s a glowing tear in our reality and aliens from another dimension are pouring through it to attack American cities, but our robot-suited hero realizes that he has can reuse a nuclear weapon which was originally intended for another purpose, dive into the breach, and nuke it closed, killing himself in the process...but instead, he manages to unconsciously fall back through the breach right before the nuke goes off, killing the bad guys and sealing the breach forever, which he finds out about after he’s revived by his teammates. Yay!
The shocking thing is that one movie came out more than a year after the other. Surely, they saw Avengers and said, “uh oh, guys, should we change ours?”, and then said, “Nah, who cares?”

But over and above the shocking similarity, let’s take a minute to acknowledge how morally miserable both of these movies are. I think that Buck Turgidson was a script consultant on each one.
Once again, the Charlie Day storyline hints at a much better movie. Day is mind-melding with the monsters...What if he communicated to the ones on the other side the truth about their suicide missions and inspired them to rise up against their masters? How awesome would that have been, to have the robots and the monsters team up at the end to go back through the breach and kick some ass?

Morally ascending is not only more uplifting than morally descending, it’s also a whole lot less boring.

Next week: five posts complaining about the end credits of Pacific Rim! Just kidding! I’m done! Yes, this was a long time to spend on (mostly) just one movie, but I felt it spoke to so many wider issues that plague modern movies.  

Instead, tomorrow well have a BIG piece that Ive been promising for a LONG time…

What’s the Matter With Hollywood: Empty Emotion, Consequence-less Sacrifice

All-Too-Common Flaw #12! 

And so, after all this, we arrive at the thing I really hated about Pacific Rim…not that this is the only offender, because the same damn thing happens at the end of Superman Returns, The Dark Knight Rises, The Avengers, Star Trek Into Darkness and many more: The hero has a long, agonizing sequence where he sacrifices his life so everybody else will live...and then it turns out he’s just fine.
In this case, our lunkhead hero forces his co-pilot to eject to safety so that he can die saving everybody. And it works: she gets to safety and he just barely manages to complete his suicide mission at the last second…and then he easily ejects himself to safety as well.

This is the ultimate slap in the face to the audience: they force us to choose between our heroes, feel sad but proud of our hero’s final sacrifice and noble death, only to then say “oh, nevermind”, which just guarantees that we’ll feel nothing on our way home (nothing but annoyed, that is).

Once again, the audience is left to ask “But how could he survive what he and everybody else clearly understood to be a suicide mission? And why would the movie instantly deaden all those emotions it had briefly created?” Then you have to say, “Oh, I guess because of the sequel”...But there are two problems with that:
  • Precisely because the ending squandered its last chance to form an emotional connection with that audience, there’s not going to be good word of mouth and therefore there’s not going to be a sequel.
  • It should have been obvious to everybody on set that Hunnam was the movie’s biggest liability and their best hope for having a decent sequel would have been to kill him off while they had the chance.
But Star Trek Into Darkness was the slimiest example, because they shamelessly lifted Spock’s tearjerking death scene from the original Wrath of a way that totally reversed its meaning. In the original, the whole point was that Kirk had to experience his first big irreversible loss, realize that you can’t win them all, and finally grow up...but in the remake, Kirk himself dies, but then everything turns out fine and Kirk presumably learns the opposite message: “Que Pasa, no worries, dude!”
But wait, you say, in the original series Spock did eventually come back! Yes, but that was a different movie, three years later, after the characters and the audience had years of mourning. In the remake, Kirk was dead for all of ten minutes! Feel sad! Now feel happy! The end! When they tell us to feel horrible, and then immediately say “nevermind!”, all those feelings that they’ve summoned up just curdle in our stomachs and turn into contempt.
This sort of thing poisons our ability to enjoy any movie. The only way to protect yourself against this sort of insulting emotional abuse is to take a “you’ve fooled me too many times” attitude whenever any movie asks you care.

But let’s go back to Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, because that shows the greatest irony here: Presumably, these movies wimp out on killing the hero because the studio insists that their star be around for sequels. But what if Pacific Rim had ended with Hunnam disappearing into the breach, and a blast coming out that seals up the breach, and then all of his colleagues memorializing him as the credits rolled. Would they really have been screwed over if they wanted him back for a sequel?

Couldn’t Pacific Rim 2 begin with his co-pilot getting a twinge of a mind-meld from Hunnam and realizing he’s still alive on the other side of the breach, and he’s warning about a new attack, and they have to go rescue him? That sounds like a pretty interesting movie, right?

Instead, they’ve reset everything back to zero, which is actually a horrible place to leave it. What’s the sequel going to be now? The breach reopens, more monsters come out, and our heroes suit up again to have another fight. Ho-hum. Resetting the status quo at the end of your movie does your movie and your sequel no favors.

But wait, tomorrow we’ll get one final thought, also about this ending…

Storyteller’s Rulebook #202: The Internal Conflict Must Climax at the Same Time As (or After) the External Conflict

A short one today before the big climax tomorrow...
All-Too-Common Flaw #11! 

Pacific Rim feels like it’s over 90 minutes in, (which would have been a much better length, as Gravity showed us). Our heroes have successfully overcome their personal problems, learned to work together, killed every monster on Earth and received a hero’s welcome. But, as it turns out, there’s still 40 minutes left! To fill up the rest of the time, they have to generate up a new personal storyline, involving their boss’s illness, but it’s too little too late.

If they were going to stick with the mind-melding idea, then they would have needed to create a finale in which our heroes can’t finish the final monster off until they resolve the problem that’s been keeping them back the whole time. Then one of two things happen: either we see them solve it moments before they use the resulting power to kill the monster, or we see them kill the monster, then let them have a conversation later about how they were able to pull it off, and only then realize what they’ve achieved.
The point is that the flaw should be resolved either simultaneously with or after the external challenge is resolved, because as soon as the internal challenge end, the rest “all runs downhill.” An external challenge gives your movie visceral thrills, but the internal challenge gives it emotional power. If the thrills continue long after the emotion is gone, then it will feel empty and ultimately boring.

Which finally brings us to my biggest problem…

Storyteller’s Rulebook #201: Closure is the Opposite of Emotion aka Don’t Let Your Characters Read the Script!

This week well have the final four and then a long-promised huge post that is NOT about Pacific Rim, I promise!
All-Too-Common Flaw #10! 

At the end of Pacific Rim, two pairs of co-pilots are going off to fight the final batch of monsters. Charlie Hunnam and Rinko Kikuchi are getting in one robot, while Idris Elba and Robert Kazinsky are getting in the other. It seems unlikely that they’ll all survive this battle. Then a number of ominous things happen:

  • As soon as Elba suits up, Kikuchi says to him: “You’ll die if you get in there.” And he responds, “If I don’t get in there, we’ll all die.” Hmm…
  • Elba and Kazinsky take time out to have tearful farewells with everybody, explain that their sacrifice is worth it, and have some tearful hugs. The other pilots just hop in their robot and take off.
  • Just before they leave, Kazinsky’s father runs up to Elba, tearfully points to Kazinsky and says, “That’s my son, you’ve got there…” And you expect him to add, “You take care of him!”, but instead, he just repeats “…My! Son!” in a heart-in-his-throat “I’m proud of my dead gay son” tone of voice.
Okay, so now it’s very clear that these guys are going die…and yet we’re supposed to have another half hour worth of suspense about whether or not they make it? I found myself feeling that surely this must be a fake-out and the other two would die…but no, it happens exactly the way we all assumed it would.

Why does one pair say all those good-byes and the others don’t? Because they’ve all read ahead in the script…and as soon as we see those scenes, we have, too.

These scenes were supposed to make the deaths of these characters more emotional, but they have the opposite effect. Dying won’t be that sad now, because at least they’ve had a chance to get closure with all their loved ones. They want to make us worry more about these characters, but instead we worry less. We’re re-assured that there won’t be any surprises and so we’re already halfway out to the parking lot in our minds.

Just because the audience watches people feeling an emotion on screen doesn’t mean that the audience will share that emotion. In real life, you only realize that you really care about someone when you start worrying about them all the time.  The true source of worry is uncertainty. “Do I dare to care about this person, even though I don’t know how it’ll end?” When you eliminate the uncertainty about a character, whether you’re certain the character is either going to live or die, you eliminate the emotion.

Rulebook Casefile: Hypocritical Invocation of National Pain in Pacific Rim

All-Too-Common Flaw #9! 
So what’s this movie about? The first answer might be “nothing”, but that couldn’t be more wrong: there are actually lots of twinges of real life national pain...but they’re all mentioned in passing in a hypocritical way:
  • There’s a brief mention that the monsters are drawn to Earth because of our environmental devastation: “Depleted oxygen? We terraformed it for them!”
  • Government assholes are building a futile wall to keep aliens out.
  • We briefly glimpse a religion whose members blame themselves for the attacks.
  • There’s lots of 9/11 imagery.
  • There’s lots of World War 2 imagery.
  • And the whole thing is very reminiscent of the Deepwater Horizon spill.
But the answer to environmental devastation isn’t setting off nukes or killing monsters (even metaphorical ones). And surely the real world alternative to building that wall isn’t to build robots to beat up the “aliens”, is it?  The movie is just tossing in every idea it can get its hands out on without thinking any of it through. It doesn’t extract any meaning from any of these big ideas that it attempt to borrow.

You get the feeling that they came up with the idea, brainstormed a million different possible meanings for it, and then, instead of choosing one, they just used that brainstorm list as their script. This is equally true for both the plot and the theme: Sound and fury signifying nothing.

But wait, isn’t that the definition of the summer action movie? No, it isn’t. Action movies are supposed to feel like pure spectacle, but the good ones subtly use thematic resonance to make us care more, without forcing us to actively think about it on a conscious level. That’s the beauty of the form…when it’s done right.

Two Rulebook Casefiles: The Villain Need a Goal and Clash of Personalities in Pacific Rim

Today you get a Two-Fer: 7 and 8!
All-Too-Common Flaw #7: The Villain Need a Goal

People don’t go to movies to see the villain get killed, they go to see the villain get thwarted! They want the villain to have a concrete goal and they want the hero to conclusively block that goal at the last second. We want to see the look on the villain’s face when the plan fails.

In Pacific Rim, as in the Nolan Batman movies, the villains just want random mayhem, which means that the heroes can’t possibly win: no matter what happens, mayhem will ensue. If the monsters were trying to destroy the robot base, or destroy a certain city, or make their breach permanent, or something, then we could root for them to fail. But if all the villains want to do is crunch random buildings, then we can’t root very well root for the heroes to stop that...mayhem is the whole reason we bought our ticket!

This whole movie is defined by the hero’s goal (close the breach) but its always a stonger choice to define a story around the villain’s goal.

PLUS: All-Too-Common Flaw #8: Clash of Personalities, Not Agendas

The non-robot scenes in Pacific Rim go on forever, so in order to beef up the conflict, they added an undercooked rivalry between the characters played by Charlie Hunnam and Robert Kazinsky. Every time Hunnam gets in an argument with his boss, or loses a sparring match, it cuts to Kazinsky smirking sadistically for no reason. Several times, they shout insults at each other, and once it leads to a fistfight. Why? No reason.

This is the definition of phony conflict. These two characters actually have a shared goal and the same tactics. They don’t disagree at all about how or when or why to fight the monsters...they just dislike each other.

The audience simply cannot care about these sorts of clashes. We invest in a character’s goal, and we dislike any characters who oppose that goal, but audiences don’t invest in the hero’s personality, and we could care less when others are opposed to that. In fact, we’re usually drawn not to the character with the “best” personality but simply to the character with the most personality.

When the bully insults our hero and then struts away in step with his beloved bulldog, sharing a smirk, then guess who the audience admires? Here’s a hint: the audience is always going to be on the side of the dog.

Rulebook Casefile: Writing for 3D and CGI in Pacific Rim

All-Too-Common Flaw #6! 

It’s tempting to say that writers aren’t to blame for the crappy quality of movies these days, it’s the directors and producers that ruin them with CGI and 3D, right?

But more and more, writers are writing for CGI, and pre-ruining their own movies. I’m not talking about the presence of giant monsters and robots, I’m talking about the weightlessness of both. The screenwriter has to ask himself: how are these gargantuan robots supposed to get from the base to where the monsters are? Insanely, in this movie, each one is flown there dangling from helicopters!

Needless to say, as soon as we see helicopters lift a thousand ton robot, we lose all ability to believe in the robot’s existence, and we just start watching the effects. It’s as if the writer is just saying, “Screw it, these things are just CGI, they don’t weigh anything, I don’t have to figure out how they get around.”

(And don’t get me started on the scene where a character in a heavy suit of armor does the breast stroke in the ocean!)

For that matter, it’s tempting to blame all the rest of this movie’s other problems on an even newer phenomenon: “Writing for 3D”. After all, the whole idea of 3D is that you’re throwing stuff at the viewer, because you want us to say, “Wow that piece of wreckage almost hit me here in my seat!”…but of course the problem is that we don’t want to be in our seats, we want to be in the movie.
We care about a character when we identify with that character. We identify when we leap into a character’s shoes…but you’re creating an optical illusion that we’re thousands of feet away from the character with wreckage is flying by in between, which makes the characters impossible to care about.

Now that the 3D has come to seem like a permanent stain on the screen, it’s seems that the writers of these types of movies have come to see identification as an impossible dream, and no longer worth pursuing.

What’s the Matter With Hollywood: Those “American” Accents

All-Too-Common Flaw #5 

I hate watching a movie or TV show knowing in advance that a so-so foreign actor will be attempting an American accent, but it’s far worse when I don’t know beforehand, and find out the hard way.

I try to watch every TV pilot each season, but I was unable to finish the pilot for ABC’s soap opera “Betrayal” because the whole show is set in motion by a romantic rooftop scene where our star-crossed Chicago lovers stand in front of a Chicago skyline and talk about how very Chicago-ish their lives are…but they’re using two of the most bizarre British-American accents I’ve ever heard.

I was aware in advance that Stuart Townsend was British, because I’d suffered through his pseudo-accent in the “Kolchak” pilot a few years ago, but the actress was new to me, and I naively assumed she was American…until I started wondering what the hell was wrong with her voice.

Of course, I don’t know why I assumed that, because I knew full well that almost every American on American TV these days is played by a Brit.

Every time I get to hear a showrunner speak (Matthew Weiner, David Milch) they complain bitterly about the intense pressure they get from networks to cast Brits in all of the lead roles, despite the fact that their accents are often atrocious. Tom Fontana told me, of a certain British TV actor he refused to hire, “The network insisted that he had a perfect New York accent, but if that’s true, there must be sixth borough in the middle of the Atlantic!”

As for why the networks cast British women, I have no idea, but as for the men, I’ve heard two theories:
  • The producers feel that America can’t produce manly men any more, so rather than settle for a generation of weak-chinned Phillippes, LaBeoufs, and Ventimiglias, they have no choice but to go across the pond.
  • Wealthy producers and directors love to show tough-talking Americans on screen, but they hate the thought of working with such uncouth ruffians, so they want stars who will switch off that toughness as soon as the shot ends, and goes back to dipping biscuits in their tea.
I’d like to believe that neither of these is true...Maybe there’s some better explanation I don’t know about?
I never watched “Sons of Anarchy”, but I knew Charlie Hunnam had been playing an American on that show for years, and the show is fairly well regarded, so it never occurred to me to worry about his American accent in Pacific Rim…until he opened his mouth, and my jaw hit the floor.

What the hell is this supposed to be: “I wuz steel connaykted to mah brutha when he duyed!” It seems to be some bizarre mix of northern England, Brando-Brooklyn, and California surfer.

Sure enough, as with the nuke problem, I had to go home and google this to make sure I wasn’t crazy. Nope, I’m not the only one. What the hell? Have Hollywood types surrounded themselves with Brits for so long that they can’t hear the difference?  This kills movies and TV shows.  Don’t they get that?

Podcast AND Storyteller’s Rulebook #200: Don’t Ignore the Irony Inherent in Your Premise

A two-fer today!  First we have a new Podcast: I was once again a guest on James Monohan’s Narrative Breakdown podcast, and this time we talk about flaws and flip-side strengths!  But of course we don’t want to slow down our 13-part series either, so let’s also do:
All-Too-Common Flaw #4 

A few years ago, Denzel Washington directed a highly-fictionalized “true story” about a debate team at an all-black college that gets to challenge the Harvard team in the 1930s. As it happens, the team gets assigned to defend the proposition that blacks should have equal rights. They do a good job with that and win. Yay.
The Great Debaters commits the cardinal sin of all hokey period pieces: It irons out the irony. What makes this so frustrating is that there is a ton of irony inherent in that premise. Here’s why college debate teams are interesting: you don’t get to choose which side you argue. That gets randomly assigned. So what if the black team had been assigned the anti-civil rights side of the argument? Then you would have one hell of an ironic movie!
It would be super hard to want to do, of course, and they would balk, but then, after a few stern speeches from Washington, they would realize that this was their big opportunity. They would have to create devastating anti-integration arguments, proving that blacks weren’t the equal of whites...but the more they proved that blacks weren’t equal in theory the more their eloquence would prove that they were equal in reality!

At that point you could end the movie either way and it would still be powerfully ironic. With that ending in doubt, the whole movie would come alive. Instead, with the version they made, we know the whole time that there’s only one way to end it, unless they want to make it look like this whole integration business was a big mistake.

Pacific Rim has a similar problem. People control giant robots to fight giant monsters...What kind of people? Well, our hero is big strong meathead who’s pretty good at beating people up even without the world’s biggest pair of brass knuckles. Where’s the irony in that? (This is like Green Lantern, where the power of flight was granted to someone who already had the power of flight.)
So who should have been the hero of Pacific Rim? Well, you don’t have to look far. Every time Charlie Hunnam is on screen, the whole movie falls asleep, but the big subplot stars a cocky little tattooed geek-scientist played by Charlie Day, and every time he appears the movie suddenly comes alive. It shouldn’t take a genius to figure out that he should have been the hero: After all, the whole point is that it takes a lot of brain power to run the why not choose a little genius with a huge personality?
This would have made that misleading tagline come true: “To Fight Monsters, We Created Monsters.” In this version, we watch the power go to the head of this little dynamo now that he can finally kick ass for the first time, then we see him gradually realize that real combat requires military discipline and true humility! That sounds like a much better movie to me.

Rulebook Casefile: The Muddled Metaphor of Pacific Rim

All-Too-Common Flaw #3!

The central conceit of Pacific Rim is that one pilot can’t control a giant robot without getting a nosebleed (heaven forbid!) so they have to have two pilots do a mind-meld in order to share the load. Okay, that’s somewhat interesting, but what’s the metaphor here? I guess you could say that that’s a metaphor for how real world co-pilots learn to work together…but that has nothing to do with the core concept of Monsters vs. Robots. The metaphor, to the extent that it exists, is muddled, inert, and extraneous.

Besides, the filmmakers don’t really care about this plotline: the whole first half is about how hard it is to mind-meld, and sure enough, the first time our heroes try it, they fail catastrophically, almost blowing up the base in the process. Naturally, they get fired...but then in the next big attack all of the other pilots fail and the boss has no choice but to call on our infamously-bad-at-mind-melding heroes. What will our troubled heroes see in each other’s memories this time, and will they be able to deal with it??

Sorry, we never find out, because once the movie finally gets to indulge in robot vs. monster mayhem, mind-melding is never shown or mentioned again! Who cares? We’ve got monsters to punch! We just have to assume the whole problem was dealt with offscreen, I guess.

This exemplifies so many problems we’ve talked about before. Mind-melding is hard to do but it isn’t hard to want to do. (It might have been if each pilot was trying to hide memories from the other, but neither one is.) The whole concept is an abstraction or an abstraction. Worst of all, this premise is neither how life is nor how life feels. You know how, in real life, if you want to defeat monstrous people, you have to reach into the memories of the person next to you? No? You’ve never felt that way? Of course not.

So what should they have done? Just look at the poster. I do freelance copywriting work for a book publisher, and one shocking thing they’ve taught me is that, if the premise for the book you’re selling is confusing or too dumb, you just lie about what it is in order to sell it, creating a tagline for what the book should have been. The buyers will be disappointed, of course, but hey, at least they bought it.
Sure enough, if you look at the poster for Pacific Rim, you’ll see that the tagline promises a much better concept: “To fight monsters, we created monsters.” That’s a movie I’d like to see! Some smart copywriter realized that the movie didn’t work because it wasn’t ironic, so he or she created a premise for the poster that was ironic, that did relate the basic concept. Monsters vs. Robots...what could go wrong with that? Well, what’s the most ironic answer? The robots turn out to be worse than the monsters! Then we’d have a movie!

We’ll explore that possibility more next time…