Storyteller’s Rulebook #145: Say No Way To Melee

Okay, okay, so we’ve established that John Carter and Green Lanternhave nonsensical stories and flat characters…but who cares, am I right?  These are big sci-fi action spectacles!  We come for the adrenaline pumping hell-yeah moments!  All that other stuff is just what you fast-forward past on the Blu-Ray! 

Well…no.  As stultifying as the character scenes were in these movies, nothing could have prepared me for how profoundly boringthe action scenes were.  Matthias Stork has edited together an excellent series of video essays about how poorly shot, poorly edited and generally chaotic action movies are today.  But at least some of the sequences he features were well-written, before the directors messed them up.  What has become more and more common, however, are action scenes that die on the page.  
The main problem, in a word, is melee.  With the help of CGI, writers know that directors can simply throw whole armies at each other and let them lash out wildly at each other for twenty minutes.  Why put one thing onscreen when you can put everything?  But watching a hundred Green Lanterns shoot beams at a yellow blob isn’t very interesting, nor is watching a thousand green Martians hack away at a thousand red Martians.  

Yes, in the old days, there were budgetary reasons to cut away from the main action, but there were also story reasons.  We can only invest ourselves in the goals of the main character, and that goal can’t just be “to win”.  A good action sequence must be broken down into a series of mini-goals, with lots of ups and downs: shifting tactics, surprises, reversals, etc.  An action scene is a mystery scene: the mystery of “how can I overcome this opponent?” so the hero should be gathering clues the whole time.

Which leads us to another CGI-inspired problem, the villains are just way too big.  In the book, John Carter defeats a normal-sized white ape bare-handed, which makes for a thrilling action scene.  In the movie, he defeats two 50-foot high white apes, which is just boring.  In order to root for a hero, we have to be right in there with him, helping him figure out his next move.  We have to have some sense of the strengths and weaknesses of the villains while we root for the hero to overcome the former and exploit the latter. 

This may sound counter-intuitive: defeating one 6-foot ape is bad-ass, so it should be more bad-ass to defeat two 50-foot apes…but no.  The first feels like a man-to-man fight, which triggers our primitive instincts and gets our adrenaline pumping.   The second is clearly a man vs. effect fight, which just makes us idly wonder how big the budget was.

The ultimate bad guy in John Carter (who wasn’t in the book at all) is literally a god: he can fly, teleport, read minds, turn invisible, turn intangible, and create laser guns out of thin air.  How are we supposed to root for anybody to defeat this guy?  (And don’t ask me how or if he did get defeated, I was totally lost by that point.)

Likewise in Green Lantern, the yellow blob defeats every other Green Lantern simultaneously, then goes on to destroy whole planets, but when the new rookie Green Lantern faces it, he just says, “I dunno, why don’t I try to push it into the sun?”  And yup, that works.   Like John Carter, he never investigates anything, never discovers any hidden weakness, never learns anything new from experience…he just keeps saying, “Maybe this will work” and it pretty much always does.  

So I could go on for several more weeks about the flaws of these movies, but Ill go ahead and call an end to this postmortem.  I watched them so that you don’t have to.  Heed the wisdom of my scars.  

Storyteller’s Rulebook #144: Women Shouldn’t Have To Have It All

Both John Carterand Green Lantern shared a big flaw with Attack of the Clones: the love interest who has six stressful jobs but still wants to spend all of her time soothing, scolding or smooching the hero. 
  • As I pointed out here, Natalie Portman in AOTC is a queen and a senator and handy with a laser pistol, but she really just wants to hang out with her psychopathic boyfriend. 
  • Lynn Collins in John Carter is a scientist, a princess and a warrior, but when she meets her very first space alien in a chaotic mid-air collision, she’s already flirting like crazy by the time they hit the ground.   
  • 23 year old Blake Lively in Green Lantern is the CEO of an Aviation company, and a superstar test pilot (these were two separate characters in the comics that were combined into one), but she spends every night throwing herself at her douchebag ex-boyfriend, despite the fact that he’s doing everything he can to wreck her company, literally and figuratively.  
“So what?”, you may ask.  “Who says women can’t have it all?  Why can’t they bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan, and still never ever let him forget he’s a man?”  Well, okay, they can…but they shouldn’t have to.  You would never have a male character that’s a flirty scientist-warrior.  It’s a bizarre agglomeration of traits. 

Of course, these writers’ hearts may be in the right place…They don’t want a love interest that’s just a love interest, and they don’t want her to be useless in the action scenes for fear of presenting a bad role-model. But the real reason that they’re piling all these roles onto the female lead is that they desperately want to avoid having any other female characters in the movie. 

If you want to say that “women can be anything”, that’s great, but the way to show that is to have multiple women doing multiple things, not to have one woman do everything. 

I hate to keep going back to Superman, but in the Superman comics I read as a kid, he had lots of positive female characters in his life: the love of his life was a tough investigative reporter, but he also worked with a kick-ass lesbian police lieutenant and had a platonic partnership with an even more kick-ass Amazon princess. 
That’s the way to do it.  If you combined all of these women into one character, who was all those things but still selflessly devoted herself to soothing Superman’s tortured brow every night, then that would be pretty damn silly. 

Storyteller’s Rulebook #143: The Difference Between an Action Movie and a Thriller

At the beginning of Green Lantern, a voiceover tells us about the rich tradition of the Green Lantern Corps.  Over time, we see them training, we see them fight a yellow blob in space that wants to kill them, and we see them gather in a big amphitheater, where they stand at attention while an angry man with a funny little mustache tells them that they will remain mighty because they worship “willpower”.  Then they all raise one hand in salute. 

Do these sound like good guys to you? 

Nevertheless, the movie might have possibly overcome its Hitler-ish overtones if it had once, just once, shown any of these non-Earth Green Lanterns helping anybody. Even after our Earth-bound Green Lantern accepts the job, he never once helps anybody who’s not in danger because of something related to…the Green Lanterns. 

Every single threat in the movie traces back to that yellow blob, and the yellow blog was itself created by, you guessed it, the Green Lantern Corps!  This is one of those movies where the heroes could have solved the whole problem by not doing anything.   
Remember that montage in Superman: The Movie where Superman catches the cat burglar and the crooks on the boat, then gets a cat out of a tree?  They would cut it out sometimes on TV, but I always missed it.  Green Lantern could learn a thing or two from that.  These scenes showed why it was all worth it.     

The big difference between an action movie and a thriller is civilians.  You’re allowed to have a noir-ish thriller in which nobody but our hero is ever in danger, but action heroes can’t just be victims of the fickle finger of fate.  They’re taking responsibility for other people.  And they didn’t create the menace in the first place.  Popeye Doyle didn’t start the drug trade.  John McClaine didn’t hire Hans Gruber.  Keanu Reeves didn’t put that bomb on that bus.  These guys saw that civilians were in trouble so they stepped in to help.

Yes it’s ridiculous in super-hero movies whenever they have that clichéd scene of a girl in a dark alley being menaced by the inevitable gang of multicultural thugs.  But you know what’s even more ridiculous?  Not having that scene.  Because what’s the point of being a superhero if you’re not going to help? 

Storyteller’s Rulebook #142: Audiences Don’t Actually Care About Stories

With both John Carterand Green Lantern, I knew after five minutes that I was in for an epic disaster, because both movies begin with a long, ponderous voice-over and SFX montage showing us the whole history of an alien civilization. This is almost always a sign that you’ve watching a flop: Dune, The Chronicles of Riddick, The Golden Compass, etc…

These montages represent a fundamental misunderstanding of how movies work: they assume that the audience is going to care about the story.  The fact is that audiences, no matter how much they love the movie, never really care about the story, they only care about the hero(or heroes).

This is illustrated by a painful profile of John Carter director Andrew Stanton that ran in the “New Yorker” two weeks before the movie opened.  Stanton just didn’t get it, despite the best efforts of his colleagues to set him straight:
  • At most studios, filmmakers try to keep the execs at bay, but at Pixar the Braintrust of six to twelve story gurus is intimately involved in revising every movie—“plussing” it, in Pixar’s term. They were confused by the film’s beginning, in which Princess Dejah delivered a lecture about the state of the Barsoomian wars, and they found her arch and stony. John Lasseter asked Stanton, “What are people going to hang on to and care about?”
  • Stanton is famously candid in other people’s Braintrust sessions, and famously prickly in his own. The Braintrust suggested a fix for the opening: why don’t we discover Mars through John Carter’s eyes, when he arrives? “That’s lazy thinking, guys,” Stanton replied. “If I do that, then thirty minutes in I’m going to have to stop the film to explain the war, and Dejah, and who everyone is, and we’re going to have even bigger problems.”
…But he had it backwards.  It may seem sad to hear that the audience will never care about your story, but it’s actually great news, since it makes your job a lot easier.  On the one hand, as I’ve discussed many times, it’s insanely hard to get an audience to truly care about your hero, but the pay-off is that this is all you have to do. 

Stanton put himself in an impossible position: He asked his audience to care about a lot of disconnected things, one after another.  His movie had five unrelated framing sequences (I’m not kidding) and he expected his audience to find a new way to care about each one. 
Pixar’s braintrust was right: we weren’t going to care about Mars until John cared about Mars.  First we should invest ourselves in his journey, then we should see the way that Mars represents his greatest wish, or his greatest fear, or an ironic answer to his big question.  If we care about John, we’ll care about Mars.  Otherwise, the movie is screwed. 

But wait, you may ask, haven’t I previously suggested opening a movie with a framing sequence?  Sure enough, I suggested:
  • A prologue scene that leaves a big question in the viewer’s mind: maybe a framing sequence, or mysterious crime, or a flashforward, or a moment of absurdity, or a self-contained interaction that represents the theme.
…But the key words here are “big question.”  The opening info-dumps in John Carter and Green Lantern aren’t starting us off with questions, they’re starting us off with answers…answers to questions that nobody asked.  This brings us back to another rule: Withhold exposition until the hero and the audience are demanding to know it!

Beginning Tomorrow: Truly Terrible Movies Week…

Recently, we’ve a long run of really-low-quality Hollywood blockbusters, but at the same time we’ve had a rising culture of movie-reviewer intimidation, coming from three directions:
  • From studios, who have always tried but are now succeeding more than ever.
  • From entertainment editors, who are afraid that if the reviewer pisses anybody off that the paper will just cut the section altogether
  • And, most disturbingly, from fanatic trolls who have started mass-emailing death threats to any reviewer who lowers the Rotten Tomatoes ranking of their favorite movies. 
As a result, even artless sludge like The Hunger Games adaptation and Dark Knight Rises get sky-high rankings on Rotten Tomatoes, just because they aren’t terrible. 

So all this begs the question: Just how bad does a blockbuster have to be to get savaged by the critics these days?  You need to make a movie that fails on absolutely every level, that’s physically painful to sit through...You need to make John Carterand Green Lantern. 

I rented these movies this summer and watched each of them with my jaw on the floor.  I realized that I had discovered two timeless masterpieces of awfulness.  Since they both failed in similar ways, I’m going to spend this week drawing lessons on what not to do from this gruesome twosome. 

(Quick note: fans of movies like these tend to attack critics from two sides, either saying, “Your can’t criticize it if you haven’t read the books!” or, “You’re only criticizing it because you won’t accept that it’s not exactly like the book!”  So allow me to say that I have read and enjoyed the source material for both movies, but I’m only a casual fan in both cases.)

So we’ll begin tomorrow with the biggest revelation I had while watching these, which is applicable to every type of movie…