The Disney-Lucasfilm corporate fornication did not reach my ears immediately upon its occurrence, as I was huddling in the dark around a barrel fire, eating charred squirrel during the hurricane.
But, once it did reach my ears, my initial response was an overwhelming…
Mnuh? Guh? Eh. Whatever.
Star Wars? Big part of my youth. As it was a part of the collective youth of many in my age range. The first trilogy was a fundamental narrative marker in our burgeoning personalities, for better or for worse. It left its fingerprint. Indelible and undeniable.
Then, the new trilogy came out — and, for that I was geeked beyond belief. That hearty nerd-wind filled my sails until I finally saw Phantom Menace and… was… excited at first? And then after that, a series of diminishing returns. My mind, affected the same way an addict’s mind is affected: that single dopamine rush never again experienced. The new trilogy could not match the power of the first, and with ever repeated viewing and every new film, the geyser of pleasure lessened until eventually it was just an airy splutter from a gassy garden hose. Splurt. Pbbbt. Dribble.
I’m not one of those people who think that the new trilogy is some kind of betrayal to my childhood. I don’t think they’re the worst films ever put on screen. They have some great stuff. They also have some face-punching, head-scratching storytelling going on. I don’t think Lucas betrayed us. I just think he kinda…
Missed the mark. Hubris and hamartia.
So: new trilogy gets announced, I just wasn’t that excited. I had as much excitement as one would have when, say, hearing an announcement for a new “triple-exxxtreme-ultra-mouth-blaster” flavor of Mountain Dew: I’m happy for those that care, but I won’t be partaking, thanks.
And yet, something’s changed.
I have this feeling —
Effervescent. Bubbly. Like Mountain Dew but without the horrible taste. A giddy, giggly something inside.
You might be saying, “Ahh, it’s because Chuck heard that Lucas isn’t really all that involved.”
Maybe it’s that Harrison Ford said he’d be happy to resume the role of Han Solo.
Or that Carrie Fisher wants to play Leia again.
Nope, and nope. (Actually, I’m not sure either of those are a good idea.)
Maybe it’s that Michael Arndt, kick-ass screenwriter and big story-thinker extraordinaire, is tackling the film? Or that they have a number of high-octane directors in line to take control of the franchise?
Nope, but that does inflate the “hope balloon” by several liters of warm, cozy air.
Here’s what it is:
When I saw Star Wars: Episode IV, I was four years old.
And, when Episode VII drops, my son will be four years old.
I’ll be able to take my son to a brand new Star Wars film.
And it’ll be his. It won’t be mine. Maybe I’ll like it. Maybe I’ll love it. But if it’s done right — and I hope that it is — it’ll mark him in a way that it won’t mark me. It’ll be a thing he remembers, a thing that gets him happy and gives him imagination fuel for the next ten, twenty, thirty years.
That’s why I’m excited. Because it’s coming full circle. It’s not about Lucas or Han Solo or any screenwriter or director. It’s about what I can show to and share with my son.
I’m excited because the Force will one day be with him, too.
Great movie. As I get older, I have a harder and harder time appreciating four-color rock-em-sock-em fests like The Avengers (which I liked, before you yell at me) and for me the Nolan Batman run has been one where the superhero story has been upgraded to feel like it’s by adults, for adults. It doesn’t ignore the reality of what Batman is — it keeps the creepy bits where “rich dude dresses up like vigilante to defend city from psychopathic terrorists and criminals” fairly well intact. It doesn’t look away from that discomfort.
As every story is a lesson to other storytellers, let’s peel away the Bat Nipples and look deeper into what I think worked about the film, and a little bit into what maybe didn’t work so well.
Some very mild general spoilers below. (Can’t promise the comments are a safe zone, though.)
Getting The Bat Right
Batman’s a hard dude to get right.
You gotta balance the vigilante with the billionaire. You have to keep his past in the front windshield while still not focusing so heavily on it that it becomes mawkish and obvious. You have to acknowledge his heroism while also acknowledging (at least a wee bit) his derangement. You have to see how he walks a line between psycho-conservative and radical liberal. You need to find the human in the suit.
This film does all that. Somehow juggling it all in a film where, surprisingly, Batman is not getting the majority of screen-time. This isn’t a movie about Batman, not really. It’s a movie about Gotham.
Be advised: I now really want to write Batman. So, somebody make that happen.
Batman Not About Batman
Most Batman stories give you too much Batman. And any time they spend time on other characters, hey, you just want to get back to Bats. Not here. TDKR goes long periods without ever visiting Mister Wayne, and this is a feature, not a bug. The film is populated with an incredibly strong supporting cast — not just in terms of acting but in writing (and more on that in a moment). By focusing on the characters orbiting Batman and by taking a long hard look at a city under siege, you start to get Batman. Batman is made stronger by those who carry him up — both narratively in the plot and metaphorically as a character.
Further, it ensures that when you do see Wayne/Batman, you’re so geeked out you’re doing the equivalent of the pee-pee dance inside your head. By limiting Batman, the strength of the character shines through.
He’s more potent that way.
And never overwhelms.
Good characters have alarming moments of weakness. Bad characters have troubling moments of nobility. Some characters vacillate so you don’t really know where to pin them — good, bad, selfish, assholes, not assholes, and so forth. It’s a wonderful tango — the script doesn’t give us four-color comic book characters. The script lets each character possess a million colors apiece — and just as many shades of gray.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt is this film’s winner, by the way. He is its throughline.
Start The Story Late
The story doesn’t spend a lot of time getting you up to speed. A lot has changed since we last visited Gotham and the story isn’t interested in playing catch-up: in fact, it leaps forward with some things being big question marks in the hopes and trust (correctly placed) that the audience will play detective and stay invested. It works. As such, what could be a very boggy beginning is as lean as it could possibly be.
I don’t want to trust my storytellers. I want a storyteller to show me that I can’t trust him. You can’t trust Nolan and that’s fucking phenomenal. I want him to do things to the character and the storyworld — and, by proxy, to me the poor little quivering audience member gnawing his fingernails down to the bloody quick — that aren’t right. I basically want all my storytellers to be Verbal Kint from The Usual Suspects.
Every Hit Hurts
In this kind of movie, characters need to feel pain. Not merely physical, but the pain of unkept emotions, of betrayals, of lost love and all of that. Bruce Wayne’s transformation into Batman only works if that pain is palpable — and we feel it in every twist of the film and every bone-shattering Bane punch.
Twists That Work
The film gets a bit twisty now and again. And every twist works. Why? Because Nolan isn’t just trolling us — he sets up each twist with a good two or three beats before hand so when it comes, you think, “Oh, see, he’s been showing me this the whole time, and I either didn’t get why, or he did some other misdirecting voodoo and I stopped thinking about it.” This is the man that made The Prestige, after all.
Some folks wanted The Riddler in this film.
Nolan is the Riddler in this film.
Overtold, On The Nose
If I had to be honest, while the front of the film is as lean as it probably could be, it still suffers from a characters overtelling the story — not so much to catch us up but to tell us their feelings on plot events.
It feels on-the-nose at times, like they’re mouthpieces for certain beliefs or otherwise want to be oh so very earnest, and it feels stilted and stunted. That goes away over time, but the front of the film is heavy with it.
The Sound Mix
Holy shitty sound mix, Batman.
I saw it in IMAX — which is to say, “IMAX” in quotations because it’s kinda half-a-dick IMAX — and the sound was a deep bass crotch-punch. Impactful! But muddy. And it meant Bane often sounded like this:
I probably missed about 25% of what that dude said.
I lost dialogue from other characters, too — any character speaking at a low, deep register was in danger of saying words that became naught but a thunder rumble to my ears.
These are top-shelf theaters and I still get better sound at home. And not for a ton of money, either.
I liked it.
Really great movie.
I have a very strong visceral (meaning positive) reaction to the second film, and wasn’t a huge fan of the first one, but this one ties all three together into a single storyline. And while I maybe enjoyed the second one more, this one might actually be the better story. Not sure yet. More ruminating needed.
OH! And I would totally watch a Nolan-made Catwoman movie with Hathaway in the role.
Hathaway, as a sidenote, is my ideal Miriam Black, for those who have read Blackbirds.
(Though Lizzy Caplan is sometimes Miriam now, too.)
(This is really apropos of nothing so I’ll shut up.)
(Beware. Below be spoilers. Also, I’m posting this Sunday, but it’s my Monday post. Shut up.)
If you’ve come to find out whether I liked the movie:
I liked it.
You now may go.
Go on! Shoo. Shoo. Ah, you’d prefer I offer up some kind of… valuation. A grading or ranking of sorts. A 3.5 out of 5! A B, maybe a B+! One thumb up and the other thumb kind of herkily-jerkily turning up and down in a most uncertain manner. There. Done. Graded. Off with you, then.
Aaaaand you’re still here.
Well, since you’re stuck to me like gum on a shoe, I suppose you’ll forgive me rambling a bit about the film? And the story? See, this is a fascinating film. Fascinating for its strengths, and fascinating for its (many) flaws. A number of folks on Twitter tried to turn me off of seeing this film (which is a bit curious — I mean, if there’s a bridge washed out on the way to the theater, please do warn me, but otherwise, assume I’m capable of making this decision) as if a lack of enjoyment was reason enough not to go. It isn’t. Not really. Because even in a flawed film I’ll still find value — it may not be an entertainment value, but storytelling done badly has educational value, at the very least.
And so I knew going in I’d likely get some education.
I did. Not because it’s a bad film. It’s not. It is to my mind quite good — it’s beautiful, elegant, icy, and has some truly gut-churning scenes of body horror. Just the same, it’s a film that misses its mark, but that’s okay — the mark was quite small and quite far and it was brave of them to shoot for it. I appreciate a film that aims for the bullseye and misses more than a film that tries only to hit the broad side of a barn and then — nicely done, chap! — hits. Aspirations matter in storytelling. They’re not the only thing. But they matter.
Here is where the aspirations of Prometheus fall down — and, also, where the storytelling lessons lurk.
This is a film about ideas, not about people.
Put more crassly, it’s a film about plot, not about character.
There exists a mode of storytelling that some call “plot-driven,” and Prometheus is most certainly that. The plot is a machine. A program, of sorts. Things happen — or, to the storyteller’s mind, “need” to happen — and the characters are forced to either catch up, strap in, or retroactively become part of the mechanics. The plot-driven storyteller says, “I need the White House to explode,” and so they arrange events and shuffle characters to make that happen. It’s all a bit of artifice. Sometimes it’s done well. Most times it’s done so you notice it — you see the puppet characters living in the shadow of the sequence, relegated to catalysts or bystanders or square pegs hammered into circle holes.
BUT ENOUGH OF ALL THIS SEXY TALK OF PEGS AND HOLES, you say. What, then, is character-driven storytelling? A plot is a plot is a plot, so what’s the problem?
Well, as I’ve said in the past and will say again and again because I quite like the way it sounds and I think it’s clever and I am at times in love with my own cleverness, “Plot is like Soylent Green: it’s made of people.” By which I mean, plot does not exist as a mechanism for characters to hop into, but rather, characters — by being characters with their sticky wants and trembling fears and all their other foibles and peccadilloes — create the mechanism by making choices based on their motivations. They’re building the machine as they go. They’re not cogs. They’re prime movers. They’re the motherfucking engineers.
Mark that word. “Engineers.” We’ll come back to it.
The storytellers of Prometheus — or so I like to imagine — sat down and said, “Okay, we need to retrofit an origin for the Alien mythology, and we’ve got this basket full of lofty ideas we can play with. We’ve got fate and free will and faith. We’ve got questions of science and ethics. Plus we’ve got all these other little awesome things — body horror and sci-fi tropes and spaceships and corporations and, y’know, aliens. It’s great!” And they went off to the races imagining the sequence of events necessary to bring the story backward far enough to explain the origins of, oh, all of mankind and then forward enough so that the audience starts to see where the Alien mythology comes from.
Somewhere, I like to also imagine one of the writers squinting and lifting a delicate finger and, when someone calls on him he says, “Ummmm. So. What about the characters?” * blink blink blink*
And then there’s a lot of ohh and mmmm and ahh yes right of course, and then they get to figuring out the characters. But that’s already the wrong order. The machine is built. Now the characters can only fit into it — like plugs, like gears. It’s an inorganic fit, as if characters are just automatons shuffled onto the stage.
And it shows. Yes, our lead scientist has “issues” of faith, but they feel painted on — as shallow and shiny as lipstick, and just as easy to rub off and forget. Characters make decisions not because they’re characters, but because they’re serving the Great And Powerful Plot Machine. One character gets inexplicably drunk because… the plot needs him to be drunk. Another character — a biologist — cares nothing for biology at one point and then gets lost (because the plot needs him to be lost) and, upon meeting some squicky Star Wars trash compactor creature decides now that he loves biology so much he wants to play a game of grab-ass with the damn thing. Again, because the plot demands it. (A tiny note: this film is filled with scientists and they are easily the shittiest scientists ever put to film.) David the android is a cipher because… drum roll please, the plot demands it. The plot demands things left and right and soon characters are constantly betraying good sense and their own motivations to feed the howling mechanical beast.
The plot is in service to ideas and ideas drive the film — but again, the connection is missed between plot/character and idea/human. Ideas are the most human thing in the world. They’re ours. All life is subject to genetics but only human life is subject to memetics and so it is a great shame to separate people from ideas. Science obeys laws outside of us but the study of those laws are uniquely, well, us.
Ahh, but here’s where it’ll really bake your noodle. Remember, I asked you to bank that word, “Engineer.” Well, that’s what the characters in this film call the aliens that “made” us (and who are apparently an exact genetic match despite being easily twice our size) — and it starts to occur to me that the problems I’m having with the film are in a way the problems that exist in the film’s storyworld and mythology, too. In the world, characters discover that humanity was made by uncaring titanic space-psychopaths who engineered events without regards to any kind of emotional intervention that they can parse. And I, as a film-goer, feel the same thing about the film itself: the plot and characters are made by the “engineers” (the storytellers) who have little interest in the emotional intervention of the characters. The plot is the plot. Mechanisms — let’s call it “fate” — exist outside the characters and beyond the audience. The characters have minimal agency because the Space Gods — whether they be the writers or the albino xeno-titans who created us — don’t want them to possess that agency.
The storytellers are the titans. The titans are the storytellers. Man — and character — is puppet.
Prometheus serves as a commentary on its own storytelling.
Probably not intentional.
Though, if it is, pretty much genius.
So, to conclude: I liked it. I did. I was entertained and educated. It’s a beautiful film and its many ideas and questions are still ping-ponging around the ol’ skull-cave.
But it’s not a character-driven piece. If it were, it would’ve been an A+, I think.
Oh, and P.S., it’s basically just the first Alien movie retold in a bigger, weirder way.
Good news: I finished the novel. Better news: I still have to do some editing, so I’m reserving a portion of this week for that purpose. Best news: that means you still get some guest posts from some awesome human beings. First up this week is Stephen Blackmoore, an all around awesome dude and great urban fantasy writer. His first book, CITY OF THE LOST, drops next year, and the follow-up, DEAD THINGS, not long after. In fact, I just had the pleasure of reading DEAD THINGS, and it was one of the most gripping books I read all of last year. So. Here’s Stephen, then. Don’t forget to check out his website, LA NOIR, and follow the man on Der Twittermachine: @sblackmoore.
I’ve been watching a lot of film noir from the forties and fifties over at Noir City, the noir film festival going on this month at The Egyptian Theater in Hollywood, and I’ve noticed something that’s been bothering me.
There are a lot of happy endings.
Sure, people die. There’s betrayal, shattered dreams, physical and psychological torture. But come on, you don’t have that you don’t have film noir. But with few exceptions the protagonists not only survive, they fall in love and live happily ever after.
Seriously, what the fuck?
Take the film THE HUNTED (**spoilers ahead, but that’s okay because chances are you’ll never see this movie**) with Preston Foster and Belita, who’s got to have one of the weirdest careers in film noir history. It’s about a cop who sent his lover up the river for robbery four years before and she might not have done it. Now she’s out on parole after vowing (cue dramatic chord) vengeance.
There’s a creepy factor, Foster was 48 when he made this movie and Belita’s character is 20, which means his character was banging her when she was sixteen, so that’s nicely disturbing. But that one scene where everything is supposed to climax in a hail of bullets and they kill each other before discovering she’s been cleared of the robbery and a subsequent murder?
Doesn’t happen. He gets shot in the shoulder. Shrugs it off. Her Electra complex is in full swing so she forgives him for railroading her into Tehachapi for four years. They jet off to Paris.
This is film noir cock block at its worst. Instead of walloping you with the haymaker you’re waiting for it taps you on the cheek in a pissy little slapfight. An otherwise interesting little film gets ruined because it pussies out at the last minute.
And that’s the writer lesson for today. Don’t pull your punches.
Everybody’s got a line they don’t want to cross. Ideas they’re not comfortable with. And those lines tend to extend into the things they like to read. I’m not saying it’s a one to one. Most of us, well, most of you, don’t really want to murder people.
But we’re just fine watching it on teevee. At least until we run into one of our lines.
There’s this thing in publishing I keep hearing about how if you hurt animals or children in your book you’ll alienate readers and get hate mail. Everything else is fair game.
Go ahead, eat the dismembered corpse of your antagonist. Lop off his head and ram it onto a stick. Just don’t shoot the baby.
You know what? Fuck that. Shoot the baby.
Your readers’ boundaries are there to be used. Violence, sex, torture, whatever. Those lines they don’t want you to cross, beat on them with a baseball bat. They’re chinks in their emotional armor. They’re exploitable. And whether you like the idea or not, as a writer you’re a dirty, lying manipulator.
Case in point, the novel BOULEVARD by Stephen Jay Schwartz. It’s about an LAPD vice cop who’s a sex addict. So, you know, it’s got sex. Lots of sex. Oooooh. Sex. Sex sex sex.
And it makes your skin crawl.
Schwartz has got sex scenes in this book that make you want to bathe in turpentine. It’s awkward, uncomfortable, explicit. There’s nothing erotic in it. It’s like watching an alcoholic go on a weekend bender.
He doesn’t pull his punches and instead of titillating, it’s tragic. And when it clicks just how fucked up this guy’s life is Schwartz owns you.
Now there is one thing about this I will say you can’t, must not, never, ever, ever do. Really.
DO NOT FUCKING WASTE IT.
It’s like that Bugs Bunny / Daffy Duck cartoon where they’re competing for the best vaudeville act and Daffy wins by blowing himself up. The audience cheers and Bugs tells him they love the act. His response?
“I know, I know, but I can only do it once.”
You got one shot at this. Do not fuck it up. The only thing worse than pulling your punches is swinging and missing.
You see it all the time. A killing that’s just there because the writer is trying to be edgy. There’s no emotional impact. It’s not there for the story, it’s there so the writer can jump up and down and go, “Look at me! I’m one of the cool kids! Watch me swing my dick around! It does tricks!”
That right there is what we mean by gratuitous. Don’t be gratuitous.
Unless you’re showing nudity. Then be as gratuitous as you like.
Sucker Punch is five kinds of awesome mixed with ten kinds of terrible.
More on that in a moment.
I had a gift card for a local movie theater, and I was sitting around reading reviews of the movie, and I thought, well, fuck it. I know the wife doesn’t want to see it. I know I have two hours. And I know that if it’s good, I’ll want to have seen it in a theater, and if it’s bad, well, I didn’t pay shit for the ticket.
First, if you saw and enjoyed Sucker Punch, don’t let me poo poo on your parade. Let your freaky geeky flag fly and shout your love to the world. Please don’t take anything I say as an insult.
Second, here there be spoilers. Light spoilers, very light, but spoilers just the same.
So, here we are.
The first five, ten minutes of the film are some of the most visually arresting five minutes I’ve seen in a movie in a long time, and they pack an emotional, erm, sucker punch. It’s hyper-stylized and very sad, and I don’t say it as an insult when I say it has the kind of kinetic power of some of David Fincher’s music videos (Janie’s Got A Gun, f’rex).
Unfortunately, the movie fails to really live up to the narrative oomph felt in the first act. The movie is about… 20 minutes of actual story, and a not-terrible story at that, crammed into a two-hour movie.
So, what fills the other two hours?
Masturbatory tech demos.
Zach Snyder is a fucking whup-ass director. The man makes visuals his squealing piggy. His work, as they say, has a real pretty mouth. The action scenes are cogent, too. They’re clear. I know what’s happening. They are elegantly choreographed and the effects will kick your teeth in.
The issue is, the action sequences mean nothing in terms of the narrative. No, really. They’re pit-stops. Outright fantasies. The film has in effect three layers of “reality,” ala Inception — first layer is the real world asylum, second layer is the fantasy brothel that stands in for the asylum, and the third layer are the various rabbit holes of action. (It’s the best I can put it, sorry.) The first layer is one we see very, very little of. The second is the setpiece of the movie so it is more or less our “baseline.” The third layer…
Well, that’s where we get into troubled water. All the awesome shit you see in the commercial takes place in this third layer. Hyper-psycho action sequences painted in the ejaculations of geeks everywhere. But what happens in these layers has no bearing on the first or second layer. None. It’s just… hot teen girls kicking ass for ten minutes. Doesn’t matter if they get hurt (they don’t). Doesn’t make a lick of difference if they achieve their goal (and we’re given no reason to believe they cannot achieve their goals because they are a stone’s throw from immortal). There’s not even a real strong metaphorical connection.
The action sequences, of which there are several, are without context, without meaning, and entirely without stakes. We learn nothing about the characters. We gain nothing in the story.
This makes these the most boring action sequences you have perhaps ever seen.
No, really. I found my mind wandering to grocery lists. Not kidding. Every once in a while I’d perk back up and nod toward some cool move — “Oh, that was neat” — before checking back out again.
What exists beyond these action sequences is where the movie lives, and it’s not a bad movie. It is, at times, kind of awesome. Plus: Carla Gugino and Jena Malone! Mmm.
But again, we’re talking 20, maybe 30 minutes of a two-hour flick.
Ultimately, that makes this a hot mess and something of a big disappointment, but since I was expecting it to be kind of awful, it actually came out somewhere in the “mmm, okay?” department.
Even still, I don’t like to outright pan a film if I can’t learn lessons from it. As a storyteller, you can learn as much from problem stories as you can from the best stories. Sometimes more.
So, three quick things I took away:
First: the school of cool has to stop. Just because something is awesome does not excuse its existence in the story. This movie offers a thousand darlings that should’ve been killed. It’s like Snyder had some sort of epileptic fit where he swallowed his tongue and had a fantasy involving every fanboy trope known to man: steampunk clockwork nazi zombies mecha samurai katana handgun gatling gun dragons orcs sailor moon tiny skirts hot girls robots sci-fi fantasy horror zeppelins hookers jon hamm. At first appraisal, that sounds super-cool. In reality, it is a dude painting with an uncontrolled hand.
Second: we need to know the stakes. Stakes are incredibly important in storytelling. The audience needs to know, If X happens, Y will not. Or, if X doesn’t happen, Y will fuck some shit up. We have to see potential consequence. We require want, need, fear, and the actions born of that. The action sequences that make up the bulk of the movie have no stakes. None. And that makes them very dull, indeed.
Third: context matters. In novel writing, you hear advice that says to start with a bang, like a movie. That’s hard to pull off, and here’s why: for an action scene to work, it has to be more than just action. It has to have context. We have to know our characters. We have to have, like above, stakes. We need some thread, some throughline, to carry us through and give the action meaning.
Is it a bad movie? No, probably not. Snyder can really direct and, when he has material to direct, it’s incredible. Here, though, there’s just not a lot of there there, as the saying goes. It’s a bit too hollow, a bit too shallow, which ultimately starts to drain it of its fun. So much so it just gets tireless.