Everyone Has Reversals

Story Lessons, Big and Small (Warning: Spoilers!)

August 26, 2005

Bad, Happy Ending, Bad!

The Butterfly Effect is a much more interesting movie than I thought it'd be. Despite its logic holes, it's engrossing. But I gotta say, I think its ending(s) betrays it.

The opening nicely establishes Ashton Kutcher as a young man who's able to go back in time, via his own journals, to dire moments in his past-- moments when, as a child, he blacked out. Unable to help himself, Ashton returns to "correct" the past... irrevocably changing the future, and not for the better. So he has to go back, and back, and back, until he can "get it perfect". His father-- who's in an asylum and seems to have mastered this memory-travel too-- warns Ashton there is no "perfect". You can't play God. But still, Ashton has to try, creating ever more heartbreaking outcomes for his girlfriend, his friends, his mother, and himself, in the future.

Great. Here's where the ending goes awry. The theatrical release of the film has Ashton going back-- via home movies instead of his journals, and to a point in time in which he hadn't blacked out, but whatever-- to ensure he and his girlfriend never become friends at all. When he returns to the future, they don't know each other... but both their lives are fancy-dandy. We even see, in memory-like flashes, the great life she ended up living instead of one with him-- I'm not sure how we suddenly get to see her memories, but again, whatever. It's a happy ending-- the couple isn't together, but they're both happy. Ashton wins.

Whaaat? Then what, she asks, is this movie about? Is the movie actually suggesting that one can play God, if one is just persistent and clever enough? Is that supposed to give me that feel-good feeling? This ending very cleanly betrays both the theme of the story, and the protagonist. The character winning without ever having to learn the "you can't play God" thing just seems wrong. How can I be on side with him if his vanity and obsession are proven to be good things?

The director's cut of the film ends differently: Ashton, knowing he's at the heart of all the things that go wrong in his loved ones' lives, returns to the womb and strangles himself with his umbilical cord. Okay, better. But... isn't he still just playing God and winning?

What if he, I dunno, had to actually grow up? Recognize that life is about paying your money and taking your chances? What if he at some point had to decide to quit-- to stop going back, and accept the current future, with its wins and losses? For example, the future with the worst outcomes for Ashton himself has him a multiple amputee, in a wheelchair, and loveless. Oh, and his mother's dying of lung cancer. But everyone else in this future is doing extremely well, and his mother begs Ashton not to try to change anything. What if Ashton's greatest sacrifice had been for him to actually live with one of the futures he orchestrated-- the one that includes good and bad, but mostly good?

What if the film had allowed the ending to be as complex as the rest of the story?

August 18, 2005

How to Not Alienate the Ladies

The concept of Wedding Crashers is both inherently funny, and inherently problematic. Its perfect tag line, "Hide your bridesmaids", says it all-- this is going to be a film about men who crash weddings to pick up chicks. The simplicity, and implied laughs, of the situation are brilliant. The problem? Romantic comedies tend to target women. The very women seemingly being duped by the leads.

But Wedding Crashers skirts the problem in two simple ways.

First, the opening wedding montage goes out of its way to show the crashers as guys who love weddings. They have a great time-- it's not just picking up girls, it's also the singing, the dancing, the community. The weddings themselves are part of the event-- the guys just also happen to take home beautiful and willing women afterwards. Even if you think what the guys are doing is dodgy, you can't help get into the spirit of the thing. No men on screen have ever loved weddings more.

Second, of course, the story truly begins when fate throws a curveball at the leads. They both, in different ways, are hoisted by their own wedding-crashing petards (one by really falling for a bridesmaid, the other by getting stalked by one). You can't hate the characters when the film itself punishes them more than it celebrates them.

It's the Lolita rule of storytelling: your characters can do whatever you want, as long as you remove the audience's need to judge them. Let the story judge them. Let the audience sit back and enjoy the ride.

August 12, 2005

When three heroes = zero heroes

At the risk of Topher Grace thinking I'm picking on him, here are my two cents on Win a Date with Tad Hamilton!

I didn't expect it to be anything more than a trifle... a sweet, charming, romantic comedy. But I also didn't expect to get so lost in it. And for such a simple reason: it doesn't have a protagonist. Instead, it splits the hero role three ways. There's Josh Duhamel (the character who's changing the most); there's Kate Bosworth (the character who's acting, and therefore driving the story); and there's dear, dear Topher (the character our heart's with). The film never figures out where to put its weight, and leaves us grasping, trying to figure out who to root for. The result? Er, we root for no one. How can you get invested when you don't even know what you want to happen?

The results of rooting for no one? The movie feels about three hours long.

But the most bizarre impact of this protagonist-splitting is that the film's ending actually feels a little mean-spirited-- Topher and Kate get together (duh) and Josh, who has seriously been through the ringer throughout the story, gets nothing. Why does the guy who works the hardest, and changes the most, get the shaft here? Doesn't seem right at all.

Topher, I'll leave you alone now. But I'll be watching.

August 07, 2005

Hardest Working Opening Award

Great openings do a lot of work, and X-men (the original) has a great opening.

It's raining. The title over tells us it's Poland, 1944. We see a young boy torn away from his parents by soldiers; they're clearly on their way to a concentration camp. The boy struggles against the men who have him, trying in vain to be close to his parents again. Iron gates close behind him, separating him from his parents. Still, he reaches out in desperation. At this moment, the kid's "mutation" kicks in-- without touching anything, he's able to bend the iron of the gate into a pile of mangled hunks. But to no avail-- his parents are gone. He's left, shattered, surrounding by confused soldiers.

This opening:
  • is a high-stakes yet emotional scene, and we don't even know any characters yet. Partly this is due to how well it's written, but never underestimate the value of setting a scene in a time/place/event the audience already understands-- that way, you can be very small and subtle about the scene, and, because of what the audience brings to the table, it will resonate powerfully. More powerfully than if you had to do a lot of explaining.
  • is an elegant scene. A title card, some men speaking Polish-- it's the action that's showing us what is happening, and the kid's emotional journey. The scene is simple enough that we're able to take it all in.
  • introduces us to the idea of mutants discovering their abilities in adolescence and in times of stress.
  • gives us the origin story for the key villain of the film-- a brave and interesting choice.
  • necessarily introduces the villain of the film, Magneto, because perhaps the most important thing this opening accomplishes is that it establishes what the film is going to be about. The theme is the heart of this film, as well as the comics... it's about tolerance/intolerance. We've now seen Magneto's beginnings and, even when we don't agree with his actions, we will always understand why he's doing what he's doing-- he's the one who's seen first hand what humans in their intolerance are capable of.
All films (and yes, we as writers) should strive for openings that accomplish so much in so little time.

Be inspired. Go!

August 04, 2005

Chosen One Syndrome

Just saw The Chronicles of Riddick. Ahem. Uh... where to begin? I guess I should say right up front that I think Pitch Black is a hell of a movie, and that I find the Riddick character genuinely interesting.

And that's exactly where Chronicles goes wrong for me. The Riddick of Pitch Black was clearly a bad dude. Yes, he saves a few folks along the way, but it's mainly out of self-interest. And the film lets him be bad because, well, he's not the protagonist of the film. It's okay that he's bad. It's more fun that he's selfish, and cold, and mean. Fun, get it? Now, why turn this character into a protagonist when he's clearly not going to have an arc, or any profound growth? It'd be like making Hannibal Lecter the hero of his own movie... oh, wait...

A stronger option might have been to allow Kyra to drive the action, as she searches for Riddick, and he tries not to be found. You know, one of those "I need you to help me"/"I'm out of the helping business" kind of deals. Yes, like Casablanca. Only with Vin Diesel.

Anyway. So, fine. Riddick's the hero of this second installment. Why, oh why, did they insist on making him a "chosen one" character? I love a reluctant hero as much as anyone... but what works in archetypal stories like The Matrix is the fact that the character is ordinary and becomes extraordinary-- and it's trial by fire. Riddick is anything but ordinary. He's already a kind of superhero, right? The fun of it being, he's just not all that altruistic. Chronicles tries to place a messiah-like role on Riddick, and it doesn't fit. It always seemed to me that the point of Riddick was that he's something society has created... he's the bad-ish product of badness in the world. Now he's just trying to get along like everybody else.

Not every hero needs to be Special. Capice?

August 01, 2005


There are so many ways to think about a movie's midpoint... it might be similar to any other turning point in a story; it might be the moment when the protagonist is closest to achieving their goal, but it's ripped away from them; it might be a moment of death and rebirth/transformation for the protagonist.

Here are a few examples of middle-of-the-movie moments that work. Make of them what you will.

Die Hard 2 - The midpoint is the plane he can't save. McClane runs out onto the snowy tarmac, frantically waving hand flares, but it's no use. It's too late. The plane goes down just beyond him, exploding on impact. This is useful as a midpoint for a few reasons: first, it's thrilling as hell. We've spent time with people on that plane... it's horrific when they go down, yet also spectacular. Second, this midpoint shows very clearly that McClane, the hero of heroes, can fail. It's entirely possible he'll lose this round. Finally, and most importantly, this midpoint infinitely raises the stakes for McClane, and for us-- his own wife is on a plane that's circling around the airport. If this tragedy could happen to one plane, it could happen to hers, too.

It's All Gone Pete Tong - A Canadian/UK co-production, and a hell of a fun movie. The premise is, a top Ibiza club DJ goes deaf. The trailers make it seem as though it takes the entire movie for this to happen, and for Frankie Wilde, the hero, to accept it. In fact, Frankie goes deaf, goes half-mad, loses everything... and then the movie's at mid-point. It's a brilliantly ballsy way to go-- he hits rock bottom, and there's still half the movie left? This is a great example of getting to dramatic moments earlier, rather than holding them off. This film, that could easily have "saved" the climb back out of the grave for a short third act, instead gives us a hopeful second-half-of-Act-Two. It's the struggle for self-reinvention that's going to be long and hard and worth watching, and the movie knows it.

About a Boy - The key concern of the story is, will Hugh Grant let this kid inside the "wall" he's got up around his life? By the midpoint of the story, the kid is pretty much in-- Hugh actually finds himself invested in the kid's life and well-being. Conflict over, it seems? Except that immediately after this happens, Hugh meets the woman of his dreams-- and suddenly, the man he's supposedly become for the sake of the kid in his life is tested romantically. Has Hugh changed enough in the first half of the film to deserve this incredible woman? Essentially, this is a midpoint in which the protagonist's goal appears to change, and for the better... but now the stakes are higher and he's not 100% transformed, so he's still got some failing to do.