Everyone Has Reversals

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

March 23, 2008

Problems: Part of the Solution

Rewatching Serenity the other night, I was struck by how many things I could blog about. The opening covers so much backstory, yet moves fast and is fun to watch. Our first moments with Serenity's crew (for those who were tragically unfamiliar with Firefly) offer mini-conflicts, getting exposition out without it feeling ham-handed. And there's wonderful moments of subtext in the movie. After the climax, Captain Mal asks Zoe, his right-hand woman who saw her husband die, about the damage to the ship. Her words: "She's torn up plenty, but she'll fly true." Yow.

There was one aspect of the story, though, that I really took note of this time, and that felt like something I've never written about. Which is the idea that everything -- problems as well as their solutions in the story -- is organic and connected. Two examples:

The Solution is Also the Problem

Mal and the Serenity crew have discovered a tragic conspiracy that effectively amounts to genocide on at least one "outer rim" planet. The only way they can get the word out is through Mr. Universe -- the hacker of all hackers, who can show the incriminating video footage on millions of screens across the 'verse simultaneously. When Mal finally gets to Mr. Universe, he's been preemptively killed by the Alliance, and his massive computer network destroyed. In his dying moments, though, Mr. Universe programmed his wife-bot with a message for Mal: instructions to the hidden backup system. This is excellent news -- Mal may still be able to get evidence of the conspiracy out there...

...but unfortunately, the wife-bot was programmed to begin relaying her message when someone walks into the room... not just Mal. Shortly after Mal has heard this crucial bit of information, the villain hot on his tail walks into the same room. And hears the same message.

The solution for Mal also created a problem for him. And thank God, because without this problem, there wouldn't have been much of a climax for the movie.

The Problem is Also the Solution

In this world, the most feared creatures of all are Reavers: humans who have mutated into chaos and madness -- raping, killing, and cannibalizing anyone in their path (and, to paraphrase a famous line from the series,
hopefully in that order). When they're on their way to Mr. Universe to make the conspiracy public, Mal and his crew know dozens of Alliance ships are standing guard, waiting to blow them away. They're ridiculously outnumbered. So, moving through Reaver territory, they attack a Reaver ship and draw the attention of dozens if not hundreds of Reaver vessels... and proceed to speed toward the awaiting Alliance ships. The ensuing battle allows Serenity to make it to their destination. (The battle is extra-sweet symbolically, considering we've just learned that the Alliance conspiracy is directly responsible for the manifestation of Reavers to begin with.)

Mal basically took one problem (Reavers) and threw it in the face of another (the Alliance).

I'm thinking, when we're looking for a solution to a problem in our script, our first stop should be to look at what's already there.

Labels: ,

March 16, 2008

Hold the MacGuffin

Spoily Spoilerson, here. Don't read this yet if you haven't seen Vantage Point, but plan to!

Vantage Point is structured around an attack on an international summit to fight terrorism; the President of the USA is shot by sniper fire, and the whole location bombed. We see this attack scene over and over, from various characters' points of view -- the idea being that all the perspectives are required to fully understand what happened, and who did what. It's all kind of frenetic, and even fun...

...except that you never learn why the terrorists attack. You don't learn what they want, or what they stand for. It's as if the terrorists' message is "You want to fight terrorism? We'll show you terrorism!" Okayyy. This is the hill you're going to die on? The right to commit terrorist attacks sometime in the future?

There's even an American (a supposed good guy) who turns out to be on the inside, working with the terrorists. (And by the by, if you don't see the reveal of this guy's true colours coming a mile away, you must be new to movies.) At one point, this traitor says "This war will never end." Well, pardon me, but -- What war? Would you mind being a bit more specific?

Isn't terrorism a tactic, rather than a cause in and of itself?

Sorry, but terrorism is a terrible MacGuffin. A briefcase full of something gold and shiny -- that's a MacGuffin. You want to risk your life blowing stuff up and kidnapping and murdering politicians, I expect you to have some kind of reason.

Imagine the alternative: a movie in which terrorists take the opportunity of an anti-terrorism summit to cause mayhem in order to make their desires known. Pretty good, no?

If you write weak-ass motivations like this, then the terrorists have truly won. (I know: you saw that coming a mile away.)

Labels: , ,

March 08, 2008

The Burden of Context

Watching Charlie Wilson's War was an odd experience. It had that "ragtag team coming together to accomplish something huge" feeling, as a tiny group of unlikely allies work together to covertly help Afghanistan defeat the Goliath-like Soviets, thereby ending the Cold War. You want to really root for these guys (the U.S. backers, as well as the underdog rural Afghanis) and when they're successful, you really, really want to celebrate with them.

The problem of course, is that while you're watching these events unfold, you can't help but think about everything that's still to come. The Taliban, 9/11, horrific ethnic conflict in former Soviet states, etc... in short, not less war, but more.

I don't think this burden of hindsight is a problem -- I think it's a fantastic element that's used all the time, to great effect. It's what makes a movie like Schindler's List powerful... we know now the full extent of WWII's horrors, which makes even small acts of heroism during the holocaust all the more meaningful.

The lesson? You can have your cake and eat it too: Charlie Wilson's War played the characters' actions as cause for celebration, knowing we as an audience are going to be conflicted about it the entire time -- and acknowledging that in its final scenes and title card.

The cake is rich and delicious!

Labels: ,