For a long time, genre stories and realistic stories were strictly separated. Stories with fantastical elements happened in fanciful settings. If someone got superheroes, they put on tights and fought crime, because that’s the appropriate genre for that story element.
But now those assumptions have been blown to hell, for good or ill. There are lots of stories that take a fantastical element and put it in a realistic setting. This especially happens in found footage movies like Chronicle and Cloverfield. This can be a very fruitful way to create a new story, but it also had its pitfalls.
On the one hand, why not? If done right, such movies can turn our genre expectations upside down, forcing us to see these familiar genre elements with fresh eyes and reject the tired familiarity of the stories we’re used to. These elements are injected with a new rawness and immediacy, allowing our enjoyment of them to be revivified.
On the other hand, the danger is that the writer will try to have it both ways. In movies like The Dark Knight (which I thought was overrated—heresy, I know…) you have a lot of messy real world politics rubbing up against the fact that, in the real world, no one would dress up as a bat to fight crime.
Even worse, you get movies like Hancock. In one broadly comic scene early on, Hancock literally shoves one guy’s head up another guy’s ass. Later, in a very serious scene, the two guys deal with the trauma this has caused. Nuh-uh. Not allowed. Don’t ask us to consider the PTSD caused by silly, unrealistic stories.
A great example of taking a genre element out of its genre was shown by the excellent French movie Poison Friends. It begins as typical thriller: we meet a group of friends in a competitive academic program who don’t suspect that there’s a sociopath in their group, telling devilish lies and pitting them against each other for his own selfish purposes. We expect things to escalate until the knives come out, but instead, the group gradually realizes that this guy is just a dick and they shun him from their lives. The movie becomes a straight-up drama as we see the exposed sociopath try to pick up the pieces of his wasted life.
You might not associate such a movie with something like Chronicle or Cloverleaf, but they have the same essential set up: How would you deal with a monster like this in real life, rather than if you were in a genre movie? When done right, this can be an electrifying question.