Thursday, September 20, 2012

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

Okay, okay, so we’ve established that John Carter and Green Lantern have 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 boring the 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.  


j.s. said...

You buried the lede:

"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."

This little nugget of writerly wisdom may deserve a whole how-to series of its own? A study of scene-making that's first, last and only about action.

Exactly what I needed to read today. Thanks, Matt!

Matt Bird said...

Kudos for spelling "buried the lede" correctly!

Harvey Jerkwater said...

"Film Crit Hulk" had a killer three-part piece on action sequences. His basic point, paraphrased, is "the audience has to care for action to work, and storytelling is what makes them care."

ari said...

As Alien or Predator movies are the perfect example of how to build suspense through action scenes. In both we see the protagonists repeatedly fail in their fighting against a vastly superior enemy, without technology, experience or advanced weaponry make a difference. But with each loss they learn a new piece of information about their opponents and have to use all his guile and guts to defeat them. How come Hollywood don't make stories like these?

j.s. said...

Harvey's link is totally worth checking out. I'd still like to see Matt's take on something like this, though, as Hulk tends to get a little riled up, speaking in all caps, going on jags (no one will tell him to be more concise, 'cause he's the Hulk).

Matt Bird said...

Once again, the Hulk piece is great. I'll also follow-up with a breakdown of the mini-goals in an action sequence next week (and show how they follow a familiar pattern).

Steve Bird said...

Oddly, you are describing exactly why I had little interest in the Lord of the Rings movies -- massive melees where I don't know exactly why I'm supposed to care about any of it -- yet I actually enjoyed John Carter of Mars as a fun popcorn flick. Don't know exactly why I lost interest in the more critically acclaimed films while I had fun in this generally panned one, but I felt I entered a catatonic state during the massive battles of The Two Towers.