Friday, April 30, 2010

Film Friday: Terminator Salvation (2009)

Terminator Salvation (“TS”), apparently, was written by machines, because there's little in it to interest humans. Like so much of what comes out of Hollywood’s sequel generating computers these days, TS is a soulless, halfhearted film that squanders a tremendous amount of potential. It goes wrong at the outset, in its basic story, and keeps going wrong(er) with poor story telling, indifferent characters, and wasted talent.

** spoiler alert **

As I’ve mentioned before, science fiction is one of the most interesting forms of story telling because it can touch upon any topic and it can delve into the kinds of questions that fascinate us. Terminator introduced the very cool premise of what happens if a bad guy from the future goes back in time to kill the parents of the good guy before he was born. Can you save the future? Terminator 2 expanded on this premise by asking whether you could change the future for the better now that you know what will happen. Terminator 3? Well, T3 did a “by changing the past, you cause the future” thing, but mainly they just wanted to see Arnold fight a chick in tight leather pants.

TS follows these films with the promise of moving the franchise into the future, after the machines have struck. So far so good. It follows John Connor (Christian Bale), who leads the Southern California branch of the human resistance against the machines. At this point, the Arnold terminators have not yet been created. Still good.

But then the problem starts. The machines have created a terminator, Marcus (Sam Worthington), whose job is to lure Connor to Skynet headquarters so he can finally be killed, because all their prior efforts failed. Yet, at this point, the machines wouldn’t know who Connor is. Indeed, the writers just assume the machines know exactly what happened in T1, T2 and T3, even though, from the machines’ perspective, none of that has happened yet and won’t until after they build the Arnold terminators, until after Connor become the leader of the resistance, and until after Kyle Reese grows up. For all the machines know at this point, Michael Ironside (who plays himself) is the leader of the resistance. So why are the machines fixated on Connor and why do they know how T1, T2 and T3 turned out?

This is a plot hole. But it’s more as well, it’s squandered potential. By skipping the time travel questions and assuming that everyone knows everything, the writers made the story much easier to write, but they also sucked out the very thing that made the first three movies so interesting -- the paradoxes. Moreover, in so doing, they sacrificed the chance to use the audience’s knowledge of Connor's importance, and the machines’ lack of knowledge, to add tension to the scenes. Wouldn’t it have been more interesting if the machines somehow made a decision that let Connor survive because they didn’t know his value? They also toss aside the chance to use Connor’s knowledge to tell us something interesting about his character, like how he might struggle with issues like fatalism or cockiness since he knows the future. Wouldn’t it have been more interesting to see how Connor handles having knowledge of the future? No, not to these writers. . . they just wanted simple plot points that moved the story from fight scene to fight scene.

And what about Marcus? Marcus is a prototype infiltrator terminator, who doesn’t know he’s a machine. This is classic science fiction story telling, because it lets the writer explore what it means to be human. But once again, these writers aren't interested. They just have Marcus move from scene to scene engaging in fights until he finally faces the difficult decision of “do I side with the machines or the humans” -- an "agonizing" decision that takes him 1/10th of a second to make and which he makes without ever sharing his thoughts with the audience. I guess the writers figured the audience wouldn’t care?

This lack of interest in the story is compounded with very poor storytelling. One of the axioms of storytelling is “show, don’t tell.” Yet, this movie has it backwards. Connor is the “prophesized leader of the resistance.” How do we know? Is it anything he does that makes him stand out? No. They tell us. That's it. Connor is married to Kate Connor (Bryce Dallas Howard). How do we know? They tell us. Is there a single scene that makes their marriage real? Nope. Connor is a great threat to the machines? Yep. Does he do something special? Nope. How do we know? We’re told. And they don't even bother telling us that much. Where did this resistance come from? Where do they get their weapons? Why isn’t Connor the leader? Don’t know, they don’t tell us.

Imagine how much better this movie would have been if they’d fleshed out the characters by trying to show us who they are and what they believe? What if they dealt with the time travel question rather than skipping it? What if they let Marcus explore his inner conflict? Naw. . . look shiny!

That’s why this movie stinks. It’s not Bale’s one-note acting (his best work from this film came here (NSFW)). It’s not the effects, which were quite good -- though they heavily ripped off War of the Worlds with their visual and sound effects. It’s not the good actors who were wasted in this film -- I am a fan of Bale, Howard (The Village) and Common (Smoking Aces), but they did nothing. It’s the total indifference to story telling. In fact, TS was so bland I thought long and hard about ditching this article and instead writing about Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” video instead, which I found more interesting. Sad.

[+]

Friday, April 23, 2010

Why Hollywood Loves Corporate Bad Guys

Ever notice that almost all bad guys in Hollywood these days are corporations? I know a lot of people on the right think this is an expression of socialism, an anti-capitalist instinct, but it’s really not. You’re reading too much into this. What it is, is lazy writing. Corporate villains are a crutch for unimaginative writers.
Corporations Are Not Your Friends
Before we delve into the reason Hollywood uses corporations as villains, let me point something out: there is nothing inherently “conservative” about corporations. In fact, the opposite is true. Conservatives believe in free markets economics. That means that we trust the decisions of millions of buyers and sellers to allocate resources. Thus, conservatives oppose anything that separates buyers or sellers from their natural incentives, because those separators distort the incentive system that makes markets work. Government support is a classic example of this because it reduces the risk to the person receiving the support and therefore distorts their incentives in favor of taking risks they otherwise wouldn’t.

Corporations are a form of distortion. Corporations separate owners from the costs of their actions, because of their limited liability feature. A normal person will bear the full cost of any harm they cause. But an owner of a corporation doesn’t. They are only liable up to the value of their investment. Moreover, the corporate structure, which provides decision making power to concentrated management teams, distorts decision making because managers and owners do not share the same incentives. Thus, corporations are not acting in the owners’ interests so much as they are acting in the managers’ interests.

Therefore, conservatives should be wary of corporations and should not be knee-jerk defending them. But that is neither here nor there when it comes to Hollywood because Hollywood doesn’t grasp anything about corporations or incentives, and it doesn’t care. Its only interest in corporations is that they are easy to use as villains.
Why Hollywood Writers Love Corporations
Hollywood uses corporations as villains because corporations have certain built-in traits that make them ideal for hack writers to use as villains. Consider this:

1. Inoffensive Villains. If there is one thing film producers don’t want in a blockbuster, it’s something offensive. They want everyone to see their “masterpiece.” Corporate villains are not offense. Why? Because corporations don’t instill loyalty in the public like countries, governments, ideologies, or even people do. If I make the United States the villain, then Americans will be angry. If I make the Pope the villain, then Catholics will be angry. If I make The Happy Bunny Munitions Company the villain, nobody gets bent out of shape. Indeed, the use of corporations is the easiest way to avoid offending anyone in the selection of your villain.

2. Easy Motives. Corporations also let you avoid the whole messy motive thing. Why does your villain want to blow up the moon again? If you choose religion or ideology, you’ll offend people. If you choose “because” or something that makes no sense, you’ll lose your audience. The use of corporations as villains lets you skip this problem. All corporations are motivated by money, everyone accepts that. So if you can somehow mumble enough words to make people think the plan will result in an improvement on the corporation’s bottom line, then you’re good to go.

3. No Troubling Back Stories. Best of all, corporations are born fully formed; they require no back story to explain how they got the things they have. Where exactly did Goldfinger (a noted sole proprietor) find all those henchmen? Heck, make him a corporation and you don’t need to worry about it. We all know that corporations all have military contracts, which will put them in contact with ex-military killers and give them access to high tech stuff. Right? Seriously, all the hack writer has to do is make the villain a corporation and they suddenly no longer need to explain (1) how the conspiracy formed, (2) how they got their facilities, (3) where they get their henchmen, (4) where they get their money, or (5) how they get all that cool stuff they use throughout the movie.

Indeed, because all corporations have secret “military divisions,” they can have access to the same sophisticated military hardware that the US military has and no one thinks twice about this. In fact, we’re even ready to believe they have stuff that even the military hasn’t seen before because they are developing it for the government. Problem solved without a word of explanation.

4. Easy Twists. Corporations have murky structures, thus they are rife for twists. Because corporate structure are malleable, it’s easy to create conspiracies within corporations where some people are aware of the evil activities and others aren’t. That lets the writer pick and choose who in the corporation is part of the plan and who is an innocent pawn. This allows the writer to place an unsuspecting person inside the organization who can help the hero at a critical time (usually with a computer code) without having to explain why one of the henchmen would suddenly change their minds and help the hero.

This also allows the writer to pull the old cliché of having people run to the boss, only to discover too late that the boss is in on it! Oh my, didn’t see that coming! Or it allows the cliché twist that the boss really is unaware of the evil under their nose and will now work to stop the bad guys. Again, no explanation of any sort is needed to explain the boss’s motivations in either direction except to note that they did or did not know about the conspiracy. Heck, this here movie almost writes itself!

5. Ease of Destruction. Finally, even a hack writer will need to end their movie. Sadly, this can be very difficult when you don’t know jack about the world and your characters are a mess. But using a corporate villain can solve this problem because anything can kill a corporation. Indeed, using a corporate bad guy gives you a maximum range of solutions from killing the right person, to exposing the entire corporation, to exposing just the right person, to bankrupting the corporation, or even just hitting the right delete key (because people never back up computers).

This comes in very helpful when you don’t have a clue how to plot your way from the initial discovery to an actual ending. Instead, after you blow some time, you just arrange a quick scene where the hero does the thing that will defeat the bad guy(s) and then let the credits role. Basically, by making the villain a corporation, the writer can tack on any sort of mindless ending and people will believe it.
Those are the real reasons Hollywood loves corporate villains, not ideological opposition to corporations. Corporate villains are nothing more than a fool proof crutch for hack writers that allow a movie to run from beginning to ending in 98 minutes with little or no depth or explanation, but with easy believability. Corporate villains don’t offend, they require no back story, they require little discussion of motive, and they are rife with ready-made clichés, not to mention that they require no careful plotting to be undone. It’s like a hack-writer’s dream!

It’s not about ideology, it’s about lack of imagination.

[+]

Friday, April 9, 2010

Comic Book Movies: Nerd Porn. . . Literally

Over the past decade, Hollywood has increasingly come to rely on comic books as a source of inspiration for their films. Indeed, many more recent films than you may realize come from the pages of comic books, especially in the action film genre. And I am finding myself increasingly turned off by these movies. It’s not that I’m opposed to the genre, but I find the experience getting creepier and creepier, as these movies are turning into nerd porn.

Now I am not a comic book aficionado, nor am I a reader of comic books, but I am well informed. I’ve spoken with collectors at length over the years, and I’ve seen the evolution of comic books and the movies made from them.

In the Golden Age of comic books, comic book heroes were created with the idea of inspiring children. Television shows like Superman and the Adam West Batman epitomized this generation. They were wholesome, patriotic, and not-controversial. They were written at a level that was both simplistic and accessible for idealistic youth.

But by the 1960s, this was changing. Like everyone else in the counter culture, comic book creators wanted to expand the “social conscience” of their readers by introducing social justice themes. This meant different moral questions and some “edgy” issues that dealt with things like racism, feminism, drugs, and poverty.

In the 1980s, comic books changed again, this time becoming darker and edgier. The most famous of these was the conversion of Batman into the Dark Knight. This was also the time the nerds started calling these comic books “graphic novels.” Yeah, sure. This change happened for two reasons primarily. First, the animators wanted to tell “more grown up stories” and they found the requirement that their heroes be wholesome to be too restricting. So they had to free them from their wholesome images and belief systems. Secondly, they wanted to reach an older (read “more affluent”) audience: angst-ridden teenagers. The world sucks man. Shut up kid.

By the 1990s, most comic book heroes had been killed off and resurrected as evil versions of themselves. . . dressed like whiny little emos. . . oh sorry, dressed in really cool, joy-resistant black body armor!

Then it started to go wrong(er). I don’t know which one was the first, but soon goofy capes and costumes were giving way to fetish gear. Tight black leather body suits, anatomically correct body armor (a Batsuit with nipples? are you serious? Holy codpiece, Batman!), whips, chains, and erotic tortures that reeked of fetish clubs all became normal.

And it wasn’t just the costumes that were changing. The role of women in comic books was changing. Gone were the supposedly docile women of the 1950s, the feminists of the 1960-1970s, and the working women of the 1980s. In their place came a whole generation of dominatrixes, women presented as strange creatures to be feared and ogled (interestingly, Hollywood actresses mistake these for “strong roles”). At the same time, comic book “love” was redefined as violence with sexual overtones and an unhealthy dose of bondage tossed in. And everything became sexual. . . everything. That’s right Dr. Freud, in comic book land, cigars are never just cigars.

Basically, comic books and the comic book movies that love them became monuments to the sexual dysfunction of their creators. It’s become like watching your Psyche 101 class on the big screen.

Comic book movies today seem to have become pervert theater. They’ve become fetish movies, combined with snuff films. Watching one with your brain in the “on” position is like listening to some creepy dude tell you about his obsession with the woman he saw in the Sears catalog as he rubs his crotch. Yuck!

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m no prude. I don’t want to regulate anybody’s sex life. I’m not opposed to naked art or even films about sex. Heck, I’m not even opposed to porn -- I honestly couldn’t care less. BUT, I don’t want to know about your problems. If you can’t relate to the female of the species, that’s your problem, not mine. You are to blame. You are doing it wrong. Get help. Don’t try to pass your twisted fantasies off on me as a movie.

And that’s what’s bothering me.

You can disagree with me on this. . . but you’re wrong.

[+]

Friday, April 2, 2010

The Problem With Hollywood Villains

These days, Hollywood villains suck. You know I’m right. They’ve all become cartoon villains. . . psychopathic Snidely Whiplashes. How did this happen? Actually, it’s simple. For all of its talk about “strong characters,” modern Hollywood doesn’t understand the first thing about human motivations. That’s the problem.

Why does motivation matter? Because conflict drives the story, and motivation defines the conflict. This is a critical point to understand. It’s not the object of the conflict that matters, it’s the motivation for the conflict.

The object of the conflict simply provides the background, a few details of how the characters’ lines will work and maybe a few extra hurdles that will be encountered. The object does not drive the story.

Consider, for example, the classic cops and robbers story. The object is whatever they are trying to steal or kill or whatever. Does it fundamentally change the story if they are robbing a bank rather than a casino or a jewelry store or even a pet store? No, it doesn’t. The conflict is the same in each case. Is there a difference between killing a witness, a businessman, a congressman or a foreign dignitary? Nope. What if two people are competing for the affections of a third? Would it change the story if they were competing for a man or a woman, friendship instead of love, respect or employment? Nope.

Indeed, in each of these instances, you could swap objects with very little change to the underlying story, just as you could swap time periods, races or genders of the characters, or any other number of details. But motivations are different. Change the motivation and the entire nature of the story changes.

The reason for this is simple, and it goes back to what I said the other day about humans judging stories based on emotion rather than logic. With rare exceptions, the object of the conflict does not trigger an emotional response in us. Do you care that someone might rob a bank, or kill a witness, or that aliens are fighting a war over Smurf 7? Not really. On occasion, a film might stumble into something that means something to you, like if you’re a bank aficionado, but that’s just dumb luck.

Where a story becomes meaningful to us, is when we start to learn of the character’s motivations. That’s when we begin to judge who is right and who is wrong, and we start to take sides. That’s the point that you become invested in the story, and it’s the motivations that do it.

And when it comes to motivations, the villain’s motivation is almost always the most important. It is the villain who gives the story meaning and sets everything into motion. If the villain’s motives are pedestrian or nonexistent, then the story is handicapped from the get-go.

Unfortunately, Hollywood is all about pedestrian villains these days. Despite its protestations to the contrary, Hollywood is afraid to be the slightest bit complicated or to delve into “shades of gray.” It wants villains who are undeniably evil, and it has decided that it’s safest to skip the motivation question -- as that may unintentionally inspire sympathy -- and to just define the villain by letting them commit a few clearly “villainous” act. Thus, Hollywood requires its modern villains to ooze evil from their pores. They must be sociopathic and psychopathic. They need to yell and scream and rant and do things reserved for villains, like kicking puppies and shooting uppity henchmen. And in those rare moments where they are called upon to provide a motivation, they mumble something about power or money.

The perfect example of this is Al Pacino in Devil’s Advocate, where Pacino takes the greatest threat to the human race and turns him into a goofball. His Satan is loud and obnoxious and spews nonsensical dialog, he’s way over the top. But he’s neither effective nor menacing, nor does he ever make sense. Indeed, he has no plan worth mentioning -- "I'm going to run a law firm to mess with New York City!" Yeah, ok, yawn. He's taken the most evil, most interesting character available and turned him into that annoying, drunk guy you wanted to punch at that party in college, not something you should fear.

What Hollywood’s missing by giving up on motivations are the truly interesting bad guys. Think of some of the best film villains and what motivated them:
• Captain Bligh in Mutiny on the Bounty who had a tremendous ego and could stand no disrespect.

• Sheriff “Little Bill” Daggett in Unforgiven, who thought he was the good guy.

• The Terminator in any of its incarnations, which was motivated simply by relentlessly following its orders.

• Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, who abused her power because she could and because she despised the people under her care.

• Norman Bates in Psycho, who was compelled to kill people by the psychological trauma of his relationship with his mother.

• HAL 9000 in 2001, who couldn’t resolve a conflict in his programming.

• Michael Corleone in The Godfather, whose problem was his lack of humanity.

• Darth Vader (pre-whiny Hayden Christensen), who thought he was defending the Empire against rebels bent on destroying it.
Do you notice something in this list? What made these characters memorable wasn’t what they did, it was why they did what they did. That’s why we remember them. And even more interestingly, none of these villains thought they were evil.

In the real world, evil people don’t think they are evil. Hitler never thought of himself as the bad guy, he viewed himself as the savior of the German people. Pelosi doesn’t think of herself as evil, she genuinely thinks her lies and demonizations will make a better society. Few humans do things that they consciously believe to be wrong or evil -- the human mind simply isn’t built that way. We either don’t do these things, or we justify that behavior to ourselves so that we can maintain our belief that we are doing the right thing.

This is something Hollywood no longer understands. In the past (as evidenced by the list above -- note the absence of modern villains from the list), Hollywood recognized that people could do evil, despite believing that they were doing the right thing. But, for the most part, modern Hollywood doesn’t recognize this aspect of evil anymore. It prefers to have its villains prance around declaring how evil they are.

Why do I think Hollywood has come to this? In all honesty, I blame liberalism.

The problem with liberals is that they seem incapable of realizing that other people have different views. Indeed, the one trait that almost every liberal I've ever met shares is a belief that their views are right AND that everyone knows they are right, and that those who disagree with them do so only for personal gain. The idea of genuine disagreements simply don't enter their consciousness.

Thus, when they set about creating villains, they realize that they would never act the way the villain does, thus they start from the premise that the villain must know that they are evil. And that is where the problem begins. Once you begin with the idea that your villain knows they are evil, you deprive them of all motivation except personal gain. From there, it's only a hop, skip and a jump to Clichéland, with carbon copy villains prancing around trying to show the audience that they are fully aware of how evil they are.

Sadly, until Hollywood wakes up to the need to think about their villain’s motivations, and to realize that no villain would see themselves as evil, we’re doomed to keep getting shallow movies with clichéd conflicts.


[+]