Ad Sublimia: Elevating Stories Through Repetition

Although ‘The Avengers’ is not High Art, it is a very well crafted story. It’s not some revolutionary tale of the ages that perfectly captures the zeitgeist, but it does manage to be fun, exciting, and it manages to subdue all of the worst excesses of Joss Whedon’s particular brand of writing.

(Oh, really, Joss? Everybody is a wise cracker with a one-liner for every occasion? Good to know, glad none of these characters have their own voices or anything. Yeah, just leave the task of characterisation entirely to your actors, great stuff.)

So anyway, the other day I put ‘The Avengers’ (AKA ‘Avengers Assemble’ in the UK) on in the background whilst I went to do some washing up and some tidying. Two hours later, I was still sat on the sofa, watching the Avengers varyingly assemble. It’s a really captivating film. And it’s a perfect example of positive repetition in a story.

Here’s the basic premise: if you want your story to land, you need to set it up at least three times over in the first half of the film (or book, if that’s how you choose to live your life). A lot of my own criticisms in the past, and probably a lot of other peoples’, probably hinge around this concept more than you realise. More than I have realised.

We’ll use ‘The Avengers’ to explore this further.

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As the title of the film no doubt gives away, the story, the heart of the story, is about a group of weirdos overcoming their differences to work together. That is the backbone of what the film’s about.

It would be easy to think that it’s about Loki, or the weird skeletal motherfuckers on the big snakey sky whales, but the core of the narrative is about cooperation despite contradiction.

Here’s how that’s demonstrated to us:

  • In the first instance, Hawkeye is brainwashed by Loki, making him a literal enemy of the Avengers.
  • Black Widow meets Bruce Banner and points a gun at him as soon as she gets worried.
  • Later, Captain America and Iron Man meet for the first time, and are immediately at odds.
  • Soon after, they both come to literal blows with Thor over who gets to take Tom Hiddleston home with them.
  • Later, they spend a lot of time on the Helicarrier arguing. Like, a lot of time arguing, with Bruce Banner now thrown into the mix.
  • Captain America even goes a little rogue, and breaks into SHIELD’s secret room of illegal stuff.
  • Then we get to see the Hulk tearing his way through the Helicarrier, attacking everyone in his path.

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Each of these moments demonstrates to the audience that this is a group of people who Do Not Get On. The Not Getting On-ness of this assembly of Avengers can not be stressed enough. It forms the undercurrent of almost every scene and piece of dialogue in the first half of the film.

Why, though? Why hammer the message home so repetitively?

Well, the answer’s simple:

You don’t want anybody to miss it.

There’s a scene, during the final fight in New York, and it’s that scene, you know the one, where all six Avengers are stood in a circle, mid-fight, all working together, and the camera pans around them and the music plays and reaches its highest point and you actually feel inspired. Like, they feel like Heroes.

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That’s the moment that the film is working up to, and it’s the moment that crystallises the essence of the story. And it’s beautiful. And it only works if the audience is absolutely convinced that these people didn’t like each other at the beginning, but they do now.

It’s the repetition of the setup that allows the finale to deliver emotionally. Imagine if you had that same ensemble scene, but the only sign of disagreement between any of them had been Tony Stark using the last of Steve Rogers’ favourite cereal or something. Or Thor leaving his hammer on top of Bruce Banner’s tax returns and then going on holiday.

Imagine if you tried to do the finale ensemble moment, but the only scene you kept in the first half of the film was the fight between Thor, Iron Man and Captain Amercia in the forest at night. Then, they got back to the Helicarrier and spent the rest of the time agreeing with each other. And also Hawkeye was never brainwashed, but was just kind of there the whole time nodding sagely and complimenting everybody’s haircut.

There’s no way you’d feel the same emotional response at the end, when you finally see everyone pulling together.

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Compare ‘The Avengers’ with ‘Age of Ultron’, which suffers because it simply lacks the same narrative focus as ‘The Avengers’. At the beginning, we start off with everyone working together as a team. Then we get a bit of argument over the nascent Ultron program and its use. Then we have a party, where everyone’s working together still.

Then everyone falls out for a bit. Iron Man and Hulk fight. There’s some drama with The Vision. Then, by the time we get to the final arc, everybody’s back to being friends again and… it’s really hard to care. Because they started off as friends. They made some new friends with Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver, sure, but what’s the core narrative here? What’s the essence of the conflict?


Another great example is ‘Star Wars’.

‘Star Wars’ (the first one, ‘A New Hope’), is a tale about a bored farm boy becoming a hero who saves the day. That is, again, the essence of what the story is about. There’s a lot of other stuff going on, but that’s the narrative that the audience is buying into. Luke is who we spend the most time with, and it’s his life that we see the most of.

Getting the audience to buy into Luke’s story means selling it, and that’s exactly what the film does, through thematic repetition:

  • Luke complains to Threepio about never leaving Tatooine.
  • Luke stares longingly at the Binary Sunset.
  • Luke asks to join the Academy, but is told to stay on Tatooine.
  • Luke gets told to do his chores, when he really wants to go see his friends at Toshi Station.
  • Luke complains to Ben about having to get back home because it’s late.

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All of this points to a young man frustrated with his mundane life, so when Luke becomes the hero of the day, we’re all right there with him, thrilled that he’s found the excitement he’s been looking for.

The same approach is applied with the Rebellion’s fight against the Empire. The very first scene of the movie is the Empire capturing Leia’s ship and taking the Princess prisoner. We see them wipe out an entire planet. Every single encounter with Storm Troopers results in our heroes running away from them – in the Cantina, in the Mos Eisley docking bay, during the Death Star escape.

Again, this pays off when Luke finally launches that torpedo down the thermal vent. The Rebel squadron fighters have nearly been wiped out, but the Rebels pull through anyway.

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(As an aside, this is also why ‘Rogue One’ compliments ‘A New Hope’ so effectively – the Rebels do not win in ‘Rogue One’ – in fact, they barely escape with a handful of ships left. If ‘Rogue One’ had finished with a victory against the Empire, the unlikely victory in ‘A New Hope’, chronologically just a few days later, would be vastly devalued.)


‘The Last Jedi’ is a more interesting example, because it gets this concept both right and wrong.

First off, where it gets it right, which is again in Luke Skywalker’s arc. Here, we are repeatedly exposed to Luke’s uninterest in the outside world: he throws the lightsaber away, he continues his daily routine of spearing fish and indulging his xeno-lactation fetish, he repeatedly tells Rey to fuck off. It’s hammered home enough that when he does turn up on the Salt Planet to face off against Kylo, it’s a big, emotionally satisfying moment, because he’s finally returned to being the hero.

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But, when it comes to Poe Dameron’s arc, and that of Finn and Rose, we get the opposite. The emotional beat that we finish on is the endearing message that we need to “save the things we love, not destroy the things we hate,” but that’s a an emotional note that hasn’t been earned earlier in the film.

Admittedly, the opening scene is of Poe sacrificing ships and pilots to take out the Dreadnought, but it isn’t explored enough afterwards. With just a single example of Poe’s recklessness (not including his attempted mutiny, which had no consequences), the repeated “pay off” at the end, where we see multiple examples of Poe realising the moral of his story, doesn’t end up feeling like a journey for Poe. It doesn’t feel like he’s changed as a character, so much as he learned one new thing today.

Likewise with Finn and Rose. Finn’s journey from recklessly attacking his enemies to trying to preserve his loved ones occurs in a single scene, in fact just one portion of a single scene, during the speeder attack at the very end.

If Finn’s adventures on the Rich White People planet or on the Mega Star Destroyer had included him repeatedly trying to attack First Order soldiers, jeapordising his mission for the sake of revenge, or abandoning Rose because he saw an opportunity to attack, then his finale with rose during the speederbike scene would feel more thematic for the character. As it is, it feels “tacked on” – the work hasn’t been done beforehand to earn the emotional weight it thinks it deserves at the end.

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A further bad example of this style of narrative being executed is ‘Pacific Rim’. Like the other examples, ‘Pacific Rim’ has a lot going on narrative-wise, so pinning down the central story is tricky, but best I can tell it’s about the under-funded, unsupported Jaeger program proving that the only way to fight giant monsters is with giant robots.

We start off the film with Gypsy Danger getting defeated by Knifehead, which is the low point. But after that, the Jaegers win every fight against the Kaiju. Admittedly we see Crimson Typhoon and Cherno Alpha get fucked up, but ultimately there’s no battle after the opening scene that isn’t won by the giant robots.

Which means that when we get to the big climactic underwater battle at the end, the Jaegers win, and the audience reaction is “Well, yup, that fits the pattern, that matches everything we’ve seen previously, the robots defeat the monsters, I had no reason to expect anything else.”

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Compare that to ‘Independence Day’, where we literally spend the first two acts of the film watching humanity get its arse kicked across the face of the planet. We see cities leveled, fighter squadrons wiped out – we watch humanity lose a thousand times. Enough that, come the final victory against the aliens, it feels a thousand times more satisfying.


The same applies in literary storytelling, indeed basically anything that is structured around The Hero’s Journey. Look at ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’, which starts off with all of the hobbits happily enjoying parties and pubs and not being chased by orcs. We explore the idyllic life of the Shire, and the safety and comfort that it represents, and in many different ways, which means that when Frodo decides to head off on his own with the Ring from Amon Hen, and Sam with him, we, the audience, fully appreciate of what it is that they’re letting go.


Most of this is probably not going to be new information to experienced writers. It was news to me, simply because I’d never viewed it in these terms before (also because I am just a manufacturer of a trash blog that spews bile about the difference between an Astronomical Unit and a Light Year).

But if you walk away from a film or show with a slightly dissatisfied feeling, as though something didn’t quite hit home, try to identify one of the key emotional moments and see if it was satisfactorily set up.

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Unrelated ‘Prometheus’ screenshot.

Not every story has to follow this pattern, obviously, and there’s plenty of room for subtlety and nuance in a more unusual narrative. But when a movie is trying to hit big emotional notes, as most movies do these days, whilst following a pretty standard plot, it has to earn its laurels.

The essence of this whole thing is “get your setup right.” But the specific objective is to get your setup unequivocal. There shouldn’t be any confusion, in your audience’s mind, about what your story is about. If you can achieve that, then there won’t be any confusion in your audience’s mind about how they should feel.

Which may sound manipulative, but we’re not talking about great art here, we’re talking about emotional storytelling – about taking your audience on a journey from intrigued, to invested, to sad, to joyous. It’s not complicated, it just requires a little focus.

A Review of the movie ‘Gravity’ (2013)

I didn’t think it was possible for a film to somehow be less scientifically accurate than ‘Pacific Rim‘, but so many people praised ‘Gravity’ for its ambition that it’s not too surprising that it achieved that mantle.

‘Gravity’ looks amazing, and so perfectly showcases the visual journey of the single-most-unlucky person alive that it will leave you breathless. Breathless from the sheer spectacle of it, and breathless from laughter.

‘Gravity’ is the story of Dr. Mrs. Sandra Spacewoman, and her desperate struggle to regain a career after the dizzying heights of ‘Miss Congeniality’. I’m sure Sandra Bullock’s a lovely person, I’ll bet she vaccinates her children and hardly ever kills dogs just for fun, but I have always struggled to accept the premise that she’s an actor.

She seems to just Be In Movies, smiling and being nice and not really actually, y’know, portraying a character or anything. Maybe I’m being unfair. I’m not saying she’s a bad performer. It never looks like she’s reading her lines from an off-screen cue-card.

But put her next to someone like Anne Hathaway or Scarlet Johanssen… Let’s put it this way. Emily Blunt in ‘Adjustment Bureau’ is not the same Emily Blunt in ‘Edge of Tomorrow’. Have you ever seen Sandra Bullock being anyone other than Sandra Bullock?

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Sandra Bullock, here playing her seminal role of “Sandra Bullock”, which critics say is even better than her last role as the character “Sandra Bullock”, or even the ever-memorable and charismatic “Sandra Bullock”, from ‘Every Movie She’s Ever Been In’.

My irrational distaste for S-Meister B aside, ‘Gravity’ is exhausting. That’s almost a credit to the film itself; I left the cinema feeling almost as tired as Spacera Blastoff’s character presumably felt, but for the wrong reasons. Every scene stretched my suspension of disbelief to breaking point.

The fanciest, most realistic effects in the world don’t make the string of incredibly unlucky events that follow each other (all within the space of an hour) any easier to believe. I greeted each new development in the story with a dismissive “Yeah, right.”

Partly that was due to my space-nerdery telling me that Things Don’t Work Like That In Space. The story kicks off when a rogue Russian missile blows up a satellite, which creates a debris cloud which then systematically destroys every single man-made thing in the solar system, apparently.

But Starra Blofeld’s a tough cookie, and she survives each new disaster that befalls her. She gets to the shuttle, but it’s been wrecked. She makes it to the ISS, but Jean-Luc Picard’s pulled a drive-by “Self Destruct” on the thing, seemingly, as it immediately starts collapsing around her.

She escapes the lethality of the space station (have we really had people living on it for years? That thing’s a deathtrap, apparently) to go some other places, all of which are equally terrible and deadly.

Apparently, every space program around the world is run by the same tribes who built all of the temples in the ‘Indiana Jones’ trilogy. All space things are apparently rigged to instantly kill the first person to set foot inside of them. Maybe it’s an allegory for Australia.

She has a baffling moment of respite where she briefly turns into a werewolf. I guess it’s always a full moon in space. Once she’s done with that, she does what any other sensible human being would do and decides “God has a plan for me, and that plan is short-term, so I will obey his wishes” and turns the oxygen off.

Sadly, that’s not the end of the movie, as Clorge Mooney reappears (we’ll get to him in a bit) and gives her the pep-talk she needs to get her shit together and get out of this Space Jam! Some more stuff blows up spontaneously, she lands in a pond, credits roll.

I could write for days about the scientific inaccuracies and plot-holes in this film. I really could. I won’t. Just go play Kerbal Space Program for half an hour and you’ll get the idea.

What I do want to write about is the only other character with a face in the film, George Clooney. And isn’t it a lovely face? Let’s look at it for a moment.

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Prozac for the soul, this guy.

Wasn’t that lovely? I think so.

In ‘Gravity’ he plays the experienced, about-to-retire Manstronaut who knows what’s up, who rescues Sandy Bumhole initially and later reappears to her as a dream-ghost, giving her the inspiration and drive she needs to Not Die A Pointless Death.

He’s mostly a loose stereotype, played with great charisma, obviously, but it’s his significance to Bullock’s primary character that irks me. The story could’ve been about the Toughest Girl In The Galaxy, about her own will and drive to keep going, keep surviving, and it just about is.

But for me, it gets side-tracked by Gooney’s reappearance at that critical point. Now, it’s about a Girl Who Is The Toughest In The Galaxy As Long As She Has The Example Of A Man To Inspire Her.

I mean, this is a really minor point, and it works more-or-less fine in the film, but could we have had a woman in Jorge’s place? ‘The Martian’ had Jessica Chastain to prove that you can have a capable badass female astronaut who takes names and kicks arse; would it have been such a stretch to have, say, Sigourney Weaver as the veteran, the one who saves Panda Hillock and later inspires her to keep going? THAT could have been neat.

Or maybe just have Shandy Bulmers inspire herself into survival. Maybe she looks at a picture of her dead daughter and decides “No, somebody needs to remember her”. Or maybe she just looks out at the stars, realises internally that her life is shaped by more than the things that happen to her, and decides that she’s going to go down fighting no matter what.

I dunno, maybe this isn’t the place for advancing a feminist agenda. But maybe “First All-Female Science Fiction Movie” might have been a better title to have than “Somehow Less Realistic Than Giant Robots”.

Oh, and in the final scene, she starts swimming up to the water’s surface after having landed in a pond, and a piece of seaweed starts to wrap around her leg, and people in the cinema, myself included, actually started laughing.

I would have enjoyed this movie more if the creators had been brave enough to have the main character get drowned by seaweed.

Then they could have called it ‘Buoyancy’.

A Review of ‘Pacific Rim’ (2013)

Okay, cards on table, I really, really want to like this film. Almost every individual component of this film works for me. The effects, the soundtrack, the cast, the robots, the monsters. It’s all great.

But in the same way that Grenadine, Jägermeister, Glenfiddich and Lemsip are all amazing in their own way, they just don’t work together. In Pacific Rim, even individual cast members manage to pull off great performances that are in no way compatible with the performances of their colleagues.

For that reason, ‘Pacific Rim’ makes me sad.

For example, WHY are Idris Elba and Charlie Day in the same movie? Elba is always wonderful. I love him. He’s the acting equivalent of a duvet on a rainy winter day, if duvets were angry and terrifying. He brings a smouldering intensity to every scene, and that doesn’t work with Day’s glorious comical style.

It’s like mixing horse manure with an atom bomb. One of them is good for growing crops; the other is good for destroying enemy cities. If I have both at the same time, I just feel disgusted and anxious.

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God’s most magnificent creation. He spent more time trimming those pristine handlebars than the screen-writers did on the entire fucking script.

Even the fight scenes make me feel ambivalent. Lashing rain at night is awesome for setting a dark, moody tone. When giant robots with rocket-fists fight big wobbly space monsters, my emotional tone is not DARK AND MOODY.

Jesus, all I want to do is see some fucking robots punching some fucking monsters. But the robots are dark-grey, and the monsters are dark-brown, and the backgrounds are all dark-blue, SO I CAN’T SEE SHIT. The ‘Mona Lisa’ isn’t on display behind frosted glass, so why do all of my MONSTER FIGHTS HAPPEN IN THE FUCKING DARK. Christ.

Oh yeah, here we go, my favourite fucking scene, Idris stands on the foot of his Yeegeger and gets his acting chops out and delivers this amazing, rousing, exciting, fucking “CANCELLING THE APOCALYPSE” speech to the assembled troops. But all the people fighting are stood behind him, and the people he’s addressing are the plumbers and electricians who have ALREADY DONE THEIR FUCKING JOBS, WHY DO THEY NEED MOTIVATING IDRIS, WHY? OH YEAH, GONNA MAKE A REAL DIFFERENCE THAT DEREK OVER THERE WITH THE WRENCH HEARD THAT SPEECH AS HE SITS ON A BOX PLAYING CARDS AND LISTENING TO THE RADIO. FUCK.

God, I mean, okay, so the EMP blast shuts down the whole base, but it’s fine because Randy Loggins or whatever the fuck his name is says that the big stompy robot from the opening scene is “analogue” because she has a nuclear reactor or something, BUT THAT’S NOT HOW IT WORKS, WHAT ABOUT ALL THE COMPUTER SCREENS, THEY’RE NOT ALL PAL-ENCODED YOU DRIBBLING MORON, HEY, GOOD LUCK MANAGING A NUCLEAR REACTOR WITH GEARS AND PULLEYS YOU COLOSSAL FUCKING TROGLODYTE.

Yeah, that’s right ‘Pacific Rim’, keep painting the Australian dude as the bad guy, even though he’s FUCKING RIGHT ALL OF THE TIME YOU USELESS CUNTS. Every time he calls out Bally Furtrade and Kimiko Bluehair on being shit he’s fucking right, they are shit, they nearly blow up the fucking base for fuck’s sakes! Why’s he the one being framed as the douche? Bellends.

Oh, the sword, THE SWORD, MY FRIENDS. Cool as fuck, completely inexhaustible, kills monsters in a single sweep, AND YOU ONLY JUST USED IT NOW??? WHAT’S WRONG WITH YOU MORONS? ACTUALLY, DON’T ANSWER THAT, WE’LL BE HERE ALL FUCKING NIGHT. I MEAN REALLY, YOU PUT THE SWORD IN THE MONSTERS AND IT KILLS THE MONSTERS. USE THE SWORD! USE THE FUCKING SWORD!!! WHAT, DID YOU FORGET? DID YOU BOTH FORGET ABOUT IT? DID ALL THE PEOPLE AT THE BASE FORGET TOO? IF YOU’RE THE BEST HUMANITY’S GOT THEN WE DESERVE EXTINCTION. THE APOCALYPSE WASN’T CANCELLED, IT WAS JUST POSTPONED. FUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUCK.

FUCK.

Fuck.

I mean, this wasn’t the worst movie of 2013, not by a long shot, and it’d be fun with mates and snacks on a big wide-screen TV after pizza and beer. Y’know, end-of-the-night, it’s two in the morning but you’re all still buzzing.

Just don’t watch it for the plot. It’s like reading the comments section of a popular news article. You think you’ll be able to stay objective, but you’re just going to end up angry.