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Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The nature of bad SF movies

I was just at the CWRU SF Marathon (an annual event here in Cleveland, if you're in the area, consider going, it's like a live version of MST3K) and a couple of recent examples of cinematic SF cheese made me wonder exactly what might be wrong with some modern SF.

Aeon Flux & The Chronicles of Riddick both have abysmal ratings at Rotten Tomatoes, 11% and 28% respectively. (For perspective consider that the cinematic abortion called Ishtar gets 19%) Even if you decide that just being SF will alienate a good percentage of critics (no, I am not making a pun) that's still really bad. You certainly can't fault either film on production design, and they are both visually interesting. So, what sucks? The acting isn't horrible by action movie standards, and the stories in both are, for Hollywood, fairly original. I particularly liked the background of "Riddick", it could stand shoulder to shoulder with the space operas in the 1930s-era pulps, story-wise and aesthetically.

What went wrong? Answer: The plot.

For those of you ever curious about the distinction between "story" and "plot", this is an example. the setting, the backstory, the characters, the situation, these are all story elements. In both cases these story elements could have made a fantastic SF movie, because in both cases these elements were, again by Hollywood standards, fairly fresh and original.

The plot, who does what and why, came straight out of the action movie cliché vault. Deconstruct each film's plot and you find the anemic heart that beats at the center of every second-rate action movie and cop drama. In case you want to suck the life out of your own screenplay, let me give you the top ten major elements common to all bad action movies:

  1. Hero is ludicrously capable, laconic, and violent. but he/she harbors a secret internal pain that drives him/her to "do the right thing."
  2. Hero is a mistrusted outsider that is at odds with the forces of authority.
  3. Hero will lose the one person he/she has an emotional connection with, in order to drive home a plot point.
  4. Villain is nearly omniscient and omnipotent, and will have unlimited minions to draw from and hunt the Hero down with. Villain is also in charge of the environment the Hero finds him/herself in.
  5. Despite the endless supply of minions, not one will be competent enough to put a bullet in the Hero's head when the opportunity presents itself, while the Hero can dispatch minions a dozen at a time without serious injury.
  6. The Villain's main henchman is plotting against him, and despite the Villain's omniscience, the Villain has no clue what's going on until said henchman tries to kill him.
  7. At least one time during the course of the movie the Hero will have inexplicably gained access to the Villain's HQ, and have free reign through it until the need for exposition is exhausted.
  8. About midway into the movie, the Villain will capture the Hero or otherwise gain close enough access so the two can chat. However, the Villain will never, ever, take this opportunity to kill off the Hero. (To be fair to "Aeon Flux" there was a reason for this.)
  9. The Hero and Villain will have a climatic hand-to-hand confrontation in front of a large number of minions that are unwilling, unable, or too uninterested to intervene on their boss' behalf (except for the afore-mentioned henchman, who will try to kill his boss.)
  10. Death of the Villain and/or Chief Henchmen will result in the immediate collapse of the "evil empire" run by the Villain/Henchmen, probably with a bunch of explosions. Apparently all the thousands of loyal brainwashed minions have no stake in keeping the social order intact. (To be fair to "Riddick," the writers subverted this point by having Riddick take over the Bad Guys, including Chief Henchman, which was a nice twist.)

Anyway, if you make a movie that fits this outline, not much else is going to save the screenplay. CGI can only go so far.