by Ashley Naftule
You know what’s one of the biggest problems plaguing Hollywood films over the last ten years? They don’t know when to shut the hell up.
A common complaint lodged against the movie industry is that they don’t care about storytelling. That plot takes a backseat to star casting and CGI fireworks. I think that this “story last” tendency is overstated: the truth is, Hollywood DOES care about storytelling. The problem is, they care about the wrong kind.
What gives movies their power? Mystery. Most films don’t pass the two hour mark. There’s only so much story you can tell within that narrow time frame, so some things have to go unexplained or unstated. Think of all your favorite cult films – I’d hazard a guess that most of them have some nagging mystery that captured your imagination? Like the corpse of the alien pilot in the original Alien movie. Or the faceless, implacable evil of Michael Myers in the original Halloween — a merciless killer without any motive, personality, or logic to his killing spree. These films have a power that lingers on because it leaves blank spaces for our minds to fill in the details.
This “fuck it – we don’t have to explain that” approach to story is an endangered species in modern movies. Everything gets over-explained. Instead of Michael Myers as a murderous, unknowable Shape, he’s now the neglected and abused child of white trash scum. Ridley Scott is giving us not one, but TWO movies to explain how that alien pilot ended up by that clutch of xenomorph eggs. Instead of landing on Skull Island and killing dinosaurs within 20 minutes of screen time like the original film did, the Peter Jackson Kong remake has to treat us to an hour of boat tripping and “Hey, Depression-era New York SUCKED” because we so desperately need to understand the motives of a bunch of characters that nobody paid $10 to see. Just get us to the dinosaurs and the damn giant monkey already, Pete.
Perhaps one of the all-time most egregious examples of this storytelling bloat can be seen in the Assault on Precinct 13 remake. The original Carpenter film is a quick & dirty film – it gets things moving quickly, and keeps the plot to a minimum. We don’t know much about either the cops or the criminals who are bandying together to fight off a faceless gang – we don’t need to. Their situation is what’s interesting. We don’t need to graft tragic or noble backstories onto any of the protagonists to make their plight more involving.
Assault on Precinct 13
The Assault remake basically wipes its ass with the “KEEP IT SIMPLE, STUPID” maxim and piles on story. Instead of a mysterious gang, it’s a group of corrupt cops. The lead cop is now a recovering alcoholic loose cannon, the main criminal is secretly a Good Guy, and there’s even an old cop who’s a day away from retirement. The original film gave us ciphers – the remake gave us cliches.
What’s probably the most annoying version of this trend is when genre films feel the need to drizzle some science on top of the supernatural. Consider how long it took the Marvel movies to FINALLY introduce magic into their universe, after having to endure two Thor movies that kept insisting the Asgardians were really just super powerful aliens. Memo to Hollywood: calling a “Soul Forge” a “quantum field generator” or whatever doesn’t make your film sound smarter.
Dawn Of The Dead
It’s why the original Romero zombie films were so wise to not explain how the zombies came about. Sure, there’d be a throwaway line in each film SUGGESTING a possible answer (Hell is full, y’all!), but it’s never suggested that we take this answer as gospel. That approach is wise because there’s no answer in the world that would satisfy us. And the fact of the matter is that the answer DOESN’T MATTER: knowing where zombies came from wouldn’t help any of the characters in those movies. They’re too busy trying to survive to worry about origin stories.
A contemporary example of how this sort of thing can go off the rails is 2014’s Spring. Described as “Before Sunrise meets Species“, it’s an interesting combination of romance and body horror. It takes the “tourist finds love abroad” trope and throws some shape-shifting and monster rampaging into the mix. When I watched it in theaters, I was hooked… up until the moment that they started using “science” to explain the monster away.
Instead of being some kind of murderous mermaid or siren or Lovecraftian monster, the girl in the story is some kind of immortal mutant. The film essentially hits the brakes so they can explain in depth how her mutation works, and it sucks all the life out of the film. Partially because it’s not very convincing — I’m no evolutionary biologist, but even I can tell that the explanation they’re offering doesn’t hold much water. And when the film reveals that the secret to her not transforming is getting a dose of oxytocin caused by experiencing true love, it gets even more risible.
Spring could have been an A movie, a powerful and clever genre film, if it just said “Fuck it, it’s magic.” It wouldn’t have changed any of the plot beats or emotional resonance of the film; what it would have done is carve away several uninteresting and unconvincing exposition scenes.
The problem that hobbles Spring is one that afflicts so many Hollywood films. It’s like they feel this need to show their work, failing to realize that they’re better off telling us nothing. We don’t need to know if the killer was abused as a child. We don’t need to understand what that weird thing in the background of a shot is. We don’t care that you’ve got a “perfectly reasonable” explanation for how vampires could exist.
We just want you to tell a story. Just enough story. Leave some blanks for us to fill in.