The Trouble with (Some) Movies

Two action-adventure movies out this summer typify a problem I have with many contemporary flicks.

“Star Trek Into Darkness” and “Man of Steel” are enjoyable, entertaining movies, for sure. But they left me wondering whether the writers and producers who crank out these movies understand anything about story. They understand the need for action and the need for pacing between the action scenes, but the story to me is always the most meaningful aspect of a good movie.

In the Star Trek movie, the starship Enterprise is sent to the planet Nibiru to study the culture there. When a volcano erupts, Captain Kirk is faced with a dilemma: leave and let the inhabitants die or save the people, but violate the Prime Directive by exposing them to the Starship. He chose the latter, which revealed his character and humanity.

When summoned back to Earth, Captain Kirk loses his command, but Admiral Christopher Pike, who is assigned to take his place, feels empathy for him and assigned him as his first officer. When a secret installation in London is bombed, an emergency meeting is called, but it is a trap and the high command is attacked by a rogue agent. Pike is killed. Kirk is heartbroken, but soldiers on and takes over command of the ship.

So far, so good, but what’s wrong with this picture? There’s a major flaw here. Pike is killed before the movie establishes the relationship between Kirk and Pike. If you hadn’t seen any of the other Star Trek movies (which I hadn’t) the death of Pike would lack import and context. In a novel, there would have been a number of scenes to establish how the bond between these two characters developed and why they care so much about one another.

A second flaw reveals itself near the end of the movie. I won’t spoil the plot, but after Kirk heroically saved the day at mortal personal sacrifice, the dreaded deus ex machina occurred, which marred the ending (for me anyway). I get the old saw, “send the audience home happy,” but come on. Really? To paraphrase the main character, Alvy Singer, in Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall,” “Excuse me but I’m due back on the planet Earth.”

“Man of Steel” does a somewhat better job of weaving in the back story. It begins dramatically with the destruction of the planet Krypton, as scientist Jor-El and his wife, Lara, launch their newborn baby, Kal-El, to the planet Earth on a spacecraft after infusing him with the entire genetic code of the planet. The audience gets a glimpse at his life as a powerful child raised on a Kansas farm. His loving parents learned of his superpowers but advised him not to use them.

Then, through a series of convenient and inexplicable plot twists, he meets Lois Lane. Somehow, this skeptical newspaper reporter comes to believe in him. There is a patina of plausibility to this story, but then the writers couldn’t resist the urge to muck it up with interminable, over-the-top fight scenes that might have thrilled some in the audience, but left me rolling my eyes and checking my watch.

A much better example of a movie where the story is skillfully developed is The Heat, starring Sandra Bullock as a straight-laced FBI agent and the brilliant Melissa McCarthy as a foul-mouthed, but good-hearted Boston detective. The contrast between the two characters makes for tension in every scene. The back story is slowly revealed through authentic dialogue and action scenes. It is compelling, funny, and realistic, throughout (except for the car bombing scene).

The lack of “story” has to do largely with the genre. Action-adventure movies are light on story, while dramas and romantic comedies depend on all of the elements of storytelling one finds in quality fiction writing.

What about you? What’s your opinion of the state of current movies? Do they lack ‘story’ elements?

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “The Trouble with (Some) Movies

  1. I read elsewhere that six major studio movies of the action/effects genre this summer have not done well. I find the twenty minute fast cutaway action sequences tedious and don’t attend these movies even if the premise seems interesting. In the more recent Star Wars movies I found it interesting, in viewing the extended versions, that the scenes that were cut were those that developed character and relationships.

    • Cynthia,
      Thanks for your comment. The Star Wars observation is very interesting. I don’t think script writers for action-adventure films are bad writers, but rather they are giving the audience what they think they want. But it doesn’t make for good story. Thanks again.

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