According to Mark Kermode, there are three absolute truths: “1. The world is round. 2. We are all going to die. 3.” No one enjoyed Pirate of the Caribbean: At World’s End. The people who did, “are simply suffering from the cinematic equivalent of long-term deprivation from the basics of civilised existence.”
“How did they get here? The short answer is: Michael Bay. The long answer is: Michael Bay; Kevin Costner’s gills; Cleopatra on home video; and the inability of modern blockbusters to lose money in the long run, no matter how terrible they may be.”
Mark goes on to explain why blockbusters never lose money. He poses the question: if they can’t lose money why not make them good?
To answer Mark, in the past years blockbusters have had an exponential increase in IQ. The people behind some of them have actually started treating the audiences as people who know the meaning of the word exponential. Nolan’s Batman and Inception, The Avengers, Iron Men, X-Men, or Guardians of the Galaxy. It’s not completely my fault for expecting too much of WWZ. I was just spoiled.
Drew Goddard, Damon Lindelof, J. Michael Straczynski and Matthew Michael Carnahan. These were the four writers of WWZ. Five if you count Max Brooks, the writer of the novel (amazingly narrated). But I don’t know why you’d do that; as it’s been repeated to exhaustion, the movie took only three words from the novel: World. War. Z.
Its first scene made me look into these four men’s biographies. To my surprise, none had worked in advertising. The way they tried to cram so much information in the first sentences seemed more appropriate in a commercial than in a feature film. It should be the example used in lesson number one of screenwriting classes, under the title:
1. Common Pitfalls of Character Development.
Instead of an organic way to develop the background story of Brad Pitt’s character, the writers decided to make his kids ask him what they felt the audience needed to know. They chose that exact morning breakfast to have a conversation that would demonstrate all of our hero’s backstory. Show, don’t tell, was a rule completely ignored throughout the movie:
“Brad, we need you ‘cause of that thing that you did in that place.”
“Brad, he’s the leading figure of that thing with the thing we need the most right now.”
“Brad, you are 5’10’’, with blond hair and dreamy grey blue eyes.”
Yes, we can see that. Stop treating the audience like a bunch of brainless zombies! Write some intelligent and
relevant speech about the cure of the disease and voila, the person who says it is our leading expert on the zombie virus. Have Brad pick up a weapon and make him hold it comfortably, cock it with ease and point it seamlessly. Shows he can handle it. We’ll figure out that he has held a weapon before and his full-time pancake making days weren’t always his day-time job.
2. Double-tap is Enough
When the movie slows down and you show us a clue, take another blockbuster approach (Zombieland) and double-tap. Twice is enough. Don’t show us clues three or four times completed with a lengthy explanation. Two things might happen:
- The audience is intelligent and will figure it out at the first or second clue. We’ll feel rewarded because we’re not being spoon-fed the answers.
- The audience is not that intelligent and might not figure it out. You might get them pay double for a second viewing. What you don’t want is to have your audience find the solution and make them watch it being explained for an extra ten minutes of pointless frames. This is not the end of Psycho.
3. Relevant Characters Might Die
If you write so much dialogue to develop the characters in a zombie movie, make us fear for them. When a zombie runs at Brad I’d should fear for his life. Or at least for his hair. Don’t do a close-up of him taping magazines to his arms to save him from bites. That’s the poorest Chekov Gun I’ve seen in a while. A zombie will bite the magazine, leaving his arm intact and saving his life, which we know was never in peril. The Last of Us made me uncertain of the survival of each and any character because it was established that they were in danger from the first moment. Yes, The Last of Us is a videogame. And yes, it’d be a better movie than WWZ. It is.
4.Women Don’t Belong in The Kitchen
There’s one character in WWZ that drove me to my mother’s closet, made me fumble through her delicates, and choose one particularly old brassiere to throw in the fire. In Now You See Me that also happened. A few more blockbusters and I’ll have to burn my own bras. I talk about this at length on an article about How Hollywood Killed Feminism. In WWZ, Brad’s wife incarnates the stereotypical 50’s stay at home wife/mother. As far as she knows, this is the end of the world. She still excuses herself and her two little girls from the big men talk. It’s understandable: she doesn’t want them traumatized by a few scary words… after they saw 72 people being bitten, mauled and eaten. She stays away from the action, completely dependent on her man. Her presence is purely symbolic: the reason for the main character to return home.
On paper, Melanie Laurent’s character in Now You See Me should be the opposite. A young female agent from Interpol, with a gun by her hip. She worked hard to deserve a chance to work alongside the big boys from the FBI. She’s strong and feisty and… a doll. A pretty foreign doll, written as a token of romance and exoticism, in a movie that doesn’t require it. Her character is constantly undermined. Her most affirming responses are bitching about something insensitive, throwing a few tantrums about the way you said itand, in one heroic moment, she delayed a car chase until her man promised never to do it again. She’s a woman holding a gun! Don’t write her as a wife that can’t stay mad at her husband long enough for the beer she got him to get lukewarm.
5.Twists do NOT Solve Everything
A twist that makes your jaw drop must be set up in a way that, if you re-watch or just think back on what you just saw, makes sense. The Usual Suspects is the perfect example of this. The twist makes sense and isn’t over-explained. It takes you back to a recognizable speech with added meaning, even a different meaning. It doesn’t stop you from enjoying the movie on a second or third viewing, because now you’ll notice the subtle clues for that ending and, at the same time, marvel at how obvious they were and how you still missed them:
“I think inevitability is the key. In a well made drama, I want to feel: “Of course – that’s where it was headed all along.” And yet the inevitability mustn’t eliminate surprise.”
Sidney Lumet (more of his quotes on film here)
That’s not what happens in the final minutes of Now you See Me. First, the twist makes no sense. It’s a cheap trick. Instead of carefully planning ambiguous actions and dialogue, the movie simply ignores common sense when it changes direction. Second, the movie had so much going on that, when the twist happens, it’s hard to care. The same happened with The Dark Knight Rises. Imagine a waiter telling you a story about making a Frappuccino and, in the end, tan, tan, tan, “It was actually whole milk.” It’ll be hard to have a more emotional response than, “Can I just… have my coffee?”