If You Can’t Blind Them With Brilliance…

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Fair warning: Thar be mild spoilers ahead, so if you plan on seeing Star Trek Into Darkness and wish to go in fresh, turn back now.

Let me begin by saying I didn’t have high expectations for this film, so I wasn’t disappointed at how much I really didn’t like it. Wasn’t a fan of the first film either. Truth to tell, I’m not big on reboots or reimaginings in general. And that’s all this is. A poor reboot of the far superior film, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

Don’t mistake my meaning, this isn’t a bash on J.J. Abrams. The man does what he’s paid to do. He puts asses in seats, like a professional carnival huckster. He’s under no obligation to provide a solid, well thought out plot or three-dimensional characters. It’s all about bang for the buck, which this movie has in spades. It meets its quota of fisticuffs, phaser fights, explosions, space battles, and winks and nods to the original series to appease actual fans of the franchise. Abrams certainly knows his way around a popcorn movie, living by the old adage, “If you can’t blind them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit.”

But instead of dissecting Into Darkness (enough fan sites are doing that already), I’d rather talk about what made Wrath of Khan work. It’s one of two films that I can think of off the top of my head that has a near perfect set up. The other is the first Back To The Future film.

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Wrath of Khan begins with the Star Fleet Academy final exam, The Kobayashi Maru, a no-win scenario simulation designed to test the character of cadets before unleashing them into the harsh realities of interplanetary relations. Kirk is now an admiral relegated to training cadets after giving up his starship command. It’s his birthday, so he’s feeling old. His life lacks adventure, so he feels put out to pasture. He has no family, so he feels alone in the universe. The man is miserable, making him the perfect character in desperate need of an arc.

Come to find out Kirk is the only cadet to beat The Kobayashi Maru, but he did it by rigging the test. He cheated because he doesn’t believe in a no-win scenario. And that’s what the entire film is, Kirk’s Kobayashi Maru. An adversary emerges from his past, hellbent on revenge for being stranded on a planet that turns hostile. He’s reunited with an old flame and discovers he has a son. And he’s pitted in a battle of wits against a far superior opponent. Even in his most desperate hour, Kirk is enjoying this. It’s what he was born to do. The only thing he’s ever been good at.

And finally, he’s forced to face The Kobayashi Maru consequences. He’s encountered his no-win scenario. He’s at the end of his tether, with no more cards left to play. He’s not only put himself in the line of fire but his crew and new found family as well. They’re dead. Or they would have been, had Spock not sacrificed himself, quoting the Charles Dickens novel, A Tale of Two Cities (a present he gives to Kirk on his birthday), “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few“.

Kirk finally faces devastating loss, the death of his closest friend, but as he mourns, he witnesses the creation of a world, has reconnected with a family he never knew he had and is once again in command of a starship. At the beginning of the film, he was feeling old, but as the film wraps, he stares at the Genesis Planet and tells Carol Marcus that he “Feels young.”

That’s a proper character arc.

And you won’t find any of that in Into Darkness. It’s a poor photocopy that lacks the richness of history, the depth of character, or a plot that can bear the weight of scrutiny.

— Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys

 

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Every Picture Tells A Story, Though Not Always A Good One

It’s easy to put the boots to M. Night Shyamalan whenever he debuts a new film, but the fact of the matter is as long as Lady In The Water, The Happening and The Last Airbender exist, After Earth will never be considered his worst film.

The story, conceived by Will Smith while he was watching an episode of I Shouldn’t Be Alive, was originally meant to tell the tale of a father and son crashing their car in some remote region, and the son having to venture into rough terrain to get rescue for his father. Will later changed it to:

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A crash landing leaves Kitai Raige and his father Cypher stranded on Earth, 1,000 years after events forced humanity’s escape. With Cypher injured, Kitai must embark on a perilous journey to signal for help.

It’s a simple story, which is what you should strive for when creating fiction. So, why doesn’t it work (apart from the wooden acting and bizarre futuristic southern military accents)? What storytelling lessons can you learn from After Earth?

1. When good exposition goes bad – Avoiding exposition is nigh-impossible when dealing with science fiction set in the future. In the case of After Earth, the audience needs to be brought up to speed on why humans fled the planet one thousand years ago, as well as being introduced to the new homeworld, Nova Prime. And that’s where it should end. Everything else the audience needs to know should be introduced organically. The one thing you should not use your opening expository scene for is telegraphing the solution for the climax of the story. It’s lazy and a cheat.

2. The protagonist/antagonist relationship – Even with coming of age stories, which After Earth is—–well, that and a motivational speech dressed up as a sci-fi actioner—–the strength and audience interest lies in the conflict found in the relationship between the protagonist and antagonist. The reason After Earth doesn’t ring true isn’t because the protagonist, Kitai, is weak—possessing a weakness that must be overcome is exactly what any good story needs.

The first problem is the antagonist. The thing that combats Kitai in the film is nature—which is filled with its fair share of animal and insect nasties (plus one blast from Kitai’s past, conveniently placed to help him arc properly)—but it doesn’t oppose him. There isn’t one beast that stalks him with animal cunning and outflanks him at every turn, with the ultimate goal of turning him into a tasty morsel. The wilderness isn’t planting snares and death traps in his path to prevent him from reaching his destination.

Not that either of those scenarios are particularly original or great, but something else is needed than to have Kitai stumble and bumble his way through unfamiliar and dangerous terrain. I would have been more invested if he actively tried to outwit the environment and was constantly met with defeat. At least then he would have gained some insight. We learn from mistakes.

Which is the problem I had with the resolution. At the all is lost stage, Kitai suddenly masters the gimmick that allows him to prevail in the end. Without obtaining the wisdom or acquiring the experience to properly do so. And again, it’s a cheat and lazy storytelling.

3. Telegraphing – Some writers mistake this with foreshadowing—the act of dropping hints about certain plot developments that will come to be later in the story. The difference between them? Telegraphing is giving away too much, too soon, thereby ruining the suspense, or the impact of the event.

Before using foreshadowing, have a good think. Is it necessary to heighten the tension? It can be difficult knowing which side of the line you’re on, so if you’re attempting to foreshadow, you should ask yourself if there’s any chance the audience can predict what you’re hinting at? If the answer is yes, take a good look around. You’re standing in telegraph territory. Try a subtler approach.

4. Flashbacks – It’s amazing how many screenwriters still get this wrong by thinking flashback sequences serve the purpose of filling in plot holes in the past. A well-constructed flashback should always move the story forward. Always. If your flashback doesn’t accomplish this, you need to rework your story and find a way to introduce whatever bit of information is missing from your plot.

In After Earth, we have dueling flashback sequences, one set belonging to Cypher which explains his estrangement from his son and the other set telegraphing Kitai’s final obstacle. Nether of these string-of-past-event-sequences impact the present day story, nor do they escalate the conflict. The just provide information that could have be delivered during the Act 1 set-up.

Naturally, there are other problems I had with this film, but delving into them would reveal too many spoilers, so I’ll just end the post here. If you happen to see the film and want to discuss it, feel free to comment below or drop me a line.

Sally forth and be writeful.