Story Still Matters
A Brief Look At Why Summer Blockbuster SF Writers Need To Go Back To Basic Writing 101 Class
by Carmelo Rafala, Managing Editor
When I was a teenager we all looked forward to the arrival of the summer season because it meant longer days, staying out late and “big” movies full of action, explosions, heroes and bad guys. It was the 1980s: the Golden Age of the Summer Blockbuster.
It was with anticipation that we lived for the release of movies containing a multitude of chest-bursting aliens, robot terminators from the future, British secret agents and the latest installment of those future space travelers from a long-cancelled 1960s TV show boldly going once again into deep space adventure. Although these were hardly date movies no one of either sex seemed to mind. We all went, boys and girls alike, to get our summer fix of daring escapism.
And you know what? The stories were usually pretty good! They made sense, continuity was usually pretty tight, and nothing completely illogical and out of left field occurred to break us out of our willingness to suspend disbelief and just following along for the ride. In essence: good storytelling. (There were the odd summer stories that were rubbish, but they weren’t the blockbusters many went to see.)
Fast forward about three decades. The summer blockbuster is still around, still pumping adrenaline, still wowing with mind-blowing special effects. But the quality of many of the stories these days seems to have taken a back seat to mega-explosions (some for no reason other than to blow something up) and outrageously amateurish plot problems. And let’s not mention the truly God-awful dialogue.
While limited time and space prevent me from listing all the recent films here and examining them in depth, I will give a brief overview of three films that have been highly anticipated and generated cosmic amounts of buzz.
One film is Prometheus. While the ideas and concepts are truly big SF in scope, they were poorly served by a plot that was confusing and, ultimately, woefully uneven. The characters themselves lacked common sense and often did not act like the stolid scientists they should have been: they take their helmets off, they bicker like school children, they don’t seem interested in what they are actually there to do! And the many plot problems are very apparent and incredibly amateurish. For example, those two guys who had to remain in the alien structure? One guy returns as a morphed super-creature, but the second guy completely disappears from the story! Not even a mention of what happened to him. And the reveal that old man Weyland was on the ship the whole time? How did they manage to keep that one a secret? A really poor reveal. It was also poor to suddenly discover Theron’s character was his daughter. Did that even serve the plot? Not really. It would have been interesting only if we were able to see conflict between Theron’s character and the robot, David, who Weyland wishes were his real son. Now, that would have been interesting. But nope. Didn’t get any of that ripe character development. And how the hell could Rapace’s character run around after giving herself a C-section? Medically impossible. What about David’s motivation for infecting a crew member? No explanation was ever given.
The other film I wish to briefly look at is Star Trek (2009) and Star Trek Into Darkness. Now, as a long-time Trek fan, I have no problem with the idea of revisiting the TOS characters with new actors. I have no problem with creating an alternate timeline, to free up the canon and go in a new direction. What problems I do have are many, and they result from poor writing. First up, how could Spock witness the destruction of Vulcan when Delta Vega is millions of light years away? How can a supernova threaten the whole galaxy? And it is a great stretch to believe in trans-warp beaming at such vast distances. Between two ships at warp in close proximity? Sure. But from a planet to a ship at warp halfway across the galaxy? No way. Interesting concept done very badly. And if a small drop of red matter can create a massive black hole, wouldn’t the entire container—detonated by Spock—swallow the whole universe? And why did Kirk order the ship to fire all weapons on the bad guy’s big vessel when it was already being destroyed by a black hole? What’s the point of that? And there was absolutely no logic to Kirk’s rapid progression from Cadet to Captain. It just wouldn’t happen.
Into Darkness has its own problems. If you remove Khan from the story and make him any random character, the story still works. There is no reason to have Khan as a character in the story. Kirk breaking the Prime Direction by allowing the inhabitants of a planet to see the ship is moot, and Spock telling on him is even sillier. Spock broke the Prime Directive as well by agreeing to interfere by going into a volcano. Why risk being seen? It’s not logical. Why not beam the device into the volcano? And you can’t tell me that an advanced ship that can withstand the cold of space can suddenly find itself stymied by a volcano? And Chekov completely contradicts himself by saying he can’t beam anyone out as they are moving. What? Didn’t he do that in ST 2009 when he saved Kirk and Sulu in freefall? Spock’s reaction to Kirk’s death was beyond over the top. If they really became that close so suddenly why did the writers not show this development in some manner? Kirk losing his command was a great plot device, but why not have him trying and get his ship back over the course of the film, and not within ten minutes? That would have been great for character development and it would have been more believable.
But here is, I think, the problem. Some will say it is only SF and doesn’t have to be believable. They are wrong. What the characters do and say does have to be believable in order to have a good story. And the plot should be sound, as well. Now all three films mentioned here can be enjoyed if you are willing to switch your brain off and just go for the adrenaline. Some viewers do. In fact, I enjoyed the films more on second viewing when I switched my brain off, too.
However, good storytelling is always about character development and how the plot advances that. Jumping from one thing to another with no clear or logical explanation, disappearing characters, silly ideas that are used to advance the story at the expense of believable drama—these are all errors made by newbie writers in an introduction to creative writing class at college.
It seems some supposedly Pro writers need to go back to Basic Writing 101.