Lessons Learned From B-Movies
Greetings, dear readers. First, let me take a moment to apologize for the lack of a blog last Friday and Chapter 4 of Descendants #68 this past Monday. You might already know why from the post I threw up Friday from my local library, but some might not (plus, it’s actually the setup for this week’s blog).
Tuesday night, a snowstorm hit my area. If you follow Twitter, you might have heard people in Washington DC making fun of the fact that they didn’t get anything more than a dusting or even complaining that there was ‘no’ snow. Those people suck.
I do not live in DC. I live to the west, where six to eight inches of unusually heavy and wet snow fell. This snow was so wet and heavy that it collected on, weighed down and eventually snapped the trees and power lines in my neighborhood like Bruce Banner’s patience.
My power didn’t actually go out until Wednesday morning, some ten hours into the storm, but by then, there was no way to get out, even after a neighbor showed up with his plow. I spent Wednesday night slowly freezing to death—oh, and I’m on a well, so losing power kills my water. Also my phones go out. Yay rural living!
Thursday saw the sun come out and melt enough snow to effect my escape. I set up camp at the library, where I scheduled my Friday message. At 6pm, I got the joyful call from my aunt that my neighborhood had power and booked it back home. And she was right: my neighborhood did have power. But geniuses that they are, my local power concern has me and one other neighbor hooked up to a separate transformer (note: transformers are meant to serve way more than just two houses). As two houses aren’t important enough to service when whole neighborhoods are down, I was shit out of luck—and facing another night of freezing, thirst and starvation. Again. Hurray.
Luckily, my cousin on the other side of the county got power back, and said I could stay there until my power came back. What should have just been a night swiftly turned into four days. Oh, and the storm knocked out his internet, so there was that. But (and this is the important part for the article), his cable was still functioning.
I don’t have cable. I actually only watch TV on DVD or at my clients’ houses while waiting for something to download or a process to finish. So, with no internet and no clients (hard to teach computer use when half the county has no power), I planted myself in front of the tube and caught some entertainment that, for me, is a rare delicacy.
And that brings us (finally) to this article.
It’s really easy to be negative on the internet without even intending to and it’s really easy to beat on easy targets.
Take for example SyFy. Over the years, they’ve done a lot of stupid things (the name for one, wrestling for two) and gotten a lot of flack for it. Well deserved, completely correct flack.
But also over the years, they’ve really started to impress me with the quality of a lot of their original programming. No, not the ghost hunter BS, I’m talking about the original series like Eureka or Warehouse 13, the later of which has become one of my favorite shows. This weekend, they proved to me that their Network Decay is far from complete, introducing me to new shows I can’t wait to sink my teeth into: Face Off, Continuum, Being Human, and Lost Girl.
There’s a lot to dig into about these shows, but Saturday night, after all the quality programming was over, SyFy blessed me with the real goldmine for the writer’s mind: SyFy original movies.
No, no. Don’t shy away. Don’t go ‘ew’. I know they’re terrible. The acting ranges from vapid to awesome scenery chewing, the special effects are adorably poor, and trying to make sense of their plots is what going mad feels like.
Make no mistake: SyFy Original Movies, with very few exceptions are B-Movies taken to the edge of the ‘art’. They are nothing but cheese and stupid, stripped of all nuance or subtlety. Which is exactly why they’re great for my brand of ‘what works’ analysis.
I’ll admit that I’m not a very good critic. I don’t pay much attention to technical perfection or artistic merit. I think in terms of what ‘works’ for me personally and admit that I have absolutely no taste. Really, I don’t. I own Van Hellsing, Wild, Wild West and The Core on DVD, not out of some sense of hipster ‘irony’, but because I freaking love those movies for their abject insanity and how much fun they are to watch.
For these reasons, I tend to be blinded by awesome and shiny when considering works, especially film. With SyFy Originals, however, I don’t have that problem. Sure, they’re diverting and I became addicted to them over the weekend, but I’m never, ever going to become a fan of any of these. I wouldn’t even pay the two bucks to rent those that made it to DVD. They are stripped down pieces of media just ripe for my kind of picking.
In the process of that picking, I’ve managed to dredge up some valuable lessons thanks to these patent time wasters. Lessons like…
Pick Appropriate Human Elements
I’ve talked before about how love stories are addictive, and how people can get attached to characters. Taken as a whole, these are commonly known as ‘human elements’; tropes that exist in stories to provide something for the audience to connect with emotionally. The idea here being that a film will resonate more if you’re in some way invested in the monster food.
And I’m all for this type of thing. Just like most people, I tend to eat it up with a spoon. In the stark wasteland of B-movies, however, I’ve started to notice a few cracks in the concept. Namely; writers seem to just trow any old human element that strikes their fancy into the mix and go about their merry way.
In Flying Monkeys, this past weekend’s new film (and desperate cash-in on Oz, the Great and Powerful), there are two of these that immediately jump out: a standard ‘daughter frustrated with her bumbling dad’ and a ‘different dad consumed with revenge over the death of his child’.
The former works because in many ways, it’s a the catalyst for the entire story: Daddy missed his daughter’s graduation and to make it up to her, he buys her a monkey (as folks are wont to do).
More importantly, it doesn’t get in the way of anything or make characters act in ways no human would in the situation they’re in.
The latter also doesn’t get in the way, but it also doesn’t actually do anything useful either. Supposedly, it motivates the sheriff to investigate the killings and late his panicked shooting of the titular monsters (killing them with non-blessed weapons makes them duplicate), but a sheriff should be investigating murders, don’t you think? And does a dude with a gun need a revenge motivation to shoot the flying monsters attacking him? He dies like right after that too, so it doesn’t even sink in for him.
Meanwhile in another ‘gem’, Impact (presumably a cash-in on Deep Impact or Armageddon) features a major character who just found out that his love interest is pregnant and plans to marry her. Goodie! Problem is, when a dwarf star’s core (just… think on that a bit, will you?) slams into the moon, causing it to make physics turn to magic (or something), it’s his expertise that’s needed on the space mission to fix the problem.
Let me make this clear: if he doesn’t go, life on Earth is done. Finito. The magnetic field will kill all the electronics, the tides will stop, triggering massive deaths in the ocean, and for some reason, gravity will stop working. Everyone will die.
His wife, who I might ass is included in ‘everyone’ chews him out for picking saving the world (AND HER) from annihilation over her. This woman feels that a few days of cuddling is worth more than survival. And no, it’s not explicitly a suicide mission; they fully intend to come back if successful. This scene exists just to add stupid drama and my annoyance with her rivals my annoyance with the terrible explanation for the disaster (more on that later).
The takeaway here is that when adding human elements to a story that isn’t about them, you need to make sure they actually bring something to the party; something that isn’t ‘makes the characters look petty’. Be very mindful about how all your subplots and character moments fold into the greater whole.
And speaking of things not meshing with the story:
If You’re Going to do Exposition—Explain Something
Writers discuss and worry about info dumping and exposition a lot and for good reason. Especially in the field of Speculative Fiction, it’s hard finding the right balance that tells your audience about the setting without just shoving a Universe Bible down their throat.
Personally, a lot of my write-time is spent trying to get the one little interesting factoid into the story and looking natural and unobtrusive to the reader.
Imagine my shock and confusion when I discovered just this weekend stories that managed to have exposition without telling the audience jack shit.
Ice Road Terror is a movie about a giant mammal-like lizard hunting down some truckers who drive Alaska’s now-famous ‘ice roads’. Also, it seems to be able to explode people with its tail—just like real lizards can.
The monster is unleashed by a mining crew digging too deep, though from the looks of it, ‘mining’ here means ‘dig a big hole out in the open’ and ‘too deep’ is clearly no more than thirty feet. But I digress. Anyway, the monster murders the ever-loving hell out of everyone but an all around asshole who is really just there to give the audience someone whose death they’ll enjoy (there’s a strange lack of those in this movie. All of the other characters are genuinely likable) and one Inuit miner.
Because B-movies were born in the fifties when racism was at its peak of freshness, of course the Inuit guy is well schooled in lore and survives long enough to pass it on to Our Heroes.
Only, the entirety of the ‘legend’ is that a man eating monster lives under the ice. That’s it. Nothing about how to kill it, or its true nature or behavior—just that it eats people. I’m pretty sure the audience gathered that from all the eating/exploding people the thing was doing and the other characters probably figured it out based on the half-eaten bodies everywhere.
As if to rub it in, another character also brings up that they’ve heard the legend and they don’t know anything more than ‘man-eater lives under the ice’.
The question this begs is ‘why?’, as In ‘why the hell even mention it? This being a movie about an ice lizard fighting trucks, the ‘miners dug too deep’ explanation was actually satisfactory by way of explanation. It isn’t even world building because the mention of the legend doesn’t actually provide any new information even from a flavor perspective. There’s no origin or light shed on this thing’s previous attacks, just some lines that get muttered in disbelief purely to eat up time.
Listen: Exposition in dialogue is too precious a resource to waste on something that doesn’t actually explain anything. You can’t just tell people that legends exist, you have to tell them what the legends say or at least the gist. Whenever you bring up an expo-ready concept in a story, like a legend, or history, anecdote, the audience should come out of it knowing something more about the world, characters or story than they did going in.
And while we’re on the subject of useless dialogue:
Stop Picking the Scab
‘Picking the Scab’ is a term I invented Sunday morning over breakfast as I pondered the desperate verbal thrashing performed by the writers of Snowmageddon (strangely a film with way more disasters than just snow, though things are caused by a magic snow-globe) and Impact (mentioned above) as their hind-brains rebelled against the numerous plot holes in idiot science they were leaving in the script.
Snowmageddon involves a mysterious snow-globe showing up and wrecking a town’s shit with weird disasters that mimic what happens to the miniature town inside the globe. No one knows where it came from and it is never explained. That’s fine; many works prefer to leave the mystery intact and are all the better for it.
What isn’t fine is that All the characters insist on asking where the thing came from and why it’s destroying every one and every thing they hold dear every five minutes. While that’s a perfectly intelligent reaction in-character, it only serves to frustrate the audience who are constantly reminded of that nagging question over and over while never receiving an answer.
It’s this constant highlighting of a flaw in the writing that I refer to as ‘picking the scab’.
Now there is a saying, ‘better than a bare bulb‘, and I’m a fan of hanging a lampshade or ten million. Hell the reason I like the newest Scooby Doo series, Mystery Incorporated, and it’s predecessor What’s New Scooby Doo is their tendency to do this a lot.
That isn’t really what this is. Picking the scab isn’t making a joke about the story, it’s about repeatedly calling attention to problems in the narrative without even trying to be entertaining about it.
For another example, Impact probably takes the prize for ‘stupid premise’ even for a SyFy Original Movie. In it, the burned out core of a dwarf star slams into the moon, adding so much mass with its super-density that the moon is now twice the mass of Earth. This creates gravitational and magnetic flux on a global scale… but only over areas the moon is passing directly overhead at first. This flux ranges from electromagnetic storms to… gravity turning off in small, localized areas.
Even those of you who aren’t science geeks can call bullshit on that one. But hey, it’s kind of anew and interesting disaster to have happened, so what the hell, right? Movies aren’t there to teach us science, they’re there to teach us all our basic morality and how to commit crimes, like videogames (research for this paragraph provided by the National Rifle Association).
Only the writer couldn’t leave well enough alone. Instead of admitting that he or she couldn’t be assed to check Wikipedia under ‘gravity’, and walk away, they got desperate and had the scientists in the movie admit that this stuff shouldn’t be happening, only to then agree that ‘we have a poor understanding of gravity anyway’ and drop it—until the next round of weird crap starts and the cycle begins anew.
Attention Spec-fic writers: Your audience is okay if you fudge the science or make something into a Black Box. This is fine with us. Most of us don’t know how a hyperdrive is meant to work, but we’re still down like a clown with Star Wars, okay? Naquadah is clearly an element powered by magic and plot, but I will still fight anyone who wants to argue that Stargate wasn’t the best Sci-Fi franchise of its era (Yes, better than the Battlestar Galactica). We are okay with superscience that can’t be completely explained.
Adama has NOTHING on O’Neill
What we can’t be okay with is when you keep pointing out to use that it doesn’t make sense, or that you’re not giving us the whole story. By doing that, you’re breaking down the suspension of disbelief that most of us have cultivated for just such and occasion.
I’m on page five now and should probably stop, but I have one more and it’s less of a lesson and more of a gripe because I keep seeing this trope show up and much like zombies, someone need to take a stand against it:
We Must Stop Using ‘Explosive Breeder’ Monsters
Let me take you back, just for a moment to 1998. At fifteen, I was a massive dinosaur geek who had grown up on Dino-riders and was now riding high on the coolness high water mark for dino-geeks: the dino-mania spawned by Jurassic Park.
A year prior, I heard about a Godzilla movie making its way through production and seeing as all the marketing was about how Godzilla is more awesome than all dinosaurs, I started poking around and discovered the glory that is the Kaiju genre. I didn’t have access to a lot of the films, but I did manage to see Rodan, Godzilla vs Mechagodzilla, Godzilla vs King Ghidorah, and Destroy All Monsters before the 1998 American film hit.
You all know what came next. While my best friend says she loves it, I’m pretty sure she’s the only living human being who did. There was so much horrible on such a huge budget that it makes a man weep. But the part I find most absolutely unforgivable were the baby zillas. I’m down with Godzooki and all, but that entire stadium being full of eggs? Come the hell on!
Fast forward to this weekend and I’ve made my peace with Godzilla ’98, if only because it spawned the glorious Godzilla: the Animated Series.
Ignore the robot and the sneezey guy.
After a rousing NCIS marathon, I caught the last half of Rise of the Gargoyles. This one surprisingly doesn’t seem to be a blatant cash grab of anything; instead being a pretty boilerplate ‘mama bear’ deal with eggs instead of cubs. There’s some suggestion that the thing is a demon, but the only people it kills were messing with her eggs, so I’m no so sure about that.
Just like in Godzilla ’98, the concern is that if the eggs hatch, they’ll unleash more powerful predators into the world. Fair enough. But also like Godzilla ’98, we find the nest and discover that the monster has laid twice its body weight in eggs.
Ignore for a moment questions like where the hell they got that much biomass from, or how Godzilla managed to lay eggs waaay up in the cheap seats at Madison Square Garden: I’d like to know what story reason five billion eggs serve in these situations.
In Godzilla ’98, even once they hatched, Our Heroes never seem to be getting chased by more than a couple dozen of these things and a couple dozen eggs would have been enough to denote ‘lots of potential predators, considering Godzilla is forty stories tall and in that movie dines exclusively on a fish humanity is well on our way to fishing to extinction.
It’s probably worse in Gargoyle because the eggs never get a chance to hatch. The heroes just smash them and it’s over.
The same thing goes for duplicating monsters like the monkeys in Flying Monkeys or Samael from the first Hellboy movie. I’ve never seen the ‘one monster becomes many’ thing turn into anything but a big ball of chaos that bogs down the ending.
So yeah, unless you’re starting with a swarm, one monster is enough. If you’re desperate, try a mates pair. At the very least, try and keep those clutch sizes somewhere below the weight of the mother.
And on that sage and universal advice, I bid you adieu for this week. If you have comments, questions or demands for apologies, please post them below, hit the forum, or use the contact form.
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