Reviews: The Magic Lantern Sep-Oct 2016: Pushed Out of the Story


by Adam-Troy Castro

adam-fsiThis particular column, this one right here, this one, this very one, is being produced at the absolutely last minute due to a change in deadlines effected for reasons that would likely make the most boring behind-the-scenes story ever told, so it’ll likely be a bit more of a random mess than usual.

I don’t have time for organization.

I am aware that I promised the second half of a think-piece on sequels begun last time, and I can assure you that it won’t be that.

So with the thoughts coming just ahead of the words, let us just venture down this uncharted corridor and see what we find.

More Things that Push Your Humble Commentator out of Any Story:

The development that is obviously just there by authorial fiat.

Now, this may be hard for the uninitiated to diagnose, because by definition almost any development in a story is there by authorial fiat. But some exist just to service the author, and make it possible for later stories in the same universe to exist, and among the ones this columnist finds most nettlesome is the rule change that exists for one story and one story only, and the weasel-out line that explains why it can never be an issue again.

I first came across this many years ago in a Superman comic book story of unknown vintage, which I can tell you nothing about except that at one point the Man of Steel solves a certain story problem by using his vision powers in a manner that he never had before and never would again, to wit, gazing upon whatever the problem was by using his heat vision with one eye and his X-ray vision with another eye.
In some manner I no longer recall, this magically resolved the story.

But to make sure that it never happened again, Superman also boldly announced while taking this action, words to this effect: “It’s just too bad that this is the only time I’ll ever be able to do this, because it’s a power I can only use once! If I do it again, it will result in a permanent short-circuiting of all my vision powers!”

Imagine that.

Not only does using his peepers in this particular fashion solve the problem of this particular story, not only does he somehow possess the knowledge that it will, but he also somehow possesses the knowledge that he can never do it again.

Utilize your own X-Ray Vision and you can determine that the only person actually speaking in that thought balloon was the story’s writer, cleaning up after himself so that no future writer, forgetting this development, will ever fail to pull out this trick and thus get himself yelled at by the fans.

Where did I see this in the movies? Iron Man 2. Beset by a horde of robots, Tony Stark fights them for a while, then activates an ability his armor possesses, that has never been demonstrated before: a sort of over-drive that allows him to wallop them all at great speed. Then he says, actually says something to the effect, “I can only do it once!”

And I flashed back to that Superman story, where it actually made more sense, since, you know, biology actually allows for certain physical capacities to be sprained, or broken, or injured, or broken beyond repair. “I can only do this once” can kind of make sense, when you’re talking about the organic.

But in technology? Since when is there such a thing as a technology that can be only be used once? Even if the function was burned out in that particular set of armor, what stops Tony Stark from going home for fifteen minutes and whipping up another, that can do the same incredibly useful thing?

Don’t you think that would have been useful a few movies later, when he and the rest of the Avengers had to fight an army of Ultrons?

Tony Stark said, “I can only do it once!” because the guys who wrote that screenplay wanted to make damn sure that this particular ability never came up again, and we accepted it because the superhero genre has never been the place to go to for unassailable logic.

It probably went right past you.

I saw the hand of the author, and I grimaced.

Another thing I hate:

The line of dialogue, “Thank God nobody was hurt!”

Usually a throw-away line, uttered after a catastrophe where you can pretty much guarantee that many were killed. Blow up a city block? Especially if you’re a hero using excessive force to solve a relatively minuscule problem? Have somebody say later, “Thank God nobody was hurt!” I have seen this magic phrase invoked after city-leveling disasters, and everybody just stands around in the rubble and nods, yes, absolutely, thank God nobody was hurt.

A related phenomenon is the hero who somehow knows that he’s operating in a world of movie physics, that allow him to take ridiculously irresponsible risks with his life and the lives of others because he somehow knows that the godlike hand of the screenwriter will protect him.

One perennial offender is that put-upon New York City police detective, John McClane.
McClane is a guy who, increasingly as the series goes on, will find absolutely no problem with leaping out a five story window, through a skylight and three further stories through empty space onto a concrete floor, because in his personal experience this is actually a reasonable plan for getting out of trouble. He knows that the physics favor him.

But then, it was always in his make-up.

Remember that point in Die Hard With A Vengeance where he’s just riding around in a truck with Samuel L. Jackson, chasing terrorists, and is on an overpass when he spots someone he needs to question, a block away? Remember how he doesn’t have time to go looking for an exit so he deliberately drives his truck off the bridge, plunges to the street below, and unhurt leaps out to pursue the person of interest on foot?

Forget that he somehow knows that he and Samuel L. Jackson will survive the fall.

He’s John McClane. Of course he’ll survive the fall.

But he also somehow knows that his truck will not land on any vehicles entering the target zone from beneath the bridge on which he’s driving; that its impact will not be cushioned by some cab driven by a kid who’s saving up for medical school, and being ridden by an adorable pregnant lady in imminent labor whose husband is sitting beside her exhorting, “Breathe! Breathe!”

Has no way of knowing that, at all.

Nor was the pain-in-the-ass police official from the first movie really being unreasonable when he excoriated McClane for causing an explosion that sent shattered glass radiating blocks from the blast point. “Glass?” the incredulous McClane cries. “Who the hell cares about broken glass?” Really. He says that. And we all watched the movie stuffing ourselves with popcorn giggling about what a silly ass the pain-in-the-ass police official was being, complaining about small inconveniences like massive uncontrolled explosions and shattered glass, because we are for that moment in the hero’s worldview and we know that these are ridiculous things for a grown man to be worried about. After all, we think, a little blast wave of glass shrapnel never hurt anybody! Name just one time it did!

“Thank God nobody was hurt.”

That takes me right out of the movie.

You know what takes me even further out of the movie?

Worldwide cataclysms survived by a small handful of people, who we are assured with absolute certainty will replenish the human race.

A man and a woman emerge blinking from the rubble of a shattered metropolis, and we’re told that they are, either figuratively or in some unfortunate cases literally Adam and Eve.

Yay! Humanity lives!

But: not really.

Two people is not a viable population.

There was a devastating article in the New York Times recently, about the sad fate that has befallen that venerable breed, the English Bulldog. You know, the one we associate with Winston Churchill. It turns out that in our mania to advance a certain look, we have created a breed of dog that is never, ever healthy. They all have respiratory problems and a host of other ailments, they frequently require medical intervention in order to mate or give birth, and they are physically miserable. It is now considered genetically impossible to improve the breed only by selecting for the vanishing number of desirable physical attributes within the breed. And this will only get worse; the only way to improve the lot of their descendants is to either make sure that there aren’t any, or to mate them to healthier dogs of outside the breed.

They are viable only by extreme intervention on the part of human beings.

You will find similar problems among isolated communities living on islands, or in deep woods, or in the palaces of European royalty. Inbreeding is terrible. Many generations of inbreeding is worse.

That nice photogenic couple discovering each other in the wreckage, vowing to repopulate the Earth? I’ve always wanted to see the title card, “Fifty Years Later,” in which that couple, now white-haired and regretful, is surrounded by the next generations. Their immediate children are probably okay, but their grandchildren and great-children are…increasingly, a little less so, as the lack of any other dating opportunities has led to an orgy of genetic double-dipping.

Not so happy an ending now, is it?

That bothers me right away.

Here’s another thing, not limited to movies as it also afflicts print, that knocks me right out of any story, because I always know that I’m really watching the writer roll his eyes and take care of an unpleasant but necessary chore.

In any movie where the protagonists have encountered vampires as the subjects of fiction but now find themselves dealing with the genuine article, there is a scene where somebody, sometimes the vampire himself and sometimes an expert Van Helsing figure, must explain which rules are applicable and which are not.

Because there are no consistent rules for vampires, only those that any given storyteller decides to bring to any given iteration, that scene almost always includes an exchange like this.

“What about Holy Water? Crosses?”

“No, that’s just a myth. They’re not bothered by either.”

“What about mirrors? Do they show in mirrors?”

“Yes, of course they show in mirrors.”

“A stake through the heart?”

“Well, yeah, but you wouldn’t find that all that pleasant, either.”

Note that the answers will certainly be different in some other particular story. The author of one tale may posit a universe where garlic really is the only thing that can repel vampires, and where the only true weapon capable of defeating one is a garlic pizza from Papa John’s. In another, the vampire may be a guy who likes garlic just fine and thus hangs out mugging people who just staggered out of The Stinking Rose. The particulars are not the issue. The issue is that the writer, faced with the necessity to establish the rules of his particular story, must produce a scene like this, in which some character dutifully goes down the checklist, telling us which particular line of bullshit applies and which our venerable vampire-hunting professor will have to tell us are actually and officially labeled bullshit for the duration.

Watching any movie or TV show in which vampires appear, most recently AMC’s Preacher, I get to the scene where this necessary business is taken care of, and I nod with familiarity. “Okay,” I say. “This is the scene where we do that.”

I know there’s no real way to avoid it.

It’s just that when I see it, I can look past the antics on screen and see the writer, working on the scaffold. It’s always distancing. It’s an energy drain, that the story must then recover from.

And that’s as far as we have to go, this time. See you when next we have room for an organized thesis.

In The Magic Lantern, multiple Hugo and Nebula nominee Adam-Troy Castro reviews and reveals under-appreciated films worth talking about. This column will alternate with The Remake Chronicles, in which A-TC examines the stories that movies keep returning to.

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