Buying the Ridiculous

In Kingsmen: The Secret Service, our hero gets a bulletproof umbrella. In John Wick 2, he gets a bulletproof lining for his tailored suit. These are patently ridiculous ideas that should appear preposterous even to someone with a complete lack of scientific or engineering understanding. And yet those moments bring only delighted smiles when they occur in these excellent films.

Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is one gigantic implausibility that cleanly divides the audience into those who despise it, those who don’t get it, and those (like me) who love it so much they have to re-watch it every six months or they start to get the jitters.

Armageddon, on the other hand, is one long, dull laundry list of logical gaffs scored by the boos, groans and guffaws from the theater. The showing I attended had people walking out shaking their heads. It’s an accomplishment to get someone who has just paid $10 for a ticket and $20 on food to abandon that money for a quick escape.

What’s the difference between these movies? Why can some get away with playing Three Card Monte with physics and some fall on their own sword?

The answer: You have to earn your cheats. You have to tell an engrossing story populated with characters the audience cares about. If you do that, they will let you slide on some movie physics. If you’re good enough at story telling, they won’t notice that Indiana Jones had zero effect in the Lost Ark.

They aren’t there for a physics lesson. They’re there to be entertained.

One of the best movies to use as an example of this is Independence Day. When I think back on all the manipulative crap they pulled in that movie and all the stuff they straight stole from other movies, I remember ID4 as being terrible.

Then I come across it on cable and I’m immediately engrossed. All that dumb stuff about uploading viruses to alien computers and fighter jets being able to keep up with gravity drive ships just settles into a heap in the back of my mind, forgotten and forlorn until I’m free of the narrative’s grasp.

The problem with sloppy filmmakers like Michael Bay and Roland Emmerich (his later films didn’t fare nearly as well as ID4), is that they think in set pieces. They will tell you that to be a good director you have to “think in a visual language.” Whatever that means, it’s wrong. You have to tell a story. You can’t count on the audience to be wowed into submission by your special effects if those effects are happening in a story they don’t care about to people they don’t care about.

I stopped going to the Avengers movies not because of the ridiculous movie physics in their fight scenes (though they are egregious) but because I stopped caring about the characters. I was (wrongly, it turned out) worried about John Wick 2 because I was afraid there was nothing left to say about him. And I was rightly worried about Kick Ass 2 because Matthew Vaughn, a great story teller, had no part of it.

Jeff Wadlow, the director of Kick-Ass 2, was only interested in giving us violence acted out by people in funny outfits. He had no feeling for the characters we had become so enamored of in the first film. His first act was to destroy the main romantic relationship the first movie worked so hard to create. It was a disaster perpetrated by someone who just didn’t get the material.

To paraphrase Bill Clinton: It’s the story, stupid.


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