Posted on January 3, 2021
I rail quite a bit about movies being overly long, but the more I think about it, the more I believe the boredom of many modern films has more to do with bad storytelling than length.
Runtime can definitely be a problem with the theater experience. Once you reach the two hour mark while trapped in a dark room with a crowd of strangers, things can get physically uncomfortable. You’ve already finished your 128oz cola and garbage can of popcorn and now bathroom sensations are growing even as your butt quietly goes numb.
That really hasn’t been a problem for us for the last year, and yet, we’re still being bored by movies like Wonder Woman 84 and, for me, the Star Wars prequels, where length is not a physical problem but can still add to the emotional toll of long scenes, pointless action, and a meandering plot.
Two examples where critics and audiences alike have complained of slow pacing from long movies, one I agree with and one I don’t: WW84 and The Midnight Sky.
Wonder Woman and WW84 run approximately the same length, but the first one feels so much tighter than the second. For one thing, there’s a lot of wonder in Wonder Woman. We get to see her world, her people, through Steve Trevor’s eyes and then turn the tables and see our world through her eyes. There’s also an unraveling mystery about her origins to add tension.
WW84 shows us a lot of stuff we’ve already seen and tells us a lot of stuff about WW we already know. It also adds an unnecessary villain, Cheetah, and, for some unknown reason, shows off heretofore unknown indestructible gold armor that protected the Amazons against the army of all men but which can inexplicably be shredded by cat claws.
The one really interesting character from WW84 is Kristin Wiig’s Barbara Minerva. The moment she turns into Cheetah, however, she becomes a badly rendered CGI trope. Pedro Pascal’s hustler just wasn’t necessary in this 2.5 hour retelling of The Monkey’s Paw.
In summary, WW84 is a long, slow march with a few high points and a not very compelling story. Is it a problem with length? Not really. It’s just not an interesting story and going long really hurts when you don’t have a lot to say.
That brings us to The Midnight Sky, a movie I was actually warned off of by several people. In this Clooney directed and starring vehicle, an elderly scientist awaits the end of the world at a polar ice station hoping to hang on just long enough to warn a returning space mission not to come back.
First of all, I should state that I’m a sucker for end of the world movies. There’s just something so cleansing about humanity’s stain being removed from Earth and the planet being allowed to heal that appeals to me. My favorite is probably Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, but The Midnight Sky comes close.
So what’s the difference between this slowly paced film and WW84 (or any of the Star Wars prequels)? It’s not the number of minutes, it’s what’s in them.
Another of my favorite storytelling devices is to begin in media res with no backstory, no narrator, no text crawl. Just let me learn what’s going on as the story proceeds. The Midnight Sky does this extremely well by treating the audience as if they’re smart enough to get what’s going on without it being ladled into their brains.
This fills every minute with mystery and that urge to know drags us forward to the next minute and when we reach the inevitable conclusion, even though we knew what was coming, it ties up so well we can’t help but end with a knot in our throats.
WW84 will remain a throwaway superhero movie, but I think there’s a chance The Midnight Sky will eventually find an audience in people who love well crafted movies.