There’s a Starman waiting in the sky this episode, as we watch the new David Bowie documentary Moonage Daydream, and then leave the planet for an orbital rendezvous with the original Ziggy Stardust, 1976’s The Man Who Fell to Earth. There’s no shortage of entertainment, with ‘milk-sex’, an electrifying performance of Heroes and a waltz around a giant Pepsi can with Tina Turner. But which film shows us the most honest glimpse of the real David Bowie?
Sexposition. Intimacy Coordinators. Lobster sex. There are no holds barred at the popcorn counter this episode, where we take the clothes off some of our previous projects and expose their most personal details. When we think back, we realise we’ve both written more sex scenes than we thought over our careers so far. But which scenes bring more problems, the happy or the sad ones? And have we ever been given any good advice about how to write about getting it on?
I rewatched 2013’s Oblivion this week with the family. There’s a great deal to enjoy here: the production design is immaculate, the sound design may be even better, and Tom Cruise is as watchable as ever in his usual highly-competent-but-still-slightly-vulnerable-protagonist role. But the film suffers from one of my least favourite tropes: what I might start calling ‘The Secret Plot’. Meaning characters keep important plot points and vital information secret from each other FOR NO REASON…
Warning, spoilers ahead!
In the film, Tom Cruise and Andrea Riseborough are astronauts who have been found and duplicated at the edge of the solar system by a malign alien intelligence, a vast von Neumann probe intent on taking over the Earth and draining it of its resources. The probe uses hundreds of mind-wiped Cruises and Riseboroughs as a clone army of brainwashed caretakers to police a post apocalyptic Earth as it siphons off the last of the planet’s water for fuel, keeping its identikit security force pacified with a fabricated story about how humanity is migrating to Titan.
But then a ship crash lands with Tom’s wife on board, played by Olga Kurylenko. She was one of the other astronauts on the ship that first encountered the probe, but luckily she was ejected before the probe could assimilate her and has been orbiting the Earth in suspended animation ever since. Now that she’s back with Tom and thawing out, she should surely realise that things are not as they should be, yes? She is a survivor from the pre-invasion days. She knows Tom intimately – they’re married! She was a work colleague of Andrea! She’s definitely going to start asking questions about what’s going on, right?
Nope. No, she cries a bit and laughs a bit and looks quizzically at everyone involved. And that’s it. Never does she ask ‘what’s going on?’, or ‘where are all the people?’, or even ‘don’t you remember we’re married, you dolt?!’
The reason is clear: if she tells Tom what she knows, the film will suddenly be 45 minutes shorter. Most of the mysteries will be cleared up in a short conversation and the audience will be denied the fun of gradually learning the truth at the same time as the characters. So instead we’re stuck with ‘The Secret Plot’.
There could be lots of believable reasons why Kurylenko might not spill the beans immediately. I can think of a bunch of them now. Suspended animation brain fog. Maybe she doesn’t wake up for 72 hours after landing, even though the story continues. Maybe Riseborough’s character sabotages the ‘waking protocol’ in a jealous fugue. Perhaps an accident on re-entry means Kurylenko has a brain injury that needs the med-bot to operate on her and keep her sedated for two days. Any of those could work.
But we get none of them. Instead there’s just a bit of vague laughing and crying and a nagging question at the end of the movie: why didn’t she say something?
It’s a way overused trope. ‘Lost’ famously relied on it week after week. Characters would regularly make earth shattering discoveries and then tell NO-ONE about it. It makes you question if the writers have ever had many conversations with real people. The world is full of folks who can’t keep their mouths shut in any circumstance. We live in an era of chronic over-sharing where people can barely eat a meal without sending a photograph of it to everyone they know. Who doesn’t have an aunt that silts up their Facebook or Twitter feeds with endless crap that they’ve ‘discovered’ and that they can’t keep to themselves? So how come films and TV shows are all populated by taciturn enigmas who play their cards so close to their chests that it’s hard to be sure they’re in the game at all?
This is an avoidable problem. If you find yourself having to resort to ‘The Secret Plot’, I’d ask that you just think a bit harder. What would your characters really do in this situation? And if you’re confident they’d keep schtum, please make sure you have a reason for it. The mystery will always be more satisfying as a result.
We take a double length look at enduring Hollywood legend Marilyn Monroe this episode, as new Netflix ‘fictional biopic’ Blonde stares into the make-up mirror and sees 1985’s Insignificance staring right back. There’s no shortage of controversy here: Netflix’s first NC17 rated picture doesn’t shy away from sex, nudity and graphic violence, while Insignificance has a body count in the thousands. But does Marilyn get a fair deal in either film, or is she still just being exploited sixty years after her death?
Audiences just can’t seem to get enough of brutal, bloody murder. What does that say about humans as a species and moviegoers in particular? We look at some psychologists’ theories about why murder is such a popular form of entertainment, and try to square that with our own, rapidly mellowing tastes…
Timecop. It’s fantastic, incredible, bordering on genius. Such a magnificent achievement.
Not the film. The film is a fun, quite silly mid-90s action romp with Jean Claude van Damme. It has all sorts of strange plot lurches, barely sketched in characters and a story world that looks like it might be making up the rules as it goes.
No, I’m talking about the TITLE. That title is amazing. Just seven letters but it transmits so, so much information about the film. Let’s look at it for a minute.
We know immediately that it’s a science fiction film about time travel. Has to be. It’s ‘time’ something. What if we saw a film called ‘Time Badger’? Or ‘The Time Phone’? ‘Melvin and the Time Shoes’? We know they have to be movies that revolve around time travel. It’s right there in the title.
But here the title sounds like a person, they’re A time cop. Surely they have to be the protagonist, and surely they’re involved in the policing of time. So we know there’s going to be police-procedural-style action, piecing together clues. And the mere fact that there’s time POLICE implies that there must be time CRIME. So just from the title we can see that the film will probably be dealing with specific crimes that could only occur using time travel – so already we’re guessing at insider trading, or murdering people before they do something important. And that’s necessarily going to lead to paradoxes, people meeting themselves, attempts to redo something that might have failed first time around. And finally, it’s not called TimePolice, it’s TimeCOP, so we know the lead is going to be a blue collar kind of police officer, not some by-the-rules guy in a suit. There’s probably going to be some rough stuff, bending the law to do the right thing, and very likely some punching and shooting.
And yes, every single one of those things appears in the movie. Perfect.
It’s such a win when you can get the whole idea of your movie across in the title. I’ve only gotten close once, with a script I wrote a few years ago. It’s a comedy about a spy whose department gets its funding axed after a particularly lavish mission goes wrong. The spy has to finish his assignment and bring the villain to justice while spending no money whatsoever. The film is called ‘Free Agent’. A couple of people accused me of writing the title first and then coming up with the story afterwards, but no, I wrote the entire first draft before I realised what the title should be. And I still think it’s pretty cute.
But it’s no Timecop. THAT’s a title I envy.
Do Revenge, the new Netflix original feature, is doing crime right in front of our eyes this episode. The film wears its main influence prominently on its impeccably tailored, pastel, cashmere sleeve: Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train, reputedly the master of suspense’s fourth best film (citation needed). But do the films share more in common than their criss cross plot lines? And have attitudes to violence, criminality and revenge changed scene 1951?
The books we referenced this episode:
Creatures of Darkness
The Adam Project, Netflix boasts, has been consistently in the service’s Top Ten since its release. You can understand why. People like to watch Ryan Reynolds. Even I quite like to watch Ryan Reynolds. He’s discovered that secret of success that Arnold Schwarzenegger, Humphrey Bogart and Julia Roberts all found out before him: be the same in every film. So here, as usual, he’s charming, cheeky, quippy, a bit rude, and slightly vulnerable – but only slightly. Mostly quippy. You have to ask why they don’t just call his character in every movie ‘Ryan’.
Reynolds here plays the titular Adam, a time-travelling space pilot from 2050 who returns to 2022 to enlist the help of himself as a boy to thwart the invention of time travel, thereby saving humanity from a Skynet-style destiny of dreadful devastation. Along the way he deals with some of his own childhood trauma (while surely causing a whole mess of future problems by exposing his boy-self to dozens of brutal murders, no…?)
Quippy is definitely what Reynolds is going for here. You’re never waiting long for a quip, and some of them are not bad. But quippiness always brings a downside, of course. The film regularly undermines its emotional moments because it just can’t resist a quip. (Though to be fair, I know plenty of real life people who are exactly the same.)
There is an emotional arc for several of the characters, but all of them feel speedy and unearned. Reynolds needs to learn that his father loved him despite his absence, but the lesson is dictated to him in a talky scene and not played out through characters’ actions on screen. Sorian the baddie turns out to be bitter and angry because she feels unappreciated, but again this is something we’re told in a dialogue scene when it would have vastly more impact and pathos if we saw it for ourselves. For an action movie, there’s very little ‘show me don’t tell me’ here.
And if there’s one good lesson to be learned from the endless quipping, it’s that quips are not enough to paper over plot holes. There are huge logical lurches and leaps in the film, and I’m not just talking about the paradoxes that emerge when you ask the audience to take time travel seriously. There are faceless baddies with invisibility suits that politely become visible before queueing up to attack Reynolds one by one. There is Reynolds’ hyper-competent time-travelling wife Zoe Saldaña, who has waited patiently for him for four years, hiding out in a shack, when she could have spent those four years PREVENTING THE INVENTION OF TIME TRAVEL, seeing as that was the reason she came back to the past in the first place. There is the massive, super-advanced, technological mega-donut that generates the electrical field that allows time travel to occur, which is housed in a building with no engineers, no guards, no receptionist, no staff of any kind. The place looks clean but who can tell why, because there’s definitely no cleaner.
And magnets. Magnets! Don’t get me started on the magnets. The climax of the film relies on magnets, and even a seven year old can tell you that real magnets do not behave the way they do in this film. Magnets! What is this, an Insane Clown Posse video? How can I be angry watching a film about magnets?! They’re just MAGNETS!
I like quips. Goodness knows I’ve written some myself. But if you’re going to put a lot of effort into writing quips for your movie, please also put some of that effort into those other cornerstones of storytelling: character motivation, world building, and tone. And ask someone how magnets work.
The Black Panther sequel is coming later this year, and having recently watched Nope and The Brother From Another Planet, we find ourselves talking about Afrofuturism at the popcorn counter this time, where literature, movies, games and TV all make the Mothership Connection.
References this episode
N K Jemisin
The Woman King
Blake Crouch, author of Recursion
I’d never seen Jim Carrey vehicle Bruce Almighty until this week, when it made it onto the list of ‘films to watch with the family’. Oof.
Was there ever a film as cynically written as this? Not in terms of its plot, which is a rather unambitious and unimaginative modern take on the H G Wells story ‘The Man Who Could Perform Miracles’. And not in terms of the characters, who do demonstrate some kind of arc even though they’re not particularly original. (The central character is a world weary and self-centred local television newsman whose beat is a endless series of trite human interest stories, until supernatural events make him realise how selfish he is. …Is it groundhog day?)
No, the main reason it feels cynical is because the film looks like every story beat was written with one eye on how it would look in the trailer. Bruce Carrey is temporarily given god-like powers, and not only is his every action self serving, he ONLY does things that will look cool in a trailer.
Walking past a fire hydrant? Make it blow up! Why? No reason, it’ll just look cool in the trailer.
Jennifer Aniston? Make her breasts swell up! There’s no character motivation for it, but it’ll make a good gag in the trailer.
Traffic? Part it like the red sea! Is it because there’s an important reason to beat the jams? Nope, none, but it looks cool in the trailer.
It’s understandable that every producer wants elements in the script that will help make a great trailer, sure. But it shouldn’t be the driving force behind every scene, please.