Monday, May 25, 2015

Experience vs. Surprise

Britt Robertson as Casey Newton in Tomorrowland

Which is more important in a story, the experience or the surprise?  In our current cinematic landscape, everything is all about keeping secrets from the audience until a movie's release so not to spoil the experience, and yet so many of our modern movies and TV shows are based off of books, comic books, or video games, that I must question why this is so important.  While a good surprise can create a unique experience once, if the story in itself is not an involving experience every time you watch it, even after you've experienced all of the surprises it has in store, then the whole thing kind of falls flat to me.  Here's the bottom line, while it's good to try and preserve any surprises you might have as a storyteller for the audience, it has to be a good experience beyond that.

What really inspired me to write on this subject is just the way that almost every major movie in production nowadays tries to be so secretive about what's going to happen in their movie, and yet most of these movies are based off of pre-existing stories to begin with.  Fans know that Harry Potter dies and comes back to life, they know that the Titanic is going to sink, we know these things and yet the filmmakers and storytellers still try to keep everything like it's a big state secret.  A movie isn't a redacted CIA brief, it's something that's meant to be experienced over-and-over again.  Now, I don't want it to be misinterpreted that I don't like it when a good movie ducks when I expected it to dodge, but what I am saying is that this moment of surprise has to feel shocking every time I see it.

Alfred Hitchcock on the Set of Psycho

Take Psycho as an example.  I did not see that movie for the first time till I was probably 18, and I already knew that Norman Bates was the killer.  Ordinarily, with that surprise ruined, you'd think the movie would stink.  Actually, it doesn't.  Alfred Hitchcock created a movie, that while it was full of surprises for the first time viewers, actually stood as an experience beyond the initial shock of Janet Leigh dying midway through the movie and the reveal that Norman was dressing up as his Mother to kill.  Hitch knew that movies were experiences, not just something to be seen once, but something to be seen multiple times.

It's like a good crime TV show or a classic whodunit.  You may know who the killer is, but when the experience is also a good experience getting to that revelation, then it becomes less about who actually did it, and more about the characters and our relationship to them as an audience.  That is why I can rewatch seasons of Castle and not be bored, and on the more serious side, the first season of Broadchurch was a brilliant example of this.  Who actually killed Danny Latimer really wasn't quite as important as how the murder tore this small town apart.  While the reveal of the killer was shocking the first time, the second and third times I rewatched all eight episodes, I still was riveted by the experience because of the human drama at the core of the concept.

The Cast of Broadchurch

So what is the trick to creating a good experience on top of a good surprise?  In truth, I don't know.  If it was that easy to sum up, everyone would be doing it, but the fact of the matter is, you can't teach this sort of stuff, you've just gotta feel it when you're writing a story.  The main thing is to aim at creating an experience and not to focus so much on just that clever plot twist you may have in your mind, because you can be clever all day long, but if you don't move people, then what was the point in telling your story to begin with?  That is something I try to live by when I write a story and it's difficult.  It means taking time to examine the human impact that a big event or revelation has on your characters rather than barreling forward into more action.  It also means creating a moment of humor in the midst of grief or tension to show the truth of humanity, that life is not always a comedy or a tragedy, but actually a blend of both.  A movie that I think did this recently, in a vey superb way, was Tomorrowland.

In Tomorrowland there are many twist and turns that continue to evolve the story and take it to new places that the first-time audience doesn't always expect, but there are also moments in there that I know will still affect me in future viewings.  When our heroine, Casey Newton, first takes a tour through Tomorrowland, it's a moment of so much joy and wonder, that it's affecting.  Or when ** SPOILER ALERT ** the Eiffel Tower splits open and our heroes blast off in an old rocket ship to travel to Tomorrowland, it's another moment that is played so wondrously that I know it will be as exciting to watch each time I see this movie, the same way that the first time you see Hogwarts in the first Harry Potter always gets me.  Then there is a moment near the end where George Clooney says goodbye to an android named Athena that he has known since childhood that is one of the more touching moments of the movie.  At a point when most movies are trying to get to that big final explosion, this movie takes the time to slow down and a have a fond farewell before anything else.  That is what I mean by creating an experience.

Casey's Arrival in the Titular Tomorrowland

So in summation, am I saying that I want to know everything about a movie before it's release?  No.  But am I saying that if certain details were revealed, like say, about the new Star Wars movies, that it wouldn't really matter if the new female lead is Han and Leia's daughter as long as it's an experience and not just a twist?  Yes.  See, that's the thing, and I think that's why I wrote all of this, because of the frustration I've had in the past with movie twists that really didn't enhance the experience but hurt it.  It hurt Star Trek Into Darkness keeping the secret that Benedict Cumberbatch was Kahn, the same way that it hurt The Dark Knight Rises with the cornball twist that Joseph Gordon-Levitt was actually Robin (just call him Dick Grayson, Nolan).  I hope J.J. Abrams isn't making the same mistake again by trying to be so secretive about the real identity of so many of the new Star Wars characters.

Bottom line is, if the characters aren't likable on their own esteem, I don't care if they're Han and Leia's children or not, cause keeping this all a big secret for the sake of creating a better experience when the movie comes out is actually a load of crap.  The movie will be a good experience because it tells a good story with real human moments and not because it had a clever plot twist, and that understanding is something that a lot of movies forget in their attempts to surprise, and that's why if I have to choose one over the other, I will choose experience every single time.  So strive for experience over surprise fellow writers, because movie history has shown that it doesn't matter if we know that the boat sinks at the end as long as people care about the characters.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Movie Review: "Tomorrowland"

The latest Disney film, Tomorrowland, is a wonder of imagination, breathing with more originality than the title leads one to believe.  As a matter of fact, this film has very little to do with the Disney parks other than the concept of what Walt Disney always wanted Tomorrowland to represent.  While there is a very fun excursion to the 1964 World's Fair where Disney premiered the "It's a Small World" ride, that is where the Disney connection ends and the real story begins.  So what is the titular Tomorrowland exactly?

Well, Tomorrowland is a city in a parallel dimension to our own where some of the brightest minds -- both creative and scientific -- convened to try and create a better future for our tomorrow.  In the film, teenager Casey Newton (played very likably by Britt Robertson) is given a tiny pin with the Tomorrowland logo on it that when she touches it she is presented with visions of Tomorrowland.  These visions set her on a quest to figure out what this amazing place is that she is seeing, and on that quest she meets an android girl with some pretty awesome martial arts moves named Athena, a cadre of robots hunting Casey down trying to keep her from uncovering the secrets of Tomorrowland, and a grumpy George Clooney, who portrays Frank Walker, a former child genius who once lived in Tomorrowland but was exiled.  Frank is the only one who can take Casey there, and thus their adventure to reach Tomorrowland shifts into high gear.

Few movies nowadays have the breadth of imagination that this one has, not to mention its sense of optimism for the future.  Yes, the world is ultimately at stake here from annihilation (but would it be an adventure film if it wasn't), and yes, the movie probably wont appeal to all, but to anyone who still dares to dream, Tomorrowland is the old-fashioned sci-fi adventure film you didn't know you've been waiting for.  

Director Brad Bird has crafted a film that mixes mystery, wonder, and suspense beautifully with touching human moments between characters, both man and machine, and some wonderfully executed comedic beats as well.  This is the kind of movie that I grew up on, the kind that Disney used to make and should make more of.  I could easily have seen Fred MacMurray in the George Clooney part and Haley Mills as Casey, that's how old school Disney this film feels to me.  With that said, George Clooney proves to be a worthy successor to MacMurray, and Britt Robertson really proves herself here as a leading lady.  It is Robertson's awestruck reactions and well-timed comedic chops that sell the wonders of this movie and grounds them in humanity.  From top-to-bottom, Tomorrowland just works.

The musical score by Michael Giacchino is one of his best in years, mixing his usual style with that of an old-fashioned adventure film score that really sells all of the epic, beautiful, and wondrous moments that this film features.  Then there are the fellow cast members, with Raffey Cassidy being a particular standout as the android girl, Athena.  The warmth and charm that Cassidy has as Athena really contradicts the traditional portrayal of robots onscreen and actually makes you believe that maybe our future with robots is not annihilation, but actually to live side-by-side with them.  Ultimately, that's what this movie is all about.

Tomorrowland is a movie about the future and about recapturing our collective sense of optimism as a race.  As a whole, we are too pessimistic and cynical.  The news that is reported is all mostly negative, the movies that we watch are all dystopias about death and destruction more than they ever are about hope.  This is the idea that Bird and company wanted to get across with Tomorrowland and they do so brilliantly.  Add on to that the idea that anyone can be special and change the world if they just have a dose of optimism, and I really think that Walt Disney himself would have loved everything that this movie says and does.  So if any of this sounds appealing to you, go see Tomorrowland.  You wont regret it.

I give Tomorrowland a 9 out of 10!