More Than One Kind Of Hero

For a summer blockbuster about giant mechs fighting rampaging monsters, Pacific Rim is an extraordinarily unconventional film. One of the areas in which this shows up most clearly is in the depiction of its characters.

Some very serious spoilers, obviously. Don’t read this if you haven’t seen the movie yet.

To begin with, Pacific Rim is a true dual-protagonist film, a rarity in Hollywood and near-unheard of in the realm of summer tentpoles.

Fittingly for a movie about people learning to share their hearts and minds in the Drift, Raleigh and Mako are absolutely equal as protagonists.

They each have an inciting incident; Raleigh’s in the pre-credits sequence, and Mako’s (in keeping with the film’s unconventional treatment of time) revealed in flashback around the middle of the film. They each have a personal antagonist; for Raleigh, jealous, insecure rival Chuck Hansen, and for Mako, Stacker Pentecost, whose desire to protect her makes him as much an antagonist to be overcome as a mentor to be heeded. They each carry an emotional burden they must cast aside; Mako must master her need for revenge, and Raleigh, his guilt for his brother’s death.

But even more interesting that their shared centrality is the question: what kind of heroes are they?

For everyone who has hailed Mako as a feminist hero, someone else has criticised her for being passive, for being weak. For not conforming to the Hollywood hero stereotype: a self-sufficient hero who is stubbornly individual, rejects rules and advice, does their own thing, and often, does something apparently unwise and yet is proved right as conventional wisdom turns out to be wrong.

But Raleigh Beckett isn’t that kind of hero either. Add writer Travis Beacham’s response on Twitter on this subject:  “I will concede that [Mako] doesn’t act like a decisive alpha male action hero. I don’t much like that guy.”  and it’s clear that this is a very deliberate decision.

Pacific Rim has rejected the individualist hero pattern, and is presenting us with a new type of hero – a hero for who personal surrender is the way to shared strength, and for whom the whole is far more important than the individual.

Consider the scene where Mako proves herself a worthy partner for Raleigh in combat, but Pentecost refuses to pair them up. Was I the only one expecting Raleigh to threaten to walk out of the program if Pentecost doesn’t relent? I doubt it. That’s what the individualist hero does; defies authority and imposes his own will on the world.

It’s not what Raleigh or Mako do here, though. Each passionately argues their case – and then accepts Pentecost’s decision. When Raleigh does privately challenge the notion of obedience, Mako sets him straight: “it’s not obedience, it’s respect.” And even as she closes the door in his face, you get a sense that he understands that.

He certainly should. This is not a world that rewards individualism. It’s the Beckett boys’ decision to disobey orders that leads to Yancy’s death, and later in Hong Kong, rushing to assist their colleagues in defiance of Pentecost’s strategy almost does for the Hansens. Even Newt’s solo attempt to Drift with the kaiju brain risks his life and obtains only snatches of useful intelligence. Only when Gottlieb joins him, sharing the neutral load –  because “That’s what the jaeger pilots do” –  can the Drift be entirely successful and the vital information obtained.

Going back to Raleigh: later, with his perfect Drift partner grounded, he does slip into the individualist hero paradigm and challenge Pentecost – only to be cut down as the senior officer asserts not so much his authority as his responsibility. He is the “fixed point” in the crumbling world of the Shatterdome, and Raleigh needs that stability as much as anyone. Pentecost has sacrificed endlessly for others; he’s asking Raleigh to make similar sacrifices. To surrender ego for the greater good. And that’s what Raleigh does.

It’s hard to imagine this complex emotional exchange happening in any movie with an individualist protagonist, isn’t it?

Mako, of course, knows a lot about sacrifice. She’s been waiting her whole life for her chance to pilot a jaeger. I read her obedience to Pentecost as both respect and confidence. She knows that her day will come, when the time is right.

When machismo does rear it’s ugly head, it’s subverted. With Chuck right in their face, trying to provoke a fight, they fail to defend their own egos: Mako responds only when Raleigh is insulted, and he’s finally provoked to violence by an insult to her. Personal ego has no place in their increasingly anti-individual world.

Even as the double event wipes out jaeger teams, Raleigh and Mako don’t muscle in to save the day. The John McClaines and Jack Bauers of this world would have marched down to the hangar and set off into the fray, without orders or in defiance of them. But rather than putting themselves forward as heroes, Raleigh and Mako wait until they’re sure they have something to offer the situation. As it turns out, that’s not even them – it’s Gipsy Danger herself, the one jaeger immune to the new weapon.

Even in the final assault on the Drift, it’s hard to pick out the kind of individual hero moment you would expect from a typical Hollywood narrative. The sealing of the breach is a group effort, and, with the possible exception of Raleigh sacrificing his oxygen supply, no single act achieves victory. Even the sacrifice of Chuck and Pentecost is – of necessity – a joint decision between two Drift partners.

For a Hollywood movie, this is a whole new world of characterization – and I love it. It’s long past time for new explorations of what it means to be a hero.

But I suppose we must proceed with caution. Although Pacific Rim isn’t the ‘flop’ headline writers would have you believe, it has underperformed in English-speaking territories. If I had to venture one explanation for that, I’d probably guess it’s the unconventional character choices being misread as weakness by an audience with a narrow sense of what’s “heroic”. It’s tough to be the first person to break the rules…

Wolfblood season one on BBC3

Just a reminder that Wolfblood season one will be showing on BBC3 from tomorrow, Tuesday 23rd July, at 7pm BST, and every week thereafter.

To celebrate this, I’m going to be live-tweeting along with the transmission of the first episode! Follow #WB1 along with the episode for thoughts, behind the scenes stuff, and musings about the development of the idea and the writing of the first episode. Find out which was the only line of dialogue that appeared in every draft from the very first version to the final draft, and which cast member was cast the day before the readthrough!

See you on Twitter tomorrow…

Pacific Rim and the New Hollywood Paradigm

 

 

I confess, I’ve been following the development of Pacific Rim for a long time. Why? Because the story of this movie is the screenwriter’s dream.

Once upon a time there was an up-and-coming screenwriter named Travis Beacham, who’d written scripts that everyone loved but which weren’t getting made. It wasn’t his fault: that’s just how the business is when you’re starting out, a lot of near-misses.

But he did something about it. One day, he sat down and wrote the movie he’d always wanted to write – the movie that was so expensive and so crazy that it was never going to get made. And then one of the very few directors with both the commercial clout and the slightly offbeat vision to make that movie read the script – and it actually happened.

That could be our takeaway from the movie right there: sometimes the best advertisement for your skills is just to write the thing you really believe in.

As usual, I have a bunch of other stuff to say about this movie – including, once you’ve all had a chance to see it, digging into the very interesting character choices surrounding the female lead… However, what I want to talk about today is how Pacific Rim seems to be dividing audiences.

I absolutely bloody loved Pacific Rim. So did many other people I know, in the industry and out of it. But equally, for every glowing review I’ve seen, there’s been someone who hated it. It’s a Marmite movie if ever there was one…

So what’s going on?

What really interests me here is that people are having violently different reactions to the same elements of the movie. It’s not like, say, the fans like the characters, but the critic hate the action sequences, or vice versa.

Some people are saying the characters are nuanced and empathetic, some are saying they’re clichés. Some people are saying the plot is boring, while others hail it as original and constantly surprising. There’s not one element of the movie that isn’t being derided in one corner while being praised in another. And this interests me a great deal – because good is good, right?

Well, yes and no.

There are techniques for telling a story that have always worked and always will work. They’re hardwired into our brain.

But when we put them into practice, we have to make them very specific – and inevitably, we start to think it’s that specific expression of the technique that works, rather than the broader technique.

And then the specific expressions perpetuate throughout film culture. If a character behaves in this way, he’s well-drawn; if he behaves in that way, he’s a cliché, or unbelievable. This is a good plot twist; that’s a bad one. We see something work in a movie, so we do it in ours. And thus it becomes normal. It becomes “good”.

But that leads us to a very narrow definition of ‘good’ storytelling techniques. And there are other paradigms, other characters and plots and ways of telling a story, that we’ve neglected for a long time, and which are due to re-emerge and change the way we view story. There are probably paradigms that we haven’t even discovered yet.

A few voices in the industry have been saying for a while that the way we tell stories on screen is changing. Linda Aronson may be the best known theorist on the subject, but she’s far from the only one.

So what if, with its fresh and surprising plot choices and character traits, Pacific Rim is the first of the New Paradigm Hollywood Blockbusters? What if Pacific Rim is the future?

That’s a future I want to be part of. And from now on, I’m deliberately setting out to raise my game, find out what these new storytelling techniques are and use them – and maybe make a few of them up as I go along…

Game on, people! Who’s playing?

The Trouble With Spy Movies

I think I’ve worked out why spy movies are so hard to write – and often, hard to sell to an audience.

They shouldn’t be. We all love a spy: dashing, clever, constantly in danger, a chameleon changing name and appearance the way we change our clothes. They’re the person we want to be – free from the rule of law, free to do whatever it takes to save the world.

Ah yes, there lies the rub. Saving the world.

It used to be so simple. There was Them and there was Us, clearly defined by geography as well as ideology. One day We would win and They would lose, and every fictional spy’s actions took us closer to that day.

Things are not so certain any more, and that’s what’s killing the spy movie.

The problem with any contemporary espionage movie is there is no end to the problem. Destroy one terror cell, a dozen more spring up. One idealistic young recruit learns the hard way that espionage is a dirty business, and walks away; a hundred more will sign up next week. One traitor is hunted down; plenty more remain undetected. The battle is endless, and therefore meaningless.

The spying business has become just that: a business. Just like Apple or Wal-Mart, the CIA or MI5 plug away, maintaining their market share and producing the occasional innovation that puts them at the top of the tree for a while. Now, Wal-Mart is never going to wipe out every rival store: even if a rival does go out of business, it will eventually be replaced by a new start-up. Businesses don’t “win” – they stay in business, make a profit, stay out of trouble, and everyone keeps their jobs.

So with intelligence agencies. The “profit” they make is lives saved and scandals avoided, the “loss” is lives lost and scandals that leak out. As long as the profit outweighs the loss, they stay in business. But there is no winning any more.

And movies are in the business of winning.

That’s how we measure a happy ending: the hero “wins”, whether that’s by getting the love interest, reuniting their family, or literally saving the world. We want our heroes to change the world around them, obviously and permanently. But in the modern world of espionage, there is no permanent change, just another item ticked off on the to-do list.

It’s interesting that the truly successful spy movies of recent years have tried to find ways to avoid the new moral landscape. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a period piece; the Bourne movies are paranoia thrillers rather than true spy movies; Bond and Mission: Impossible create supervillains who transcend the normal scale of espionage, whose defeat can be final and definite.

Those that have stuck more closely to the traditional formula – Spy Game, The Recruit and The Harsh Light Of Day spring to mind – have found it a lot harder to capture the public imagination…

Qualities Of The Great Blockbuster Movie, part two

The dialogue in action scenes doesn’t consist entirely of people yelling each other’s names, or saying “Come on!” or “This way!”

Pointless dialogue is the number one sign of a blockbuster in crisis. And by pointless, I mean people speaking because no one’s said anything for a while, and a movie needs dialogue, right? Or yelling to draw attention to things, or clunkily convey or reinforce information.

Bad action dialogue can spring from a failure in the visual storytelling – or at least, a failure to trust visual storytelling to do the job. Someone forgot to show us a sign saying control room, or a trinket on the desk that would tell us this is the villain’s lair, so someone has to blurt “This must be the control room”. Someone didn’t trust the audience to remember that the heroine always wears purple and therefore this must be her jacket, so someone has to remember that aloud on our behalf.

It can also spring from a lack of personal goals for the characters. As we noted before, you get better scenes when your characters are strong individuals. And if they’re strong individuals, they’ll all have different goals and motivations, which they’ll have to argue for as the situation develops.

Think about the scenes on the Death Star in the second act of Star Wars. Luke wants to rescue the princess, as does R2D2. Han Solo wants to get his precious ship the hell out of here. C3PO just wants to survive. Obi-Wan is well aware of the coming confrontation with Vader. They all work together to survive, but  the things they say to each other are driven by their differing motivations and their desire to get what they want or do what they have to do.

So trust the visuals, and give your characters their own angles to work, and your dialogue will immediately improve…