Posts Tagged Blade Runner

A Writer Reviews: Black Death

You have, by all likelihood, never heard of this movie.  And that’s alright, neither had I.  It’s one of those direct-to-DVD releases that showed up in our Netflix recommendations and intrigued us for several reasons.  First was Netflix’s predictive score of 3.9 stars.  Second was appearance that it would be a rather brutal portrayal of plague-era England.  Third was Sean Bean.  And it delivered on everything we hoped for.  Crucifixions, fake witchcraft, nasty teeth, and Sean Bean dying.

This is not a spoiler.  Sean Bean always dies.  Hell, one of those clips is from this movie.  I’ll leave it unspoiled which one.  Hint: none of the ones with guns.

I’ll say this much for the Netflix predictive score, it was dead on.  3.9 is about right for this movie.  I was entertained throughout, but it’s not really going to stick with me.  However, I wanted to pull out one element of the movie and use it as a Writer Reviews subject: the denouement.

I’m sure we all had the denouement drilled into our heads in middle school; it’s all the parts of the story that happen after the climax.  It serves to wrap up the story, wrap up the characters, potentially provide a quick clean-up of a sub plot, and ideally serves to bookend the whole work with the opening.  They’re tough, and I’m not going to pretend to be an expert on them, as they’re one of the areas that I’m still unquestionably growing as a writer.  However, that doesn’t mean that I don’t know a flawed denouement when I see one.

And the denouement is where Black Death falls apart.

The movie ends with the protagonist returning home after all the horrors he has seen in the world, all the evil he’s unintentionally done, all the good he’s tried to do.  This is the standard ending for the heroic journey story.  He is accompanied by the only surviving member of the party (not Sean Bean) who proceeds to provide narration for an extended sequence where the protagonist seeks out revenge for what he has seen.  It’s a really dark sequence, and I typically approve when a movie feels it can Go There, but it fails on two very important fronts.

First: it’s too long.  This is a fault of many movies.  To pull some more mainstream examples of overly long denouements, let’s look at AI: Artificial Intelligence and Return of the King.  In AI, the climax of that movie is the robot boy David finally completing his quest to see the Blue Fairy and begging to be a real boy.  It’s a hell of an ending, too, if you choose to stop the movie at that moment.  The denouement is all that stuff that comes after, set 2000 years in the future and taking 20 minutes to unfold.  It shifts the story to a new location, introduces new concepts, and plays out almost as a short film tacked onto the end of the movie.  Return of the King is absolutely infamous for the length of the denouement, which features several false endings before finally drawing to a close with Samwise home again in the Shire.  Here I give a little more leeway, as the denouement is scaled to the trilogy rather than just the movie, but it still received plenty of criticism.

An overlong denouement has several effects.  For one, it makes the audience all squirmy when they really need to go pee, but that’s more a movie issue than a written issue.  More importantly it can dampen the emotional high of the climax by separating the audience from it, or worse invalidate the emotions of the climax completely.  It also serves as an imposition on the audience’s time and patience.  How much of either the author have to play with depends entirely on the investment they’ve secured from the audience.  It’s hard to keep going back and say “just one more thing,” and ultimately makes the story look poorly structured, like there was so much more to tell but the author got to the end of the main plot too quickly.

Second: it’s told from rumor and conjecture.  I am all for the unreliable narrator in fiction, so long as it’s done well.  In film, it’s so much harder than in written fiction.  Fight Club?  Brilliant use of the unreliable narrator in film.  Black Death?  Not so much.  The trick with the good use of an unreliable narrator is that he or she can’t know they’re unreliable.  It pulls the audience in and leaves them guessing.  The end narration in Black Death begins with the narrator admitting to no direct knowledge of the events as they unfurled.  At that point I’m done with the story, because the narrator has been removed from it without even an opportunity to wonder.

It also relies on narration in a movie largely devoid of it.  However, at least in this case the narration bookends the entire movie.  The denouement is not the place to start narration, though this is really more of a movie problem than a written work problem, as books rely on at least some form of narrator from the start.  However, the sudden narrator in a movie is akin to a book switching suddenly from third to first person in the last chapter.  Consider how jarring that would be as a reader.  Again, this was a flaw of AI.  It’s also the flaw of the original cut of Blade Runner.

Alright.  One of the flaws.

So what are the hallmarks of a good denouement?  Largely they’re successful when they don’t feel like a denouement.  I’m always disappointed when I can step out of a movie or a story and say “aha, I’m in the denouement now” on first consumption.  It’s the same sensation that started the Writer Reviews series when I talked about finding the act breaks in my first viewing of Thor.  This probably doesn’t apply to everyone, but I cannot really dissect a piece of media I’m enjoying it on my first trip through.  If I can, it means I’m not engaged with the story in some way.  And disengagement of the reader/viewer is a problem in any work of fiction.

Be aware of your denouements.  Keep them sort, keep them on task, keep them to the point, and don’t go changing the style of story in them.

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Returning to Blade Runner

March 2 of this year something happened that excited me.  Warner Brothers acquired most of the rights to Blade Runner.  Included in the package?  Sequel rights, prequel rights, and rights to the world itself.  The only thing they didn’t get in the package were the remake rights.  This was cool news.  This week, the bigger news hit.  Ridley Scott is on board, and will be working to make another Blade Runner movie.

That’s the grand total of the details to this point.  There’s questions being bandied around: Will it be a sequel?  Will it be a prequel?  But these questions ignore what I think is more probable than either, and probably the most exciting in terms of potential: what if it’s neither?

There’s four things to do with a movie with such a deep and beautifully crafted world as Blade Runner.  Remake is off the table.  Prequels and sequels are limiting, the former especially.  But there’s a fantastic fourth choice: tell a new story in the same world.  Please, I beg of you Mr. Scott and Warner Brothers, take this route.

There’s an argument that can be made as to why does someone need to own the rights to Blade Runner to tell a story that isn’t explicitly tied to the original.  And it’s a valid question.  Why not make a cyberpunk dystopian movie and keep it just different enough to not be Blade Runner’s world?  Largely because the world of Blade Runner is so deep, so nuanced, is such a character in that story that anything else is going to look like a pale imitation, a pastiche.  Why make something that’s almost sort of Blade Runner while trying not to be when you can make something that is Blade Runner?

It’s such a definer of an entire sub-genre in a way that few other pieces ever have managed.  To most people, Blade Runner IS cyberpunk.  It was one of those rare notion that maybe the future doesn’t always have to be a perfectly clean place filled with enlightened people living trouble free lives.  It might, and this was a novel idea, suck.  People might continue to be people.  It’s the dramatic mirror to the dark humor satire of Brazil, and it’s what many of us fans want out of such a movie.

So.  Give us the movie!

But…here’s the problem.  CGI was invented.

So much of the amazing look and feel of the original movie comes from the film makers actually doing things.  Actually constructing city scape miniatures.  Actually filming grunge and smoke and horribleness without having a computer filling in the little bits and pieces around the edge.  It’s hard to imagine a movie doing that today, not in this post Sky Captain world.  It kills me to speak ill of a movie that I really do love.  Sky Captain is a hell of a lot of fun, but above just about everything else it was a proof of concept, the first feature length movie filmed without a single scrap of sets.  Everything was green screen.  Everything was computer animated.  And that was GREAT for the movie, it created a really unique look and feel.

Then Lucas did it with Star Wars.

And now, I’m afraid they’re going to do it was Blade Runner.

Look at the old movies, the ones where people did and people cared.  Where they had to make things, because there was no alternative.  And they have all aged so beautifully.  The Alien Queen is still terrifying because she was real, she was on screen, she was directly interacting with the actors.  So much of the original Star Wars trilogy have already aged better than the prequels, when Lucas could do whatever he wanted with a computer rather than relying on puppetry, models, and ingenuity to create the look that he wanted.

The look of Blade Runner is what it is because it was all real.  It was all on camera.  It was real, and it was dirty, and it was grimy, all in a way that CGI still can’t really do right.  That’s the part of computer animation that still hasn’t gotten all that real, hasn’t advanced beyond what film makers could do if they had to sit down and figure out HOW to do it.

So there it is.  I’m excited and I’m worried, and I’m hopeful, and I just don’t know what to expect out of another Blade Runner movie.  What I do know is that I trust Ridley Scott to go forward and make it good, because this has always been his baby.  This is the movie he’s never quite gotten right, always wanting one more shot at a director’s cut.

I trust you Ridley.

Don’t let us down.

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