Favorite moments: ‘Mad Max Power Wheels’

We all have our favorite moments in movies, books, and games, moments that stay with us long after the story is over. This column is my attempt to examine my favorite moments and see why they stick with me.

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The video:

Why it’s great:

Let’s pretend for a moment that you’re writing Hollywood’s next big film, the blockbuster that will finally earn you cinematic immortality and a big boost of friends on your Facebook page. But there’s problem: You’re writing a comedy, and you’re doing a big action scene of, say, soldiers attacking a fortress. The scene’s well-written, but it’s not funny, and nothing you do makes it work. What do you do?

Why not replace the soldiers with kids?

‘Mad Max Power Wheels’ is a near-perfect example of one of my favorite comedy tropes: Having children re-enact adult movies with a comedic bent. We expect to see little kids pretending to be police officers, paramedics, or firefighters when driving around in Power Wheels, not celebrating the release a of an R-rated post-apocalyptic movie by pretending to be hardened road warriors slaughtering each other for gazzoline gasoline. Yet, seeing that contrast between bloody death and ruin and innocent kids having lots of fun makes for comedy gold, and it only gets funnier the more mature, bloody, or gruesome said stories are. Captain Phillips, anyone?

Favorite Moments: ‘Captain… Help…’

We all have our favorite moments in movies, books, and games, moments that stay with us long after the story is over. This column is my attempt to examine my favorite moments and see why they stick with me.

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The Movie

‘Star Trek: First Contact’ (1996)

The Scene

(skip to 1:35 for the moment in question)

Why It’s Great

As a child of the 90’s, I was privileged to see a lot of great TV shows growing up: ‘The Simpsons,’ ‘M*A*S*H’ reruns, ‘Dinosaurs!’ and almost every Nickelodeon cartoon and game show constantly played on the family television, but it’s ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’ that’s stayed with me well into adulthood. Picard, Riker, Data, Worf, and all the Enterprise crewmembers others were as much a part of my childhood as Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader, and Indiana Jones. I watched as the Enterprise and her crew as they explored the cosmos, negotiated peace with hostiles species, got into firstfights and phaser shootouts… and also turned into children.

Throughout it all, though, Picard was the character who left the greatest impression with me. He was the champion of reason and diplomacy, yet not afraid to get into a fight if he needed to. He was firm, but fair, and to my young eyes he was the leader who always did what was right.

Then came 1996’s ‘First Contact,’ and in a film filled with action, horror, shootouts, and scary Borg monsters, the thing that stuck with me the most was the shock of seeing Picard shot an infected Enterprise crewmember begging for help. As a young kid, that blew my mind: Picard was the good guy! He wouldn’t kill his own crew! And yet, he had just killed one!

To a pre-teen like me, this was the moment where I realized that the right thing to do isn’t always the nicest. In the cartoons and kids shows I watched, the heroes always saved innocent people from the bad guys. To see one of those heroes kill an innocent person – even if it was an act of mercy – made me realize that sometimes the good guys must do things that are morally questionable, even if there’s no malicious intent. It was a big step forward in realizing that things aren’t always black and white, and a big step in realizing that writing stories where things aren’t clear cut are a great tool for creating moral delimas that stay with audiences long after the story is over.

What we can learn from: ‘Atlantic Rim’

 

There’s an old saying that there’s nothing new under the sun. Hollywood does its best to fulfill that saying by copying itself year after year, remaking movies, following whatever trend is hot, and generally retelling, recycling, repackaging, and telling the same stories decade after decade.

And then there are the ripoffs.

For years now, the Asylum has specialized in making a seemingly endless amount of ‘mockbusters’ designed to cash in on whatever hit movie is in theaters at the time. Typically made on an impossibly tiny budget and rushed into production, the end result is rarely good, but every so often you can get an amusing gem that manages to entertain despite its grade-Z production values.

‘Atlantic Rim’ is not one of those movies.

In the pantheon of Asylum films, ‘Atlantic Rim’ is strictly in the middle: It’s not horrible, but not great either, with scenes that don’t add anything to the story, plenty of mindless fighting, and three robots whacking a monster with giant robot melee weapons for what feels like fifteen minutes before realizing that it isn’t working. Still, there are a few good lessons to be found here, so let’s suit up in duct-tape covered wetsuits robot control suits and take a look.

Consider having your reckless character actually face consequences for his/her actions

Mech pilot Red Watters (yes, that’s his name) is your typical hot-blooded, reckless military maverick who is the best at what he does, but goes his own way without respecting the chain of command. However, unlike many other mavericks, Red is arrested after going on his initial mission in ‘Atlantic Rim,’ and destroying a lot of property and lives, earning him a trip to the brig instead of begrudging praise from those higher up on the command chain.

In our own stories, having a military maverick actually face consequences for their actions tells our audience that the characters in your story expect competence and don’t fool around. While it’s fine to bend the rules in fiction, it can be more surprising to see them strictly enforced.

Avoid having characters describe what just happened to other characters

Shortly after Red defeats the first monster, he happily tells Tracy and Jim what just happened, gleefully describing his exploits. While it’s logical to tell others what they couldn’t have seen, we, the audience, saw the events described, making the scene redundant and eating up screen time that could have been devoted to something more interesting.

When faced with needing to inform other characters in our own stories about events that have happened, the best option is to either have said characters be told off-screen, or saying something like, ‘It only took a few minutes for Carl to breathlessly tell the others about the dangers he had faced, and what they would be soon going up against.’

Consider poking fun at love-triangle cliches

Near the end of ‘Atlantic Rim’s second act, Red, Tracy, and Jim are celebrating and drinking in a bar (despite not having done anything to stop the latest monster attack), when Tracy and Jim nervously tell Red that they kissed each other, making us think that we’re going to be subjected to a late-game love triangle… only to have Red laugh and brush it off, revealing that he doesn’t care. Moments later, the three set off to save New York, and the love triangle is never seen or heard from again.

Love triangles may be among the most irritating story conventions to be found in fiction, especially where they aren’t wanted or needed, which makes ‘Atlantic Rim’ s take on the matter refreshing. Doing the same in our own works will tell our audiences that we know how annoying these triangles are, and that we aren’t going to subject them to one.

Consider having your missing thing be used as a weapon by the monster

Tell me if you’ve seen this before: A well-equipped group is searching for a monster (or in territory where there are monsters) and one of their distant vehicles or team members suddenly goes silent. It’s all too common for everyone else to suffer the same fate moments later, but I like how ‘Atlantic Rim’ handles this tripe: A submarine goes silent while hunting for an undersea monster, and the aircraft carrier in command of a naval fleet tries to get in touch with them, only for the submarine to be then thrown from the water into the carrier, sinking it.

Aside from the visceral thrill of seeing two huge vehicles slam into one another, having your monster/villain throw their prey back at those who are looking for him/her/it can be a great moment to show that the monster is more than just a dumb brute: By throwing their prey back, they can show intelligence by using it to destroy something else, demoralize others by taunting them, or humor, as if saying, ‘Oh, looking for this? Okay, here you go!’

When all else fails, throw your enemies into space

After what feels like 15 minutes of whacking the final monster with melee weapons, Red realizes that such tactics aren’t going to defeat it. So, what does he do? Ram the beast, fly it into the atmosphere, and eject it into outer space (where it explodes). It’s a simple but effective method, as hurling your enemy into outer space is a nearly foolproof way of getting rid of them for good. After all, space is really big, and once your enemy is thrown into it (presumably without any rockets, jet packs, or engines), they have nothing to grab onto, ensuring that they can’t come back.

The Takeaway:

When your story has an egomaniac military maverick, have them face serious consequences for their actions, while also avoiding love triangles, not having one character tell others what we’ve already seen, having the monster of the story use a missing object/individual as a weapon to showcase their intelligence, and then defeat that monster for good by hurling it into the void of space.

Favorite Moments: ‘When Death Troopers Try Going Through a Drive-Thru’

We all have our favorite moments in movies, books, and games, moments that stay with us long after the story is over. This column is my attempt to examine my favorite moments and see why they stick with me.

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The video

Why it’s great

Today’s video is another perfect example of fish-out-of-water comedy, by taking the Empire’s elite Death Troopers off the battlefield, and having one of them try to order fast food… and learning that his (her?) voice-scrambling helmet isn’t the best thing to wear when trying to talk with an ordinary person.

Another subtle nugget I didn’t notice at first when watching this video is that this is a great example of how even the most intimidating, faceless people in stories are still human underneath all their armor, complete with dreams, hobbies, and not liking certain foods. Keeping such things in mind can help us when we write henchmen or elite soldiers: They may be dangerous and dedicated to their cause, but there’s more to them than what organization they serve or what kind of armor they wear.

What we can learn from ‘Sarah Conner vs. Jason Vorhees’

Ever since his first appearance as a masked killer in the 1981 film ‘Friday the 13th Part 2,’ Jason Vorhees has become the poster child for slashers who take out horny teenagers as brutally (and creatively) as possible. Being such a staple of pop culture, it was inevitable that he’d eventually face off against other pop icons, the most famous being a fight against Freddy Kruger in 2003’s ‘Freddy vs Jason.’ But many of these fights have taken place in fan videos, featuring Michael Myers, Pennywise the Clown, Leatherface, and even Barney the Dinosaur. Today, we’re taking a look at what would happen if Jason Vorhees took on one of the toughest women in cinema: Sarah Conner from ‘Terminator 2: Judgement Day,’ courtesy of Youtube creators WTFLOL

Having a plausible explanation as to why two characters are fighting makes it easier to accept such a fight

When most pop culture characters fight, plot usually comes second to seeing them duking it out. But having a strong reason why two different characters from two different universes are fighting each other makes said fights easier to accept. ‘Conner vs. Jason’ has a particularly good one: Sarah, while en-route to foil Cyberdyne yet again, has car trouble and breaks down near Camp Crystal Lake. While searching for help, she comes across helpless campers being slaughtered by Jason, and rushes in to help. Not only is this a plausible way for the two to meet up, but it also helps us root for Sarah by showing how she doesn’t hesitate to help others in trouble, even if she doesn’t know them.

In our own stories, it’s a good idea to set up the fight in a way that feels logical. While it’s tempting to throw your two (or more) duelists together as quickly as possible, setting up why they’re fighting will make your story more believable, and tell your audience that you’ve thought this out beyond the standard, ‘Hey, wouldn’t it be awesome if ______ and ______ fought each other!?”

Consider limiting how much of your intercontinuity fight doesn’t revolve around the title characters fighting

Perhaps more than any other type of story, your audience knows exactly what they want when they see a duel film (watching the title characters fighting each other). They won’t be interested in anything else that doesn’t lead up or add to those moments. Thankfully, ‘Conner vs. Jason’ smartly limits those scenes to Sarah going to Crystal Lake, and the camp’s campers being killed off by Jason in quick order, knowing that audiences don’t have any interest in the campers being developed when they’re only going to be killed off.

In our own stories, while some buildup and setting the scene is always necessary, cutting out everything that isn’t necessary to set things up, or that doesn’t relate directly to two famous characters fighting is a good idea; our audience will thank us for getting to what they came to see in a quick and timely manner.

Consider having the nerd help save the day

Pity the poor nerd: this unfortunate character continues to be relentlessly mocked in pop culture, portrayed as being wimps, cowards, and having zero social skills. Yet, don’t underestimate them: while the nerd in ‘Conner vs. Jason’ first comes off as the stereotypical game-obsessed dweeb, he quickly comes through by using his smarts to tell Sarah about Jason’s only weakness, and risks his own life to lure Jason towards said weakness at great risk to himself (and saving Sarah in the process).

While it’s easy to use the nerd as an easy source of humor and comic relief, it’s much better to have them have hidden depths: Nerds may have a love of all things video games, movies, anime, and cartoons, but they’re still people with weaknesses and strengths, and showing those, whether it’s bravery, strength, or resourcefulness will help make them memorable.

Consider poking fun at a character’s mythology in your crossover fight

Little moments of humor can often be the most memorable parts of any story, and in a crossover fight – where drama and strict adherence to the rules of either universe are put aside for the sake of awesomeness – poking fun at both story’s mythologies can make funny moments even funnier: my favorite here comes when the nerd loudly yells about smoking and having lots of premarital sex with naked women, causing Jason to immediately ignore Sarah and head after the nerd. Another has the Terminator, after blowing Jason to pieces, saying his classic trademark about how he’ll be back. Is it cheesy? Yes, but it’s funny, and a good reminder on that we watch these crossovers to see how awesome they are; having some humor – even if it’s slightly out of character – only makes a fun experience even more enjoyable.

Avoid having someone come in and steal a victory at the end of a crossover fight

While having the Terminator suddenly show up to save the day at the end of the video is undeniably awesome (The Terminator vs Jason? Heck yeah!), it does have the unfortunate effect of making the whole ‘Sarah vs. Jason’ fight somewhat pointless, as neither of them determine the outcome. While it’s common for crossover fights to end in a draw (so as to not offend fans of either character by having them be defeated), having neither side winning, or having both off each other, having a third party arrive and end the fight by themselves feels like a cop out. Even Freddy vs Jason made this error by having one of the teens decapitate Freddy at the climax of the big fight, instead of Jason.

When writing our own crossover fights, having them end because of the results of the fighter’s efforts – instead of an outside force – will avoid the feeling of the fighters and the audience being cheated out of a fair match. If you must bring in a third party, foreshadow it before the fight, or at the very beginning (such as how Sarah Conner helps Pops during the Terminator vs Terminator duel in ‘Terminator: Genysis’), but still avoid it if you can.

An Alternate Universe version of ‘Sarah Conner vs. Jason Vorhees’ that learned from its mistakes

While en-route to take out a subdivision of Cyberdyne, Sarah Conner’s car breaks down outside Camp Crystal Lake. Setting out to search for help, she hears helpless campers being slaughtered and runs to help. While she’s too late to save everyone, she does save one nerd from Jason. The two quickly hatch a plan to lure Jason to the camp’s lake, eventually managing to get them there, thanks to the nerd’s smarts, and Sarah’s combat skills.

However, when trying to knock Jason into the water, Sarah – injured from her fight – runs out of ammo for her weapons. Using herself as a battering ram, she tackles Jason, managing to shove him into the water.

The nerd anxiously tries to decide whether he should jump in after Sarah to save her. Then she appears: Injured and bleeding badly, but alive. With Jason defeated and trapped at the bottom of the lake, the nerd helps her back to the camp’s main building to patch her up and call for help. Along the way, he asks if she’s interested in a date, to which she replies that he’d better not hold his breath.

Favorite Moments: Pancakes!

We all have our favorite moments in movies, books, and games, moments that stay with us long after the story is over. This column is my attempt to examine my favorite moments and see why they stick with me.

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The Movie

‘Cabin Fever’ (2002)

The Scene

Why it’s great

It’s a scene of a kid who wants pancakes, does karate moves, and then bites a guy while making wolf sounds, while his dad yells his name in slow motion. It’s so random, so out of place in a movie about a flesh-eating virus, and so bizarre that it breaks the time-space continuum and transcends the comprehension of mere mortals.

What? I need to write more? Well, it’s an example of how having a random scene that has nothing to do with the rest of the story can become the most memorable moment of that story, AKA, The Big Lipped Alligator Moment.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go satisfy a sudden hankering for pancakes.

What we can learn from ‘Jakku: First Wave’

Today, we’re taking a look at Star Wars, but not at one of the official movies, books, or games; we’re into the world of Star Wars fan films, and one that focuses on everyone’s favorite movie mooks: the stormtroopers. Unlike most fan films, though, this one is quite unique: There’s no laser blasts, no lightsabers, no force powers, or any of the other famous features of the galaxy far, far, away. Instead, it’s a psychological story that takes a look at three stormtroopers before entering the biggest battle of their lives. Let’s take a deeper look at what this short can teach us.

Consider having your story follow doomed characters just before their end

‘Jakku’ sets its tone instantly by telling us that everyone we’re about to see are going to die. That knowledge hangs heavy throughout the runtime as we watch the final minutes of the stormtrooper’s lives, knowing that they’re not going to make it through the battle to come.

In our own stories, focusing on the end of a character’s life – whether they know it or not – is an excellent way to get the audience’s attention. We’re used to our heroes charging into combat and making it out alive, sometimes without a scratch… but what about those who don’t have a chance? How do the underdogs, the faceless, nameless people who don’t have plot armor or aren’t main characters, face their end? I find that more fascinating than following someone who will survive because of their importance to the plot.

As I’ve written before, staring death in the face reveals who someone really is: Just how would you react to knowing that your end is about to occur in the next few minutes? Do you run? Hide? Face it head on? Incorporating such questions gives you the chance to see a character’s deepest self.

Consider making your story take place in one location

It may sound counter-intuitive – and even boring – to set your story in a single location. Who can make compelling stories about love and war, loss and betrayal in just one room? (or a cockpit, or a boat, or a car, etc.) Yet, such a thing is possible; ‘Jakku’ takes place entirely inside the hold of an AT-AT, and is captivating thanks the power of its story and the situation, instead of big, flashy visuals.

The advantage of doing a story set in a single location is that it forces you, the writer, to be creative with how you tell your story, as well as almost mandating that it becomes a character piece, as you won’t have access to big-budget special effects. Can you tell a sci-fi story in a single room? A post-apocalyptic drama? A historical period piece? No matter what tale you tell, it will be more intimate than the most sprawling, epic tale that goes to numerous exotic places. (and as a bonus, if you’re doing a movie, you’ll save a lot of money from only having to build one set)

Consider having your big, tough guy join the armed forces for a silly reason

The lone moment of humor in ‘Jakku’ is an effective one: The stoic, fearless trooper seems to fit the mold we’ve seen many times elsewhere: the tough guy who loves to fight and believes whole-heartily in his country. The patriot, so to speak, who joined the armed forces for the noblest of causes. But that’s not the case: he joined the Empire just because he wanted to wear stormtrooper armor.

Silly? Yes, but it’s amusing because we, the audience, expect the big, buff, military types to love their countries and wanting to serve it above everything else. Learning that they joined the armed forces for the silliest of reasons makes them more memorable by defying our expectations.

Consider focusing on why your characters fight

In my opinion, the one thing ‘Jakku’ does best is showing that these stromtroopers aren’t fanatical troopers who mindlessly follow orders and charge into battle without a second thought. They’re human, with different levels of fear and courage. One wants to avenge his younger brother, who died on the Death Star. The other wants to fight for the Empire’s ideals, and the last is there to prove to himself that he really can fight. This humanization helps us see the Empire not as an endless wave of white-coated redshirts who can’t shoot the broad side of a barn, but as people with different reasons for joining the Empire: Some selfish, some noble, and others who are just looking to try something new.

In your own works, exploring why characters fight and risk their lives makes the more human. It’s one thing to read about soldiers charging into battle, but knowing why they’re doing it (beyond being ordered to by their superiors) makes for more compelling storytelling. Knowing that someone is fighting to avenge a fallen family member or friend, or fighting dirty just to end a war so they can go home, or that they’re trying to prove to themselves that they’re brave makes the more compelling than gung-ho marines.

The Takeaway:

Doing a small scale story helps you focus on characters instead of distracting your audience with flashy visuals, and exploring why a small group of doomed people do what they do (such as fighting in a war) makes for compelling drama, even if their reasons for doing so are on the silly side.