The Best Background Characters: The Backflipping Goon

Every story has a cast of characters that we follow and watch and come to love… but what about the background characters? The nameless masses who rarely get our attention? This column examines my favorite background characters who deserve a moment in the spotlight.

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The Movie:

‘The Matrix Revolutions’

The Character:

A goon with radical backflipping skills.

The Scene:

(The guy in question appears at 2:03)

Why He Deserves A Moment In The Spotlight

You’ve probably heard the saying, ‘Don’t bring a gun to a knife fight.’ Another equal saying should be, ‘Don’t expect aerobatics to save you in a gun fight.’

The goon in this scene distinguishes himself when, after running out of ammo for his pistols, decides that the best course of action is to do backflips across the room. Then he’s shot and dies, complete with a ‘you failed!’ music cue on the soundtrack.

Much like one of Snoke’s guards, this goon stands out because his actions are so nonsenscial. Tactical backflips may look cool, but it’d have been more effective to take cover behind a pillar and survive to keep fighting. But with his sacrifice, Backflip Goon provides a valuable lesson to fighters in fiction: Unless you’re in a comedy where exaggerated actions are used for humorous effect, staying alive in a fight is more important than showing off how acrobatic you are.

For John

2017 was an exciting year for Terminator fans. Not only was it announced that we would get a new film that would be a direct sequel to ‘Judgement Day,’ but it would feature Arnold Schwarzenegger returning as the T-800, and Linda Hamilton reprising her role as Sarah Connor on-screen for the first time since 1996’s, ‘T2-3D: Battle Across Time’. It was a Terminator fan’s dream come true; yet, as filming began and the first promotional material came out, I realized something.

Where was John Connor?

Like many fans, I was wondering why there were no casting announcements for John. Was he not in the film? Were they trying to keep his role a secret? It wasn’t until July of 2019 that James Cameron announced that Edward Furlong would indeed be returning as John, and I was ecstatic. After almost 30 years, we were finally going to have Arnold, Linda, and Edward on screen together again!

Then the movie came out.

Predictably, fans of the Terminator franchise were outraged at John’s death. We had followed John’s exploits, adventures, and growth in TV shows, books, video games, and comics for almost 30 years, only to see him be senselessly killed off. There was no historic last stand, inspiring final words, or seeing John sacrificing himself to save the human race. Instead, we got to see all the struggles and sacrifices to protect him in T1 and T2 be rendered meaningless. ‘Dark Fate’ was the ultimate slap in the face to John, mocking him and his fans.

But what if it isn’t?

Like most Terminator fans, I was angry at John being killed. I had hoped that we would get to see a grown-up John (played by Mr. Furlong) rising from an ordinary life to take up the mantle as humanity’s savior with his mother and a T-800 one last time. Instead, I left the theater disappointed at what could have been.

Yet, as the months have passed, and I’ve thought about the film, I’ve come to realize that, while John’s death was still a mistake, ‘Dark Fate’ shows that he’s still the most important character in both the film and the series. He’s so important that if he were removed from the movie entirely, the resulting consequences would have led to the extinction of the human race.

Madness? The desperate grasps of a fan trying to make sense of a senseless and tragic event? Perhaps. But we’re told on the C-5 Galaxy in the third act that Dani led humanity to victory over Legion, the malevolent AI (‘we took our world back’). In order for that to take place, two things must happen:

1. Dani has to survive.

2. Dani has to learn how to become a leader.

‘Dark Fate’ spends most of its time fulfilling the first task. Dani initially is protected by augmented super-soldier Grace; yet, while Grace is a powerful warrior, she is unable to stop the REV-9 on her own, and would have been killed with Dani in Mexico without Sarah’s intervention. But even with Sarah, the group still wouldn’t have been able to destroy the REV-9. They need Carl – the T-800 who killed John – to finally defeat the REV-9 for good and ensure Dani’s survival.

Yet, Sarah and Carl wouldn’t have been able to help Dani if it wasn’t for John. If we imagine a future where he had lived, Sarah would not have known of Dani’s existence, and would not have come to her rescue on the bridge in Mexico. Dani and Grace would have been killed, and Legion would have won the second machine war.

Carl, too, would not have been present to protect Dani if John had lived. If, say, Sarah had managed to destroy him, then there would have been no T-800 to take on the REV-9. Carl was the one who ultimately had the necessary strength and endurance to destroy the REV-9, but he never would have done so had he not eventually realized what he had taken from Sarah, and then willingly sacrifice himself in the end.

‘Dark Fate’ ends with Sarah setting out to train Dani in how to become a leader and a warrior. Here, too, John also comes into play. Because of Sarah’s experience hunting terminators before and after John’s death, she is the only person on Earth who can train Dani how to fight and destroy them. Furthermore, Sarah still has all the tactical and leadership training she has from the first two films, which she will presumably pass on to Dani as well. With all three sets of skills given to her, Dani will have all she needs to fight – and ultimately destroy – Legion.

Though the mantra of the Terminator series is, ‘There is no fate but what we make for ourselves,’ it almost seems as if the opposite is true: Humanity is destined to fight malevolent AI at some point. It may be Skynet, it may be Legion, but a war is inevitable. Yet, it also seems that there will always be a figure who will rise up and lead humanity to victory. For years, we’ve believed that John was that leader, but ‘Dark Fate’ shows that there can be multiple leaders. When we step back and look at the broad picture, it seems – hard as it is to accept – that John’s death is necessary in the Terminator universe. John, Sarah, and Uncle Bob succeeded in destroying Skynet, and in the process, John had fulfilled his purpose of saving the human race. But would he have been able to do the same against Legion? While fans – myself included – would have loved to see a middle-aged John fighting and defeating an enemy neither he nor Sarah know anything about, I doubt he would have been able to pull it off.

To use a war analogy, let’s say John is the greatest Allied commander of World War 1. His knowledge and experience in trench warfare, chemical warfare, and the like are without compare, and he leads the Allied forces to victory. He’s hailed as a hero and the savior of the civilized world. But what if he suddenly had to lead the allies again in World War 2? While many principles of warfare would remain the same, John’s skills would be obsolete against opponents who have much better technology, weapons, and tactics than he went up against decades earlier. And while there’s a chance he can still win the war, having a younger person who learned from the lessons of the first, and is more familiar with the latest technology, has a better chance of victory.

If the story of the Terminator franchise is humanity’s ultimate victory against malevolent AI, then John can be seen as the commander who, having stopped the machine’s first offensive, ensures that his successor can see the war through to its completion. He is the spark that sets humanity’s ultimate victory in motion. Without John, neither Sarah or Carl would have saved Dani. Without him, Dani would have died.

Without John, humanity would have perished… But it didn’t happen.

Whatever you may think about the movie, in my opinion, ‘Dark Fate’ proves that even in death, John is still the savior of humanity.

Or, if you prefer, you can pretend that this is how the movie ended.

The Third Dimension In Cheeseiness: The Merits of ‘Jaws 3’

The 80’s were an interesting time for Hollywood: Synth music was becoming popular, the era of the muscle-bound hero was born, and we got a brief resurgence of the 3D fad that has poked its head up every few decades; while most of the resulting films have been consigned to obscurity, perhaps none have been both as immortalized and derided than ‘Jaws 3.’

Released in 1983, ‘Jaws 3’ marks a major turning point in the Jaws franchise: It’s the first not to star Roy Schenider and to not take place in Amity. It also marks the point when the series, having run out of a natural way to continue the ‘Jaws’ saga, resorted to gimmicks to keep viewers interested. Instead of a shark attacking a seaside down and threatening its residents and livelihood, we have a theme park in Florida being attacked by not one, but two sharks, as well as focusing on on the sequel trope of having a franchise’s main character’s children take over.

To this day, fans of the Jaws series remain divided on which sequel is worse: ‘3’, or ‘Revenge.’ But as stated earlier in this series, we’re not here to settle the argument, but to see what each film does well, and despite its rather tepid reception (and the fact that if you remove Michael and Sean, the film has nothing to do with the previous movies), ‘3’ is a guilty pleasure, with it’s so-bad-its-good visual effects, late 70’s and early 80’s design (just look at that fabulous underwater restaurant!), and an excellent soundtrack that has some of my favorite pieces in the series (Like this, this, and especially this). With that said, let’s take a look at the third dimension in terror to see what stands the test of time:

5. Sea World is a more visually interesting location than Amity:

Compared to the blues, grays, and whites of Amity, Sea World is refreshingly bright and colorful, and the undersea kingdom has a lot of potential for undersea mayhem, complete with a sunken ship that’s the location for a frantic escape from the shark, and an underwater complex where tourists are trapped and have to be rescued, as well as an underwater control room that is definitely resistant to sharks breaking the windows. Compared to the beaches and open water of Amity, ‘Jaws 3’ has a lot of opportunities for more interesting action at unique locations, and takes full advantage of it.

4. Michael and Sean’s relationships

One of the film’s biggest strengths isn’t the shark, the action, or the effects, but a grown-up Michael and Sean. I like how, unlike so many other horror movie sequels featuring kids who are now adults, their experiences with sharks in childhood haven’t emotionally crippled them: they get along just fine with each other, complete with playful, good-natured teasing and satisfying relationships with their girlfriends. It’s a refreshing change to see them not be nightmare-riddled adults who poop their pants at the mere sight of the ocean.

I also like how, while Sean and Michael are emotionally well-adjusted, there are still some mental scars left from their encounters with two killer sharks, especially Sean. He’s not fond of going in the water, and needs to be coaxed by his girlfriend, Kelly, to even go on a bumper-boat ride. I wish this phobia had been explored more (such as Sean having to overcome his fear of sharks and the ocean to save Kelly), but the film is to be commended for having Sean and Michael be mostly well-adjusted adults.

3. The Professionals are… well, professional

In monster movies, so-called professionals often end up being useless, bumbling idiots, or both. Thankfully, ‘Jaws 3’ averts that by having almost everyone in a position of authority be actually good at their jobs, or at least, not losing their heads when things go wrong. FitzRoyce and his assistant Jack initially come off as smug gloryhounds, but are often the first to drop the cameras and jump in to help when the sharks are swimming around, and their plan to capture the shark – by trapping it in a flow pipe – would have worked if it wasn’t for a safety rope that would have come undone through no fault of their own. Likewise, a tour guide in the undersea kingdom manages to keep guests calm and get them out when things get hairy instead of panicking like everyone else. That kind of professionalism is refreshing to see.

Calvin is a bit mixed: He has a greedy, impatient streak to him, but when he realizes how bad things get, he quickly works to try and make things right. Unlike Mayor Vaughn, when things get bad, he doesn’t try to pretend its not happening or to try and cover it up, and he gets a nice moment at the climax where he manages to save an unconscious worker and get her to safety when the shark attacks the control room (presumably; we never actually see the two get to safety, but let’s be optimistic and assume they did).

2. This unsettling death

Chrissie’s death at the beginning of ‘Jaws’ is rightfully regarded as one of the scariest deaths in horror cinema (sweet Zeus, those screams), but ‘Jaws 3’ has a pretty good one of its own with FitzRoyce’s demise: through a rather unfortunate series of circumstances, he ends up being sucked alive into the shark’s mouth. It’s unnerving to see him still alive in the shark’s throat and unable to get out. Much like the helicopter pilot in the previous film, FitzRoyce faces an awful choice: he can die either by drowning, being shredded by the shark’s teeth, or by blowing himself up with one of his grenades. All the options are horrible, and knowing that there’s no way he’s getting out alive only makes it worse.

1. The most unique climax of the series

If there’s one thing that ‘Jaws 3’ nails, it’s the climax, where the shark rams the underwater control room, floods it, and traps our heroes, who have to kill it by activating the grenade being gripped by FitzRoyce’s corpse, blowing it to smithereens. This is a really unique scenario: our heroes are trapped in an environment that will eventually kill them (they’re underwater and only have a limited amount of air), cornered by a beast that wants to eat them. They have no weapons and no way to defend themselves, and the only way to win is to risk being eaten by the beast to trigger a hard-to-reach weapon that can save them.

While the effects of this sequence are… not that great, the idea behind it is a really cool one, and in my opinion, it’s the most unique climax in the ‘Jaws’ series. The first is unquestionably the best, but in my opinion, ‘Jaws 3’ has a more interesting idea behind it.

While the below-average story, lack of cohesion with the previous two films, and subpar effects drag ‘Jaws 3’ down, it’s helped out with likable characters, a unique location, a pretty horrific death scenario, and the most unique climaxes in the series. But is that enough to make it better than its successor? The debate will no doubt rage for years to come, but tune in next time as we take a look at ‘Jaws: The Revenge’ and see if we can find some redeeming factors in one of the most legendary bombs in Hollywood history.

What we can learn from the many deaths of Jar Jar Binks

NOTE: This post contains videos that feature Jar Jar getting parts of his body ripped off, and depictions of blood.

‘Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker’ comes out in 17 days, and ends a storyline that’s been going for over 40 years. While much of that story has been embraced by fans of the saga, there are a few elements that most would like to forget, like Ewoks, the holiday special (if you value your sanity, don’t click that link) and Jar Jar Binks, infamous comic relief (and possible Sith lord). With the advent of computer editing, some fans take it upon themselves to rid the galaxy of the infamous gungan; one such video is ‘Han Solo VS Jar Jar Binks’ by Darren Wallace on Youtube:

For many fans out there, this is the catharsis they’ve dreamed of since 1999 (doesn’t hurt that the CGI is impressive, and the rotoscoping on Harrison Ford is top-notch), but at the risk of incurring the wrath of the Star Wars Fandom, I think this video is a good example of how not to kill off an annoying character. Yes, Jar Jar is smashed into paste, thus fulfilling the dreams of millions, but in the process, Han Solo is turned into a cold-blooded murderer.

Consider what happens: Jar Jar lands on the Millenium Falcon while searching for Anakin, briefly struggles with Han (who attacks him first) before having an ear ripped off, and is then thrown into the void of space before being smashed into bloody paste on the Falcon’s windshield. He’s not attacking Han, he’s not trying to hurt anyone, and he doesn’t dance, goof around, or do any of his usual antics; heck, he even surrenders before being killed! Your mileage may vary on how annoying Jar Jar was in ‘The Phantom Menace,’ (personally, I don’t find him annoying), but in this situation, Jar Jar doesn’t do anything to merit such a painful death. It feels heartless and senselessly cruel, like Zara’s death in ‘Jurassic World’

For the crime of being annoyed at having to babysit a teenager and her younger brother, Zara is eaten alive and drowns in the lightless void of a mosassaur’s stomach. It’s cruel, ghastly, and grotesque, feeling completely unearned for someone who isn’t the main antagonist. Jar Jar’s death here feels the same way: He may be despised by many in the Star Wars fandom, but does he deserve to have such a cruel death? In my opinion, no.

Now, let’s look at another example of a fan-made Jar Jar demise:

This version, while not as cruel as the first, still features Jar Jar being killed despite not doing anything offensive. However, in this version, his tone of voice at the beginning can be interpreted as being sarcastic, so in this video, he at least antagonizes the main character, making his death feel a little more earned, for who doesn’t like to see bullies and sarcastic thugs get their comeuppance?

Here’s a third death, edited together from a deleted scene from ‘The Phantom Menace’

This one features Jar Jar being smashed to pieces against rocks while doing his best impersonation of the Hamburglar. Here, Jar Jar doesn’t die from the actions of others (who, in their defense, try to save him), but from his own mistakes. Thus, this is a neutral death: He dies by own faults, not from being murdered.

And now, a fourth and final death:

This version of Jar Jar’s death goes for comedy and succeds admirably. Here, Jar Jar irritates Vader to no end, refusing to listen to his orders to leave him alone. It’s easy to imagine ourselves being annoyed by someone who’s as bothersome and pestering as Jar Jar, so it’s easy to side with Vader when Jar Jar is ejected into space… only to come back as an even more-annoying force ghost. Yet, despite Jar Jar being murdered, having it played for laughs and with no long-term consequences makes it easy to accept and fun to watch.

When comparing all four of these deaths, a common thread appears: The ones where the Jar Jar is annoying or antagonizing someone else makes his deaths feel more justified. The ones where he’s not trying to harm or do anything evil make his deaths feel less justified. Therein lies the an important lesson:

If an annoying character is going to be killed off, make their death be earned by being annoying, antagonistic, or playing it for comedy.

While it may be cathartic to see a reviled character bite the dust in a bloody manner, and tempting to write such a demise, doing so risks making those deaths feel sadistic. The most satisfying deaths are the ones that are deserved, not the ones that are cruel.

BONUS DEATH SCENE: Minutes after posting this article, I found out that Jar Jar has actually been blown up in an official Disney cartoon! (he gets better, but good grief, the poor guy just can’t catch a break).

What we can learn from ‘Limbo with Lyrics’

NOTE: The music video for this song features a child drawn in a stylistic manner repeatedly dying violent deaths.

When it came out in 2010, ‘Limbo’ quickly became one of the most famous independent video games ever created, quickly putting developer Playdead on the map. With it’s beautifully dark art style, bleak aesthetics, brutal violence, and haunting soundtrack, ‘Limbo’ is a masterpiece of grim video games… so, naturally, parodies starting coming our way, including this rather amusing song.

There’s only one lesson to learn from this video, but it’s a good one:

Be cautious when doing making light of real-life horrors

If you haven’t played ‘Limbo’, here are two videos to show you what kind of game it is:

When I initially started this article, I was going to write about how the use of an upbeat tune and comedic sound effects makes for comedy gold when contrasted with very dark media (which it does very well). After all, such a mix has worked before:

However, I then realized that while that combination of lighthearted fun and horrific suffering is funny for fictional stories, it doesn’t work as well when used in real life: A fun Reggie song about concentration camps in Nazi Germany would be rather… tasteless. So would a happy jazz tune about atrocities committed by ISIS to innocent people. It’s easy and fun to parody Jason Vorhees, Darth Vader, and the Alien and Predator, but when it comes to poking fun at torture, genocide, or the mutilation and murder of ordinary people, we walk a very dangerous line between making a point and being tasteless.

Now, nothing is off limits when it comes to comedy. Writers should be free to do dark comedy if they wish, on whatever subject they wish. But discretion is important: Doing a parody song about how millions can’t pay their bills, afford insulin, or even a place to live can be funny because it critiques society and makes a point. Doing a Reggie song about children having limbs hacked off because their parents couldn’t make daily quotas on a rubber plantation probably won’t have the same effect.

When audiences watch or read comedy, they want to laugh and get away from the horrors of the world, if only for a few minutes or even a few seconds. As writers, we have to be careful how we use horror to make them laugh. If we use the horrors of a fictional world, we have more leeway because those horrors don’t really exist. But if we use the evil that surrounds us in everyday life, we must be careful of the point we’re trying to make… unless we’re talking about people who push shopping carts in grocery stores at half a mile an hour and block isles so that no one can get past them. They’re fair game.

What we can learn from: ‘Ring One’

 

One of the greatest pleasures of our digital age is how easy it’s become for fans to create crossovers of their favorite franchises and play around with all manner of ‘what if?’ scenarios. Most of these revolve around characters and factions from different franchises fighting each other, but every so often, we get a crossover that tries something a little different.

This mashup of ‘The Return of the King’ and ‘Rogue One’ sounds like it would focus on, say, the Fellowship of the Ring infiltrating Scarif to steal the Death Star plans (Oh, how I would love to see Legolas taking out stormtroopers with his arrows), but  ‘Ring One’ tries something we don’t see very often in these mashups: Tragedy.

While it’s fun to imagine the Empire and the free people of Middle Earth fighting one another, and our heroes saving Middle-Earth, this mashup shows how it would really go: Everyone would die. Frodo, Gandalf, Aragorn, Sauron, and everyone else are obliterated by the Death Star. Yet, while such a situation can be depressing, ‘Ring One’ makes it a great example of the ‘Face Death with Dignity‘ trope. We’re so used to seeing characters be brave and courageous when facing impossible odds in everyday life, but what happens when they face their inevitable deaths? Are they still brave and courageous? Do they try to flee, even when it’s hopeless? Do they pray? Do they try to comfort others?

For writers, having our characters know they’re going to die is a fantastic way to see their deepest qualities, to find out who they really are when they face the end. Here, Frodo still tries to get to the Crack of Doom, Sam spends his final moments of life trying to comfort him, and Gimil and Legolas finally reconcile from their trilogy-long distrust of each other.

Is it sad to see the Fellowship all die? Yes. But it’s beautiful in a bittersweet way: some of fiction’s most memorable moments occur only at the end of a character’s life, moments that can stay with us like nothing else can. We remember those who give their lives to save others, who spend their final minute trying to comfort someone else, or refuse to give in to fear. When you bring your character’s stories to a close, you have a chance to give them one final, shining moment of glory. Take advantage of that, and you’ll give your audience a moment that will stay with them forever.

Favorite moments: ‘You’re going to die. That’s what’s happening.’

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

‘The Grey’

The Scene

Why it’s Great

It happens all the time: Someone gets injured. They’re bleeding out, they’re in shock, and their comrades, friends, and those they love are frantically telling them that they have to hang on, that help will be there soon, and that they’ll pull through.

How often do you see someone tell the injured person that they’re going to die?

When I first saw ‘The Grey’ back in 2011, this is the scene that stuck with me after I left the theater. Very rarely had I come across a story where a dying person was told, point-blank, that they’re going to die. But while Ottway’s honesty seems as cold as the frozen wastes of Alaska, the resulting scene is – surprisingly – quite touching. While he doesn’t mince words with Lewenden about what’s happening, Ottway does his best to make Lewenden’s last moments as comforting as possible.

Death has a way of revealing who someone really is when they’re faced with the unknown, and all their defenses are gone. There might be no better way to find out what a character is like than when they’re staring death in the face. in ‘The Grey’ we learn everything we need to know about Ottway in one scene: he’s a man who doesn’t hold back on telling the truth, no matter how hard or uncomfortable it is. Yet, he’s not a cruel, heartless person, and does his best to help others, no matter how grim things are, even if it’s only making someone’s death a little less fearful, a little terrifying as they slip away, turning what could have been a sad, heartless scene into one of the most touching moments of the film.