‘The Force Awakens,’ ‘Underwater,’ and the power of Expanded Universes To Enrich Your Story

Note: This post contains spoilers for the 2020 thriller, ‘Underwater’

The year is 2015, and the end credits have just started rolling on ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens.’ I sit back in my seat, mulling over the first live-action Star Wars film in over a decade, my mind full of questions, so many questions, and few of them good:

*Where did the First Order come from? How did this group that’s supposed to be smaller than the Empire (and possessing a fraction of their resources) get more advanced ships, weapons, and a galaxy-killing planet?

*What’s the political state of the galaxy? How has it changed in the thirty years since the end of ‘The Return of the Jedi?’ Is the New Republic struggling? Has it been successful? Is it on the verge of becoming an empire itself?

*How did Maz somehow get a lightsaber that tumbled into a gas giant, ensuring that no one could possibly retrieve it?

*Why, when faced with a new fleet of space-Nazis, does the New Republic dispatch such a pitifully tiny group to fight it? What happened to all the battleships, cruisers, and destroyers we saw in ‘Return of the Jedi’? Shouldn’t a galactic government have the means to defend itself?

These questions left me frustrated because the film had no interest in answering them. Even more frustrating was that to get answers to many of these questions, I would had to buy tie-in novels, visual dictionaries, and encyclopedias to get answers that should have been in the movie in the first place.

Fast forward to 2020, and the end credits have just started rolling on ‘Underwater,’ an underwater horror-thriller (and the final film released by 20th Century Fox before being rebranded by Disney) in which drillers and researchers struggle to escape from the bottom of the Marianas trench while being attacked by fearsome underwater critters. While you won’t be able to remember the character’s names or any witty dialogue a week later, it’s still a satisfying and enjoyable way to spend 95 minutes. Later, I look online to satisfy my curiosity at any interesting behind-the-scenes trivia and read a few articles, including one promising a major revelation about the big monster who shows up at the end.

A few minutes later, and I’m blown away: It turns out that the big monster in ‘Underwater’ is none other than Cthulhu himself, the most famous character from HP Lovecraft’s fictional mythologies. In an instant, ‘Underwater’ goes from a generic creature flick to a movie about humanity’s first encounter with unspeakably powerful gods who could easily wipe humanity out without any effort.

Since reading that Cthulhu is the main monster of ‘Underwater,’ I’ve come to realize that the movie does one thing ‘The Force Awakens’ failed to do: use its expanded universe not to explain an incomplete story, but to enrich it.

For those who are unaware, expanded universe material is any secondary publication outside of a movie, television, book, or video game that further explores the world and characters of that story. Star Wars is the most famous example, with hundreds of novels, video games, and comics released over the decades that explores its fictional universe, but it’s now common for blockbusters and other big franchises to get expanded universe material of their own.

However, there’s one important thing to remember: Expanded Universe material is meant to enrich and enhance the franchise it’s a part of, not explain away problems that should have been addressed in the original movie, book, video game, comic, or TV show. ‘The Force Awakens,’ tells a story with a beginning, middle, and end, but there are substantial gaps (such as the ones mentioned earlier) that require reading said dictionaries and novels to understand.

Conversely, ‘Underwater,’ is a complete, self-contained movie that uses its expanded universe material to add another layer of depth that’s not in the film. The first time you see it, ‘Underwater’ is about scientists and drillers trying to escape underwater monsters. The second time you see it, it’s a movie about scientists and drillers trying to escape from a demigod, who’s just one of hundreds who have come from a place outside of time and space, all created by an insane god who could destroy everything if it wakes up. Our protagonists live in a world where gods are real, and none of them are our friends.

Yikes.

What does that mean for writers? When we write our stories, our audiences should get all the information they need from following our works instead of having to consult a wiki to understand what’s going on. While it’s fine to leave some mysteries and teases of a larger world in our stories, it’s important that those mysteries don’t come at the expense of the main story, and when a viewer has to do research to understand a story, that story needs help.

Try looking at it another way: Your story is a gourmet dish, and the expanded material is the sauce. If your dish is missing several ingredients, the sauce can’t salvage it. But if your dish is well-made, the sauce enriches and adds onto it, elevating the dish to something truly magnificent.

Favorite Moments: A Balrog Talks

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

One of the biggest advantages licensed video games, books, and comics have is the ability to expand upon a fictional universe, to fill in gaps, holes, or just explore unseen parts of a mythology. Sometimes, though, they can also clarify and add onto that mythology in small, but meaningful ways. With no new books in JRR. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth set to come anytime soon, video games based upon both the films and books have stepped up to allow fans of Tolkien’s universe to continue exploring Arda and uncover its secrets (though how these secrets fit into the established cannon varies considerably).

‘Middle-earth: Shadow of War’ follows Talion, a Gondorian warrior who, after becoming best buddies with a long-dead Elf king out for revenge against Sauron, becomes an half-dead zombie lich thingy after sharing his… oh, whatever. It’s an excuse to run around in Mordor and troll Sauron by killing as many of his orcs as possible. Because this particular game (and it’s predecessor, ‘Shadow of Mordor’) take a loose interpretation of Middle-earth lore (and that’s putting it lightly!), it lets the player fight a balrog. While such moments happen in other Tolkien-licensed games, what sets this encounter apart  is that, for the first time in any piece of Tolkien media – licensed or original – we hear a balrog talk.

For those who are unaware, balrogs are ancient demons who existed before the creation of the physical world in Tolkien’s mythology. But these aren’t mindless brutes: They’re intelligent spirits who joined with Melkor (Tolkien’s Satan) in an attempt to corrupt and destroy everything for the lulz (presumably). However, while they can make noises, such as roars, screams, and yells, the only intelligent speech they give is described in vague terms, such as them giving commands or mocking enemies. ‘Shadow of War’ is the first time where we actually hear one of these demons talking, and while we get subtitles, they’re not translated, leading us to wonder what on earth it’s saying, as best embodied at 8:42 in the video above:

Balrog: Onguk nakhân

Talion: What did he say?!

Celebrimbor: Does it matter?

It’s moments like these that make me appreciate how much expanded universe material can add to a franchise: Here, we get a moment that humanizes (for lack of a better word) a demonic being; in the books and movies, balrogs are incredibly dangerous demons who excell at killing things. Here, one is given a voice, showing that they’re sentient beings who can think, plan, tell knock-knock jokes (unconfirmed), and, presumably, have personalities. That allows us to see balrogs in Tolkien’s works in a new light by letting us imagine what their personalities might be like, adding more depth and layers to Tolkien’s world, as all great expanded universe material does: It doesn’t replace or supersede what’s come before, but adds to it, and makes it more enjoyable than before.

And all of this from a demonic spirit talking. Not bad!

By the way, if you’re curious as to what the balrog is actually saying, one of the game’s developers posted all of its translated speech here. If you’d like to read some debates about Balrogs and their vocal traits, click here.