What we can learn from ‘Ator: The Fighting Eagle’

If there’s one film genre the 80’s loved, it was hack-and-slash barbarian fantasy films. There seems to be no end to them, ranging in quality from ‘Conan’ to ‘Yor,’ and ‘Ator, the Fighting Eagle’, a 1982 Italian flick featuring a hunky, muscular, handsome hero out to save a kingdom from an evil ruler who has enslaved the land while wielding a giant sword, facing monsters, and wanting to marry his sister.

Wait, what?

Knowing that ‘Ator’ was chosen as the season finale for the Mystery Science Theater 3000 revival should give you a clue as to its quality: it’s not a very good movie, and aside from the creepy incest vibe, doesn’t do much to stand out among it’s many competitors. Still, it’s good for some chuckles, and has its fair share of lessons for the aspiring writer. So, with that said, let’s take a look at what it has to offer.

If you include a prologue, keep it brief

Read any writing how-to book, article, or opinion piece, and you’ll be told again and again to avoid prologues, AKA, dumping mountains of backstory and info on the audience. It’s solid advice, but, surprisingly, ‘Ator’ does a good job with its prologue. While cliched (a kingdom has been enslaved and a Chosen One will be born one day to set it free), it sets up the story quickly. But, more importantly, the prologue only gives us the most critical information:

*A land is enslaved by an evil force

*A child will be born to free it.

That’s it. Nothing about bloodlines, the kingdom’s history, how the land was formed, the various gods, religion, etc.

In our own stories, a prologue should be as bare-bones as possible. Keep it brief, tell your audience only what’s relevant to the story’s main problem, and save more background information for later in the story. Some great examples of well-done prologues include Disney’s ‘Beauty and the Beast’, New Line’s ‘Lord of the Rings’, and any of the Star Wars movies.

Be extra-careful including incest in your story

In a field as crowded as barbarian fantasy, ‘Ator’ stands out in a way it probably didn’t intend: by having the main character wanting to marry his sister. Thankfully, they’re not biologically related, but it leaves a creepy vibe that no amount of cute bear cub footage can get rid of, as Ator himself spends the movie fighting to save said sister so they can presumably become husband and wife.

In our own stories, there’s no topic that’s off-limits, but some should be handled very delicately, if at all, and incest is one of them. While the subject itself can be a topic for great drama and conflict (a married couple accidentally finds out that they’re brother and sister and has to deal with that, and the fact that they’ve had kids), how it’s handled is vitally important, and I think there’s two ways to do so:

1. You present the subject matter as a tool to tell a story.

2. You present the subject matter as something you want others to accept.

The first route, I believe, is safer. One memorable episode of the British TV series, ‘New Tricks’ featured a business owner who forced his sister to have an abortion after they had sex. The show didn’t endorse the act, instead using it as the catalyst for the episode’s mystery. Conversely, ‘Ator’ feels like it’s trying to say that incest is okay, even going so far as to reveal that Ator’s ancestors used to allow brothers and sisters to marry each other, making the film almost feel like a pro-incest propaganda piece. That can’t be what the movie intended, but it proves the value of being cautious in how controversial subjects are addressed.

Avoid having a random events plot

Much like ‘Wizards of the Lost Kingdom,’ most of ‘Ator’ feels like filler to kill time. Ator being seduced by a temptress, running away from random warriors in a foggy forest, and having his partner be trapped in a cave feel like time-killers that were put in without much consideration as to how they would tie into Ator’s quest to save his sister and the kingdom.

In our own stories, keeping all the events that happen in your story related to main quest/plot subtly tells your audience that you know where you’re going, and they’re more likely to hang around to see what’s going to happen. While it’s okay to occasionally have a random action sequence that doesn’t affect the plot in any way (such as the unique fight between Ator and a shadow), those should be the exception, rather than the rule. Action for the sake of action may be enjoyable for a short time, but it will quickly wear off its welcome when the audience realizes they’re not any closer to the story’s resolution.

Consider having the mentor betray the main character/s

Probably my favorite twist in Ator’s story comes near the end, when, having slain the leader of the spider cult, Ator is betrayed by his mentor Griba, who reveals that he only helped Ator so he could reclaim his position as the cult’s high priest.

We don’t see mentors betray their charges all that often in fiction – they can be mean, yes, and downright cruel, but they still want their students to succeed. But to betray them is rare, and gives writers a great opportunity to have the student fight the mentor, and use everything they’ve learned – and a few tricks they’ve picked up on their own – to win.

When people lose their loved ones, make sure they grieve

At the very end of the film, Ator’s companion, Roon, dies of her injuries after fighting off spider cult goons, but not before getting a chance to say farewell to Ator. It would have been a touching moment… had not the very next shot (and the last one of the film) been Ator and Sunya cheerfully running through a forest with big smiles on their faces, seemingly forgetting that Roon ever existed. While it’s natural for Ator to be ecstatic at having rescued his sister, an additional scene of him mourning Roon, or laying her to rest would have allowed him to give her some closure and a chance to honor and respect her memory before heading off.

Because of how final it is (at least, in real life), death shouldn’t be treated lightly when it comes to your story’s main characters. If one of them dies, have the others mourn. If there’s no time to do so (they’re being chased by giant spiders, for example), then have them mourn later, or, at the least, miss the presence of those they’ve lost. Otherwise, you run the risk of making the dead character feel like a throwaway piece of the scenery who aren’t worth remembering.

An Alternate Universe version of ‘Ator: The Fighting Eagle’ that learned from its mistakes

A brief prologue tells us about the prophecy of a child who will be born to save his kingdom from enslavement at the hands of a spider cult. Years later, that child, Ator, having fallen in love with a girl from his village, sets out on a quest to save her after she’s kidnapped by the cult’s leader. Along the way, he takes his bear-cub companion, meets up with an Amazon warrior named Roon, and works to build up his fighting skills with his mentor, Griba, and acquire weapons that will help him defeat the spider cult, while fighting off various challenges the cult’s leader sends his way (a seductive enchantress, a village paid-off to capture him, undead warriors the leader raises, etc.), defeating each one and growing stronger.

Finally reaching the cult’s temple, Ator uses all his skills to defeat the cult’s leader, only to be betrayed by Griba, who only helped Ator so he could reclaim his place as the cult’s leader. Using everything he’s learned, Ator barely manages to defeat him, kill the cult’s spider-god, and save his girlfriend. However, Roon is fatally wounded and dies. Mourning her, Ator buries her on a beautiful hillside and vows never to forget her for the help she gave him.

With his beloved as his side, Ator returns home, having freed his kingdom and found the love of his life.

What we can learn from ‘Sharknado 5: Global Swarming’

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Last week, we took a look at… You know what, you know the drill by now.

1. Consider making the backstory behind your monster something your audience won’t expect

For the first four films, the Sharknado series has stuck with the idea that the sharknadoes are an entirely natural phenomenon. ‘Global Swarming’ bucks that trend by revealing that sharknadoes are actually a supernatural phenomenon caused by a shark god that humanity has fought in the past, and defeated. In as serious series, this would be pretty far-fetched, but the dopey nature of the Sharknado series makes this a plausible twist that retroactively paints the series as humanity’s latest fight against a supernatural menace trying to wipe us out, giving the series a bigger feel, in that there’s more going on beyond what we see in the films.

2. Give your character/s a good reason to chase after the monster.

One of the hardest hurtles to overcome in monster movie sequels is giving the hero a valid reason to chase after a monster that any sane person would run away from. ‘Global Swarming’ is one of the few monster sequels I’ve seen that gives the leads a legitimate and logical reason to do so: Finn and April’s son have been sucked by a sharknado that can teleport around the globe, forcing them to give chase in order to save him. Thus, they’re not motivated by greed, revenge, or wanting to destroy the menace once and for all, but to save a loved one, a motive that everyone can relate to and understand.

3. Take advantage of exotic locations, but make sure they advance the story

Where the four previous Sharknado films took place entirely within the United States (and outer space), ‘Global Swarming’ finally takes the toothy menace across the globe, including England, Switzerland, Italy, Australia, Japan, and Egypt. Predictably, this allows the film to poke fun at the various attractions at each location, the most enjoyable of which is Finn leading the charge to save the Queen at Buckingham Palace, a brief sojourn in Africa where we have lions vs sharks, and the statue of Christ the Redeemer literally giving Finn and April a hand as they continue to try and save their son.

However, when your characters go to exotic locations, make sure their adventures advance the story: ‘Global Swarming’s sequence in Switzerland, which features a steampunk zeppelin and lots of skiing and dog mushing, feels like padding. While an action sequence may have plenty of cool-looking action, if it doesn’t advance the story or characters, it will ultimately be padding. Cool-looking padding, but padding nonetheless.

3. Consider giving a long-running sidekick a less-than-honorable motivation (and then let them redeem themselves)

Nova’s role in the Sharknado series is to be the action girl unfettered by a family or loved ones beyond Finn, and ‘Global Swarming’ puts her in command of the Sharknado Sisters, a cavort group dedicated to wiping out sharknadoes. But then it’s revealed that what Nova wants is pure revenge: to kill every shark on earth, even if she has to give up on rescuing Finn’s son, Gil. Considering that sharks killed her grandfather and nearly ate her, it’s understandable that Nova would want to kill an entire species, but such a revelation retroactively makes her a darker character.

However, the movie does give her redemption and the chance to balance out her bloodlust: Nova is the reason Gil gets sucked into the sharknado, and she tries to save him in Tokyo, but fails and dies, but not before reconciling with Finn and April, proving that when it comes to redemption quests, the effort of just trying is just as important as if the character succeeds or not.

5. When all else fails, throw in an athlete using his/her skills to help save the day

Is your story sagging by the middle of the second act? Are you trying and failing to find a way to sustain your audience’s interest? Why not try throwing in a random cameo by an athlete using their skills to help save the day? In a film filled with sharks in tornadoes attacking multiple countries, the pope giving out laser-firing chainsaws, and ancient shark gods, the most random moment may be Tony Hawk appearing out of nowhere in Australia and using his skateboarding skills to help fully transform the Sidney Opera House into an anti-sharknado weapons platform. Does it make any sense? Not really. But it is memorable and amusing to see him use skateboarding to help fight a sharknado, similar to how Gymkata features an Olympic gymnast defeating bad guys with gymnastics and conveniently placed horizontal bars and pommel horses in city plazas and alleyways.

6. When introducing an evil organization/villain, give them some motivations and goals

When in Brazil, Finn and April learn more about the ancient artifact that can be used to control sharknadoes. But it isn’t long before a shady man sneaks in and steals it, prompting an inter-continental chase to Rome where Finn takes on the bad guy and gets the artifact back. However, this man’s appearance feels almost like an afterthought: he appears without any foreshadowing, and is dispatched quickly a few minutes later without having any real effect on the story, aside from getting Finn and April to Rome. I got the impression that he’s part of an evil organization that wants to control sharknadoes, but this story idea is never pursed or given any development.

While it’s acceptable to have antagonists appear suddenly in stories to accost and badger our protagonists, it’s important to give the reader some sense of who they are and what they want. Even if they have the coolest looks, the baddest weapons, and the most awesome equipment, it’s still important to give them a motivation, rather than being a random goon who leaves as quickly as he or she appears.

7. Dramatic moments have a heavier impact in comedy

‘Global Swarming’ starts off like all the previous Sharknado films, focusing on jokes, goofy and outlandish attacks, and the like. But when the film gets into its third act, it takes a sudden turn into the dramatic: Nova fails to save Gil from the sharknado and dies; Fin’s entire family is killed by sharknadoes, and then the film kills not only April, but everyone else on Earth, leaving Finn the world’s sole survivor. And there’s no comedy or jokes to any of these scenes: they’re all played straight, resulting in what may be the most emotionally effective moments in any Scyfi/Asylum film to date.

What makes these moments effective is how unexpected they are; we, the audience, watch comedies to laugh and feel good, which makes the sudden introduction of drama and death catches us off guard. It’s one thing to watch characters die in dramas and thrillers; we expect it. Having a dramatic moment in a comedy and not playing it for laughs will get people’s attention because of how unexpected it is.

8. When people lose their loved ones, make sure they grieve

While ‘Global Swarming’s dramatic moments are effective, I couldn’t help but feel that Finn and April don’t grieve enough when they learn that their entire family is dead, especially when Finn hears his older son die on the phone while talking to him. Such an event should drive them to their knees and crush their spirits, and the only reason they could even go on is fueled purely by wanting to get revenge on the sharks, with all thoughts of saving humanity thrown aside.

When your character’s loved ones die, make sure we see them grieve. The struggle of having to go on even when all they want to do is collapse makes us sorry for them, yet we can admire them for continuing on after going through what is arguably the most traumatic thing a human can ever experience.

9. When you have a downer ending, strongly consider having a ray of hope

‘Global Swarming’ ends with everyone on Earth dead except for Finn. Had the film ended there, it would have the most shocking ending in the series to date. However, there is a faint thread of hope as he meets – thanks to time travel shenanigans – his now grown son and heads back in time to save everyone else.

In fiction, downer endings are pretty much guaranteed to stay with people long after the story is over, for both good or ill. While they are memorable because they go against the expectation of having a happy ending, or, at least, a bittersweet one, there’s also no escaping the fact that they’re depressing, making it hard to come back to the story again and again. However, if the characters, and the reader, have the smallest thread of hope that things will get better, that can transform a terrible situation into one where the audience will remember your story even more fondly than if there is no hope.

The Takeaway:

When doing a sequel in your monster series, consider exploring an unexpected background behind the monsters while taking advantage of traveling to exotic locations in pursuit of the monster for a noble goal, while making sure those travels contribute to the plot; along the way, make sure villains get some motivations and goals when they appear, and have your characters react realistically to losing everyone they love, and if your story has a downer ending, leaving a thread of hope that things will get better will go a long way to satisfying your audience.

Note: Due to missing ‘Sharknado 6: It’s About Time’s broadcasts, and that the film is not yet available on DVD or streaming, my critique of the film will have to wait until it is available. Until then, the series-wide analysis is on hold.