Once in a while, you come across a moment in a story that is so perfect that it stays in with you for years, or even a lifetime. These are moments that, in my opinion, are flawless; perfect gems of storytelling that cannot be improved in any way, and are a joy to treasure and revisit again and again.
Fedex’s ‘Combat Rangers’ commercial.
Why it’s Perfect
There are some moments in media that beg for deeper explanation, moments that causes us to pause and think deeply on why they move us, prompting lengthy soul-searching in an attempt to better understand ourselves and our desires, our frailties and vices. From such deep prompting, growth and understanding can result, and possibly even enlightenment as we come to understand our place in the cosmos, and what we can do to contribute to it… Or we can just laugh at the sight of muscular toy soldiers going into war wearing tutus and wedding dresses while wielding handbags and umbrellas.
I remember watching this commercial as a kid back in the mid 90’s; back then, I had little comprehension of shipping, manufacturing, and the unseen side of the retail industry, but I didn’t care, as I thought the Combat Rangers were hilarious. Over twenty years later, they still are, and this remains one of my favorite commercials for its use of humor to illustrate what could happen if a mistake is made in shipping goods from overseas. Most of that humor comes from the sheer absurdity of warriors charging into battle wearing attire and weapons so inappropriate it’s absurd, making it an excellent example of ‘fish out of water’ comedy that I love so much: Someone or something taken into a situation that they have no experience or business being in, and doing their best to make it work. In this instance, men dressed in women’s clothing, yet still charging into battle.
To take this idea to it’s logical extreme, imagine how ridiculous, yet hilarious it would be for any modern war movie to have it’s soldiers wearing wedding dresses into combat. ‘Hunter Killer’ may have gotten triple its box office revenue if Gerard Butler and the Navy SEALS were wearing pink ballerina outfits as they battle to save the Russian president. It would be a comedy goldmine.
The very best commercials stay with you years after you’ve seen them, and long after their products have left the market. ‘Combat Rangers’ easily earns its place among those hallowed ads… and I have to confess, that squishy mud sound effect six seconds in never fails to make me laugh.
In your own works, having the president of a country get her/his own action sequences is a surefire way to get the viewer’s attention. The president, by virtue of their office, is going to be an important individual, and also has the underdog value of being someone with no fighting/action skills, and having to go up against dangerous opponents with enormous stakes: if they die or get captured, the country is in big trouble. For bonus points, consider having your president be a historical figure, such as George Washington, Teddy Roosevelt, etc. Who wouldn’t want to see any of them taking on sharknadoes?
Awesome RV’s are always cool.
They rarely show up in fiction outside of zombie stories, but armored RV’s are always cool. What’s not to love about a vehicle that not only has all the comforts of home, but also has enough weapons and armor to take on the toughest monsters? ‘Oh Hell No!’ gets one that allows Nova and Lucas to pursue the latest sharknado threat in relative safety.
In our own stories, armored RV’s offer a lot of flexibility, ranging from van-sized, to bus-sized, and even dual-bus sized. But no matter how you rig them, they tap into the deep-rooted fantasy we all have of wanting to get into action without giving up the comforts of a bed, a kitchen, and so on.
Have someone’s heroic sacrifice show just how determined they are
How far would you go to sacrifice yourself for a cause? Sacrificing your life for something greater than yourself is heroic, but would you still be willing to do it if it was tremendously painful? Poor Lucas has a pretty unpleasant death in ‘Oh Hell No!,’ which finds him struggling to activate the RV’s self-destruct mechanism, only to have his legs and arms ripped off one by one until he finally activates the mechanism by hitting the button with his chin.
While being cruel, having your characters struggle to sacrifice themselves gives your viewers the chance to see just how determined and brave they can be… though if you’re not careful, it can become unintentionally amusing if they keep losing limbs and body parts. (it’s easy to visualize Lucas still trying to hit the button if his head was bitten off).
If your story has an out-there monster, have the military fight it
It’s amazing to think that after six movies, ‘Oh Hell No!’ has the only instance of the United States military taking on a sharknado. But as with Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, part of the fun of this kind of movie is seeing the military fight the beast and fail to defeat it, and a good reminder that seeing determined soldiers fighting goofy monsters to the death is all-but guaranteed to get a laugh from your audience.
Bigger is sometimes better
While previous sharknadoes have affected just a single city (Los Angeles and New York City), ‘Oh Hell No!’ has the fishy menace attack the East Coast of the United States, giving Fin and friends a much tougher task ahead of them: they have to save half a country from being wiped out instead of a single city.
While it’s common for the world to be at stake in disaster movies, ‘Oh Hell No!’ cleverly subverts the trend by only having a large part a country threatened, instead of the entire world. Consider doing the same in your own stories: audiences are so used to having the entire world be threatened that having something smaller and more intimate can feel refreshingly different.
Consider having your monsters run amok in an amusement park of DOOM
What’s more fun than a theme park? Having monsters running amok at a theme park! ‘Oh Hell No!’ features the fun of sharks attacking Universal Studios Orlando, including the last on-screen appearance of the Twister attraction before it was closed down.
The appeal of having monsters attacking a theme park is that they get to run amok among a nearly infinite variety of rides. Who wouldn’t want to see Michael Myers hijacking a bumper car to run people over? Or seeing Jason Vorhees slashing people to bits inside a tunnel of love while riding a swan boat? Or a Predator decapitating drunk partygoers on the steamboat in Disneyland?
Consider having an old timer get to fulfill a dream, but also help others in the process
Much like the baseball player from ‘The Second One,’ ‘Oh Hell No!’ features another older man who finally gets to fulfill a failed dream of heading into space. But what’s interesting in this version is that it’s Fin’s dad, Gil, and that by heading into space, he also is helping to save millions of lives and also be the hero his son always wanted, which allows him to accomplish three things at once.
While it’s satisfying to see someone fulfill a dream, you can make it even better if the character in question gets to help others in in the process.
Consider drafting the boyfriend/girlfriend to fight monsters
A date should be about having fun and enjoying yourself, not taking up arms to fight sharknadoes trying to wipe out humanity, as Claudia’s boyfriend learns when he’s recruited to fight off sharknadoes at NASA to protect the space shuttle.
The advantage of recruiting a boyfriend/girlfriend to fight isn’t that they’re underdogs fighting to survive something they’re not prepared for (unless they happen to have training or experience), but in that their character is revealed in times of extreme stress, which can help their partner decide if they really want to get together with them or not. They might be cowards who run away to save their own skins, or they may be brave, and prove themselves to be a worthy partner.
When you need a memorable finale for your monster movie, and realism isn’t an issue, consider sending your monster into space
When a monster franchise sends its monster into outer space, it’s a sign that the filmmakers have run out of ideas or are no longer taking the franchise seriously, and for good reason: I don’t think you can send an earth-born monster into outer space and not have it be inherently silly, as Jason and the Leprechaun have proved.
Yet, the silliness of outer space carnage can work if your series already thrives on the silly and the absurd, and sending sharks into the cosmos feels like the logical outcome of the ‘Sharknado’ franchise. and gives us the rare sight of man fighting sharks in the final frontier.
While it may be difficult to pull of seriously, sending sending your monsters into space does have the undeniable novelty of seeing said monsters causing havoc in space shuttles, space stations, other planets, etc. If your audience doesn’t groan and give up, they’ll go along just to see what absurdity awaits them.
End with the threat neutralized for good and the hero getting what they want
‘Oh Hell No!’ ends on quite the high note: the storm system that had caused the sharknadoes ihas been neutralized, Earth is safe, and Fin finally has a family of his own. If SyFy had chosen to end the ‘Sharknado’ series with the third film, it would have been a satisfying finale.
In our own stories, consider giving your own protagonist a happy ending and what they’ve wanted all along. It may be a family, a career they’ve dreamed of, or perhaps a new business, or even just the freedom to travel and see the world. It’s a just reward for all their hard work, and a satisfying way to see them begin a new life away from whatever’s been tormenting them.
Avoid ending on a cliffhanger if this is supposed to be the series finale.
With that said, however, ‘Oh Hell No’ does taint its happy ending with having April be squashed by a falling shark from outer space, leaving the viewer to wonder if she survived. While I don’t know if SyFy always intended to continue the series, or if it was a spur-of-the-moment decision to include the cliffhanger, it feels anticlimactic to set everything up as the big finale, only for the film to change its mind at the last second.
While it’s always tempting to leave the door open for more adventures, it’s wiser to wrap your story up instead of leaving a loose thread: it’s always possible to come back to a finished series, but leaving the door open to a sequel that will never happen will always leave viewers wondering what could have happened.
Consider having the president, a boyfriend/girlfriend, and a cool RV help save a country once and for all from a monster with heroic self-sacrifice while the monster/s attack an amusement park and then heads into space before being stopped for good with the help of an older person fulfilling a lifelong dream, thus giving the protagonist what they’ve always wanted, but avoid ending your series finale on a cliffhangar that negates all the emotional investment we’ve had up to this point.
Everyone has a favorite movie, a film you can watch over and over again without ever getting tired of, even after you’ve long memorized all your favorite quotes and scenes. For me, that movie is ‘Attack of the Killer Tomatoes’. I remember watching it as a kid on my parent’s Betamax tapes, fascinated (and a bit scared) at seeing those red, growling balls of doom rolling around killing everyone in sight. From the opening scene to the (unintentional) helicopter crash, to a giant, suited chicken fighting to save San Diego at the climax, it was a mesmerizing spectacle to my young mind. And although the film isn’t as gripping from an adult’s perspective, ‘Tomatoes’ still has a quirky, goofy charm that cannot be denied, and it’s still just as much fun to watch today as it was all those years ago in my parent’s bedroom.
Now, let’s see what storytellers can learn from this tale of vicious vegetables fruit.
Give your audience what they came to see
It’s a solid bet that when people watch ‘Attack of the Killer Tomatoes,’ they’ll want to see tomatoes attacking people. We do get a steady stream of such attacks, but a good part of the film is taken up by subplots of the government trying to cover up the tomato threat, and Lois’ attempts to get a scoop for her paper. These scenes, while having some good jokes (Lois’ out-of-nowhere love for Mason at the ending and the subsequent song is brilliant), slow the film down when they aren’t focused on dealing with the tomatoes. Conversely, every scene of tomatoes attacking, chasing, or eating people are far more interesting (poor Greta’s last stand is a hoot).
When writing our stories, we should consider what our audience expects, and give that to them. If it’s a monster movie, then we need to be vigilant if what we’re writing focuses around that monster, even if they’re not on screen.
Consider have your team of experts be bottom-of-the-barrel numbskulls
Pop quiz: Which do you think is more interesting to watch?
A: A big problem threatens the city/country/planet/universe, and the government sends a team of the best of the best to solve it.
B: A big problem threatens the city/country/planet/universe, and the government sends a bunch of unqualified nobodies who have no idea what they’re doing.
Mason Dixon’s anti-tomato squad, which is in charge of saving the United States from the killer tomatoes, consists of:
*Mason Dixon, a washed-up government agent.
*Wilbur Finletter, a paratrooper who isn’t particularly bright.
*Sam Smith, the world’s worst disguise expert.
*Greg Colburn, an underwater expert who wears his scuba outfit everywhere he goes, even when he’s deployed to the desert.
*Gretta Attenbaum, a Russian Olympic swimmer who is also deployed to the desert.
By being not particularly well-suited to fighting tomatoes, a squad of z-grade agents instantly gets an underdog feel, which helps us root for them. We want to see these people work harder to overcome their underdog status, and it’s more satisfying to see them triumph instead of professionals who know exactly what they’re doing.
The best political jokes are not specific to any administration
Though ‘Tomatoes’ is set firmly in the 70’s, complete with wood panels, garishly bright clothes, avocado-colored walls, and harvest gold-colored bedsheets, it smartly doesn’t include any jokes towards the Jimmy Carter administration, instead choosing to go with mostly generic jokes such as:
*“We’ll never have a president as bad as this one!”
*An investigative committee that doesn’t investigate or accomplish anything.
*An administration that lies about trivial items (such as using public funds to buy fluffy flower print toilet paper).
Few jokes age as fast as political ones, so if you simply must write them, having them not refer to a particular person or administration is the way to go.
If your story has an out-there monster, have the military fight it
It’s natural to assume that when a Monster of Doom arrives in a film, the military will become involved, and inevitably fail. It’s all part of the fun watching the armed forces throwing everything they have at the beast and seeing man’s mightiest weapons amount to nothing. When they fight a scary monster such as Godzilla, the Cloverfield monster, or some other abomination, it’s chilling. But when those weapons fail to defeat a goofy monster? It’s comedy gold.
Thus, it’s no surprise that one of ‘Attack of the Killer Tomatoes’ most memorable sequences is a nighttime battle between the US military and the evil fruits. It’s hilarious seeing the military trying and failing to stop these giant beasts, and a good reminder that seeing determined soldiers fighting goofy monsters to the death is all-but guaranteed to get a laugh from your audience.
Considern summoning everyman heroes to save the day.
In the film’s climax, it’s not the military, law enforcement, or even the government that defeats the tomatoes, but a bunch of random citizens from San Diego (or, as the credits list them, every screwball in the county). Once again, the underdog principle comes into play, as watching ordinary, everyday people step up to save the day is more satisfying, especially when they win. Bonus points for making them a colorful bunch, such as Ms. Potato Famine, the Marx brothers, an Arab Sheikh, and a costumed chicken.
When doing a monster movie (even a parody), try to have an interesting creature, keep the action focused on the monster (even when they’re not on screen) by limiting subplots that don’t involve them, and having unqualified, everyday people battling the creatures will have us more invested in their survival than well-trained experts.