I know Kung-Fu: A look at the duels in the Matrix Saga – Part 5

Last week, we took a look at the two duels featured in ‘The Animatrix,’ and today we’ll look at the only two duels in the final film of the Matrix franchise, ‘The Matrix Revolutions.” But as the old saying goes, quality is better than quantity, and in my opinion, these two duels are among the best in the series.

Neo vs Smith in Real Life

Emotional Context: Neo fights to keep Smith from killing both him and Trinity before they can reach the Machine City and end the war between man and machine.

Analysis: After the spectacle of tightly-choreographed duels in ‘Reloaded’, ‘Enter’ and ‘The Animatrix,’ the first duel in ‘Revolutions’ is surprisingly brutal: Neo or Smith, unable to use their otherwordly abiliites, try to kill each other with whatever they can get their hands on, whether it be their fists, the walls, or power cables. This brutality leads to Smith’s face being coated in blood, poor Neo having his eyes burned out, and ending with Smith’s head being bashed into bloody chunks.

What sets this duel apart from any other in the series is its brutality and horror atmosphere: Neo and Trinity are trapped inside a tiny hovercraft in the abandoned sewer tunnels of humanity’s old cities, miles from help. They’re initially outmatched and outsmarted by Smith, and if they fail to stop him, both humanity and the machines are doomed. And when the fighting begins, there’s no fancy martial arts and no elegant, dance-like fight choreography: Neo can’t fly, stop bullets, effortlessly jump around, or tirelessly fight off hundreds of opponents. Smith can’t dodge bullets, punch through concrete, or otherwise use any of the powers he normally has. Both are evenly matched,  and fancy moves are thrown aside in favor of banging faces against walls, throwing punches as hard as possible, and trying to choke Smith to death, followed by Neo getting an eyeful (haha) of exposed power cables. It’s a visceral example of how brutal fights can be more memorable than fancy ones.

Yet, for how dark and grim this duel is, it smartly lightens the mood by having Neo – having sacrificed his eyes – gain the ability to see the energy put out by machines, allowing him to kill Smith… and even crack a joke to Trinity about how she’ll need to drive, ending an otherwise deadly serious fight with some much-welcomed levity.

The Super Burly Brawl

Emotional Context: Neo faces Smith one final time to stop him from destroying both humanity and the machines.

Analysis: And so, after four years, we finally come to the final confrontation of the Matrix series, the final showdown between Neo and Smith that would decide the fate of Earth and everyone – mechanical or organic – who lived upon it. And like any climax, ‘Revolutions’ holds nothing back in giving us a spectacle worthy for the ages, featuring:

*A fight that will decide whether good or evil will prevail

*A battle at night in the rain

*A fight that spans multiple locations

*Superpowers

*Gigantic sonic booms.

In terms of sheer spectacle, the Super Burly Brawl has no equal in the Matrix saga, both in fighting, and emotional weight: Neo’s fighting to stop Smith from destroying everyone and everything. If he fails, then not only will every single human on earth die, but so will every single machine. That gives every moment where he falters or stumbles dramatic weight, because the consequences of failure are so high. Yet, even as the fight gives us awesome, god-like beings fighting (to one of the most incredible fight scores I’ve ever heard), it does something so many of these series-ending fights rarely do: it has the good guy fail. In what may be the biggest twists in the series, Neo loses the climactic fight. All of his powers, all of his skills, all of the gifts he’s been given as The One aren’t enough to save him.

When I first saw ‘Revolutions,’ I loved seeing Smith and Neo beating the tar of out of each other. But when Neo fell from the sky, and was subsequently beaten into the mud, I was shocked. That wasn’t supposed to happen! Neo’s the good guy, the savior of humanity! He couldn’t lose! I was gripped, trying to figure out on how on earth Neo could still win; after all, lots of protagonists get beaten to a pulp, yet still manage to achieve victory at the last second. But not here. Neo’s beaten so badly that he can barely stand, and then lets himself be absorbed and killed. I was stunned… and then (like so many other fans) spent the next few weeks trying to figure out what happened when all those Smiths exploded.

What makes the final battle of the Matrix saga so good is that it delivers not only spectacle, and emotional weight, but also subverts expectations by having Neo lose, gripping audiences as they try to figure how how he can turn things around in his favor. Then it subverts them even further by having Neo sacrifice himself to let the machines delete Smith through him, showing that a protagonist that lose a battle, but win a war in the process. There’s more than one way to victory, and it isn’t always the path of beating an opponent to a bloody pulp.

And so, with Neo’s sacrifice, we’ve finally finished looking at all the duels in the Matrix saga… Well, almost. Come back next week, where we’ll take a look at one last duel in the series, which may be the most satisfying… and one of the most unique.

What we can learn from ‘Sharknado 3: Oh Hell No!’

 

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Last week, we took a look at the second film in the Sharknado franchise. Now let’s see what happens when sharks head into outer space!

Teaming up with the president is always cool

In real life, presidents almost never get to do anything other than giving speeches and sign paperwork. But in fiction, they have the chance to hop in fighter jets and take on aliens, take on terrorists who have taken over Air Force One, and fight vampires/zombies. In ‘Oh Hell No!’ Fin joins forces with the President of the United States to defend the White House from an attacking sharknado, both of them getting to fire guns and take out sharks before fleeing as the White House is destroyed by the Washington Monument.

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.

The Takeaway

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.

What we can learn from ‘The Ritual’ (the film)

TheRitualFilmHeading

Last week, we took a look at the book version of ‘The Ritual.’ Today, let’s take a look at the film adaptation and see what writers can learn from the big (small?) screen version of the novel:

Consider starting your story with a lighthearted touch, then immediately shifting to horror

‘The Ritual’ begins with Luke and the others (and newcomer Rob) having a typical guy’s night out with drinks, joking, and taking in a city’s nightlife. I first thought it was going to be a predictable scene of the group wanting to get away from their boring lives, but was quickly proven wrong when Luke and Rob stumble into a robbery, and Rob is killed. Only then does the film cut to the outskirts of Sweden’s Forest of Death six months later.

The brilliance of this sequence is how it plays with our expectations: We expect it to be another buddy-movie opening, but by then shifting into horror, it grabs our attention like a slap to the face. Consider doing the same subversion in your story: while the first part risks having the viewer say, ‘Oh great, not another cliched opening,’ the unexpected always gets their attention, letting them know that this isn’t going to turn out the way they think.

Consider having your characters learn to overcome fear

It’s standard advice for writers to have characters change and grow throughout their stories, giving readers the sense that their heroes are capable of learning and growing from both triumph and failure. But what kind of arc should they have? Here, Luke’s arc takes him from being a coward (not helping Rob when he’s being beaten by thugs), to learning to face fear (in this instance, a forest god who will turn you into a flayed flesh-flag if you don’t worship her).

One advantage of having your character learning to stand up for themselves is that everyone can relate to it. Who among us hasn’t felt small and afraid when faced with bullies, angry parents, or enraged employers? And who hasn’t felt the elation of finally standing your ground and fighting back? Having your characters do the same is almost guaranteed to be a fist-pumping, ‘hell yeah!’ moment because we know the struggle it takes to get to that point.

(In all fairness, though, you can’t blame Luke for not stepping in to help in the market; a glass bottle wouldn’t do much against two thugs who aren’t afraid to kill to get what they want.)

Consider having the victim make everything worse for everyone else

After injuring his knee early in the hike, Dom wants nothing more than to get out of the forest. But while his pig-headed stubbornness to get out as quickly as possible is understandable and relatable, it has the side effect of leading almost everyone else to their doom. Had the group just turned back, they probably would have gotten out of the forest alive. Such a contrast creates mixed emotions for your audience: they can sympathize with the victim who just wants to live, but also be angry at him/her for making things worse for everyone else by refusing to listen to reason.

Consider having a small mystery that’s never solved

About halfway through ‘The Ritual,’ Luke and the others find an abandoned tent that belonged to Anna Erikson, a woman who went missing in 1984. While this mystery is never solved, it does engage our imagination: What happened to Anna? Did she escape the forest? Did Moder kill her? Or did she join the cult and worship Moder? It may be possible that the villager who explains to Luke who Moder is Anna. Either way, the ambiguity behind the mystery helps reinforce the fact that Moder has been active for a very long time.

It’s important to note that this mystery is a small one, and not important to the plot. Had it been the main focus of the story, where Luke and the others heading to the forest to find this woman, then it would need to be solved.

Consider hearing something horrible instead of seeing it

It’s common to hear a monster in a creature feature long before it’s seen, and for good reason: Hearing an unearthly beast allows the reader’s/viewer’s imaginations to run wild, and making them lean close the screen or the page in hopes of catching even the smallest glimpse of the monster. However, using sound instead of visuals can also be effective in many other situations. In ‘The Ritual,’ it’s used to chilling effect when Phil is dragged upstairs where we hear him shrieking. We don’t see what’s going on, which makes us wonder what’s terrifying him so much. Torture devices? Other captives who fought back and were mutilated? A big, fat, naked man trying to seduce him?

By leaving something unseen, even if it’s not a monster, you can turbocharge your audience’s imagination… and make their skin crawl as they debate whether they want to see the unseen horror or not.

Consider having your characters sacrifice something for their freedom

In many stories where a character has to escape a location (a cell, a locked room, etc.) they manage to get out of their restraints without any pain. But if you want to turn up the tension, and make your audience squirm, consider having your characters sacrifice something to achieve that freedom. Here, Luke has to sacrifice his thumb by breaking it in order to free himself from his bindings.

Part of fiction’s appeal is imagining ourselves in the place of our heroes and imagining us accomplishing what they do, escaping from impossible situations included. Why not make them squirm by having them wonder if they’d be able to sacrifice a body part to escape. Would they be willing to break their arm? Lose an ear? How about an eye?

Consider having your final confrontation be a battle of wills, not physical strength

In my opinion, the most interesting thing ‘The Ritual’ changes from the book is the final showdown between Luke and Moder. In the book’s climax, the two collide in a van, and Luke drives her off with a pocketknife. Here, however, Moder tries to force Luke to worship her, presumably so she can continue to live from the strength of his prayers. In a physical fight, Luke is no match for Moder, but she’s in a difficult situation: if she kills Luke, she loses her last chance of getting a follower. Thus, Luke finally gains his resolve and refuses to kneel. And thanks to an axe-to-the-face moment, he manages to defeat Moder: not by killing her, but by leaving her powerless, alone, and trapped in a prison she cannot leave.

It’s a fascinating twist on the standard climax of having hero and monster fight in a duel to the death. Here, both parties survive, but Luke is still the winner. ‘The Ritual’ is proof that not every confrontation needs to involve weapons, fists, and pitting strength against strength. Sometimes the most amazing duels are fought with words and wills, where even the weakest in body can stand up to the biggest of bullies.

The takeaway

When writing a story about monsters, a good way to quickly suck viewers in is to start off with a familiar plot, only to quickly swerve into horror territory, setting up a story where the main character has to learn to stand up for himself and face his fears while dealing with injured companions who make things worse for everyone due to their stubbornness, creepy mysteries that they’ll never solve, unseen horrors that he doesn’t want to face, enduring great pain to gain freedom from captivity, and facing the beast and defeating it with courage and their will instead of weapons and strength.

BONUS: When all else fails, punch the evil old woman