What we can learn from ‘Let’s Go’

Armageddon. Ragnarok. The end of all things. Almost every culture and mythology has its version of the moment when everything ends and the human race is wiped out.

But what if someone survived?

A few days ago, I came across the above music video, which tells the story of a Chinese astronaut who devotes his life to making it to the Moon, only for it to be all for nothing. Though only a little over three minutes long, it’s a gripping story, so let’s take a look and see what it does well.

You audience admires determined, focused characters

Though he gets no lines, or even a name, the astronaut in the video gets our attention thanks to his strength of will: Thanks to a very efficient montage, we see him devoting everything to accomplishing his dream of getting on the Moon, sacrificing joy, happiness, or even love. Yet, we still root for him to succeed: How many of us wish we could devote every waking moment of our lives to accomplishing our dreams? Sadly, many of us can’t, which makes us envious and (begrudgingly) admiring of those who can. The same goes for fictional characters. Perhaps your character wants to become president, or go into outer space, or win a spelling bee. Seeing them striving to accomplish a dream makes for compelling drama as they learn whether their dream is really worth everything they’re sacrificing.

It’s important to note that determined, focused characters don’t need to be heroes. Consider the T-800 and the T-1000 in the first two Terminator films, Sauron from ‘The Lord of the Rings,’ and the Thing from the 1982 Universal film of the same name: All three have solid, achievable goals (kill John Conner, take over the world, and take over the world by assimilating everyone on it), and stop at nothing to achieve those goals. Both antagonists and protagonists benefit from laser-like focus, and when their strength of wills clash, it can make for some of the most compelling drama ever put to page or screen. Need proof? Consider Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader in ‘Return of the Jedi’: The former wants to redeem his fallen father, and the latter wants to convert him to the dark side. Neither will budge, and their duel of wits becomes what is arguably the most dramatic sequence of any Star Wars film:

Consider exploring what would happen to the lone survivor of a world-ending event

What would you do if the world was destroyed, and you were the only survivor? What would you do? How would you live? Would you even try to, or let yourself succumb to despair and throw yourself out the airlock? In the case of the music video, the astronaut realizes that what really mattes to him most is achieving his second chance of experiencing love, and he stops at nothing to make it happen.

While destroying the world shouldn’t be done lightly in any medium, doing so has the advantage of forcing a character to confront reality without all the masks that they put up to protect themselves from other people and society at large. Do they go nuts and indulge their every whim? Succumb to despair and meaninglessness? Or do they defy the odds and refuse to give in, searching for others who might have survived, or chronicling everything for whatever sapient life form comes after them? There are countless possible answers, and wanting to see what happens to isolated, vulnerable characters will keep an audience engaged in our stories.

Consider having your character escape/navigate/survive the fallout from a world-ending event

When something big – like a building, a city, or a planet – is destroyed, it creates a lot of debris and wreckage. In some situations, it gives us an opportunity for a unique action scene of characters having to escape said debris. ‘Let’s Go’ has the astronaut fighting to reach the space station before it gets out of reach, but to do so, he has to go through a debris field consisting of wreckage from Earth, making it extremely difficult for him to reach his goal, and with the promise of certain death if he fails.

When writing our own stories, having to navigate the ruins of a wrecked mega-structure can lead to some exciting action scenes that we don’t get to write very often. If the opportunity arises, embrace them and milk them for all they’re worth. One of my favorite examples comes from 2016’s ‘Independence Day: Resurgence,’ in which David Levinson and friends have to dodge falling debris sucked up from all over the Earth that subsequently rains down on London.

Consider having your character/s decide to accept death and pass the time as best they can

In disaster movies, it’s very common for the survivors and main characters to either find a way to stop the disaster, or start rebuilding afterwords, hopeful and upbeat that one day, things can return to normal.

But what if they couldn’t? What if they had no chance at all of rebuilding, or surviving, and death is inevitable?

One type of story we don’t see too much of these days is the disaster story where there’s no way for the characters to survive in the long run. It’s easy to understand why: Audiences want a happy ending, or a hopeful one. A story where everyone is going to die, won’t leave them feeling good after leaving the theater, closing the book, or turning off the game console. But if we choose this path, writers have a unique opportunity to explore what characters might do if they only have a little time left to live. Will they weep? Try to make peace with their god? Resolve any lingering conflicts with their loved ones? Or will they accept it and try to have fun before the end? Both astronauts choose the last option in ‘Let’s Go,’ deciding to play video games together as they drift off into the void.

Choosing the path of inevitable death need not be dark. It can be sad, but it also gives characters one more chance to enjoy themselves, or to choose how they will spend what little time they have left. And if they go out having fun, or healing long-simmering hurts, that can be just as uplifting as a happy ending.

The Takeaway

Our audience will always admire a protagonist or antagonist who has a goal and obsessively pursues it, even at a cost of personal happiness. They’ll be even more interested if that individual is the only survivor of a world-ending event, and applies that determination to surviving or continuing on, no matter how bad things get. But if they are doomed, those characters can become their most interesting selves when they have to decide how to spend what little time they have left.

What we can learn from: ‘Atlantic Rim’

 

There’s an old saying that there’s nothing new under the sun. Hollywood does its best to fulfill that saying by copying itself year after year, remaking movies, following whatever trend is hot, and generally retelling, recycling, repackaging, and telling the same stories decade after decade.

And then there are the ripoffs.

For years now, the Asylum has specialized in making a seemingly endless amount of ‘mockbusters’ designed to cash in on whatever hit movie is in theaters at the time. Typically made on an impossibly tiny budget and rushed into production, the end result is rarely good, but every so often you can get an amusing gem that manages to entertain despite its grade-Z production values.

‘Atlantic Rim’ is not one of those movies.

In the pantheon of Asylum films, ‘Atlantic Rim’ is strictly in the middle: It’s not horrible, but not great either, with scenes that don’t add anything to the story, plenty of mindless fighting, and three robots whacking a monster with giant robot melee weapons for what feels like fifteen minutes before realizing that it isn’t working. Still, there are a few good lessons to be found here, so let’s suit up in duct-tape covered wetsuits robot control suits and take a look.

Consider having your reckless character actually face consequences for his/her actions

Mech pilot Red Watters (yes, that’s his name) is your typical hot-blooded, reckless military maverick who is the best at what he does, but goes his own way without respecting the chain of command. However, unlike many other mavericks, Red is arrested after going on his initial mission in ‘Atlantic Rim,’ and destroying a lot of property and lives, earning him a trip to the brig instead of begrudging praise from those higher up on the command chain.

In our own stories, having a military maverick actually face consequences for their actions tells our audience that the characters in your story expect competence and don’t fool around. While it’s fine to bend the rules in fiction, it can be more surprising to see them strictly enforced.

Avoid having characters describe what just happened to other characters

Shortly after Red defeats the first monster, he happily tells Tracy and Jim what just happened, gleefully describing his exploits. While it’s logical to tell others what they couldn’t have seen, we, the audience, saw the events described, making the scene redundant and eating up screen time that could have been devoted to something more interesting.

When faced with needing to inform other characters in our own stories about events that have happened, the best option is to either have said characters be told off-screen, or saying something like, ‘It only took a few minutes for Carl to breathlessly tell the others about the dangers he had faced, and what they would be soon going up against.’

Consider poking fun at love-triangle cliches

Near the end of ‘Atlantic Rim’s second act, Red, Tracy, and Jim are celebrating and drinking in a bar (despite not having done anything to stop the latest monster attack), when Tracy and Jim nervously tell Red that they kissed each other, making us think that we’re going to be subjected to a late-game love triangle… only to have Red laugh and brush it off, revealing that he doesn’t care. Moments later, the three set off to save New York, and the love triangle is never seen or heard from again.

Love triangles may be among the most irritating story conventions to be found in fiction, especially where they aren’t wanted or needed, which makes ‘Atlantic Rim’ s take on the matter refreshing. Doing the same in our own works will tell our audiences that we know how annoying these triangles are, and that we aren’t going to subject them to one.

Consider having your missing thing be used as a weapon by the monster

Tell me if you’ve seen this before: A well-equipped group is searching for a monster (or in territory where there are monsters) and one of their distant vehicles or team members suddenly goes silent. It’s all too common for everyone else to suffer the same fate moments later, but I like how ‘Atlantic Rim’ handles this tripe: A submarine goes silent while hunting for an undersea monster, and the aircraft carrier in command of a naval fleet tries to get in touch with them, only for the submarine to be then thrown from the water into the carrier, sinking it.

Aside from the visceral thrill of seeing two huge vehicles slam into one another, having your monster/villain throw their prey back at those who are looking for him/her/it can be a great moment to show that the monster is more than just a dumb brute: By throwing their prey back, they can show intelligence by using it to destroy something else, demoralize others by taunting them, or humor, as if saying, ‘Oh, looking for this? Okay, here you go!’

When all else fails, throw your enemies into space

After what feels like 15 minutes of whacking the final monster with melee weapons, Red realizes that such tactics aren’t going to defeat it. So, what does he do? Ram the beast, fly it into the atmosphere, and eject it into outer space (where it explodes). It’s a simple but effective method, as hurling your enemy into outer space is a nearly foolproof way of getting rid of them for good. After all, space is really big, and once your enemy is thrown into it (presumably without any rockets, jet packs, or engines), they have nothing to grab onto, ensuring that they can’t come back.

The Takeaway:

When your story has an egomaniac military maverick, have them face serious consequences for their actions, while also avoiding love triangles, not having one character tell others what we’ve already seen, having the monster of the story use a missing object/individual as a weapon to showcase their intelligence, and then defeat that monster for good by hurling it into the void of space.

Favorite Moments: The most sensible thing anyone has ever done in a horror movie

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.

***

The Movie

‘Event Horizon’ (1997)

The Scene

Why it’s Great

How often do we watch horror films and watch characters make decisions that lead to death, suffering and misery?

“Wow, dead bodies! Let’s keep going into this dark, spooky house and see what killed these people!”

“Oh my gosh, everyone’s been torn apart in this secret laboratory full of genetically modified animals! We’d better explore and find out what happened!”

“Oh cool, a gateway to an incredibly dangerous dimension full of horrors that will rip our souls apart! Let’s go through! For science!

My guess is pretty often, which makes it a treat whenever we see characters who, upon seeing death, horror, and downright hellish situations, say, ‘Nope’, turn around, and get out of the area as fast as humanly possible, and ‘Event Horizion’ is one of the rare films that does it. Even better, it’s the leader who’s doing it, and who then delivers the following line:

Weir: You can’t just leave her!

Miller: I have no intention of leaving her, Dr. Weir. I plan to take the Lewis and Clark to a safe distance and then launch TAC missiles at her until I am satisfied the Event Horizon has been vaporized. Fuck this ship!

Of course, that plan doesn’t work out, but it’s still a treat to see an authority figure acting reasonably in a horror film. And if Miller had succeeded, we would have gotten a much happier ending:

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

 

Sharknado3cover

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.

Just for Fun: ‘The Ritual’ sequels we’ll never get (that would be awesome)

Imagine for a moment that you’ve published a best-selling book, or have had one of your screenplays adapted into a blockbuster film. You’re now the darling of the literary world/Hollywood’s hottest author. The people are clamoring for your next masterpiece, and you have a choice to make: Do you write a new, original story, or do you write a sequel to the tale that has brought in enough money for you to buy a luxury yacht that would make Jeff Bezos jealous? (Don’t we wish?)

Let’s pretend that after the success of ‘The Ritual’s film adaptation, a franchise is born: Action figures, licensed sleepwear, coloring books, and a child’s cartoon show all are produced to satisfy the public’s need for more tales of Moder and Luke’s adventures, along with more movies! But what would those sequels look like? If history tells us anything about franchises, it’s that, no matter how great they are to begin, they will inevitably decline in quality over time as creators, having gone past the story’s natural ending point, resort to increasingly outlandish plots to attract viewers.

With that in mind, let’s theorize how some of those outlandish sequels to ‘The Ritual’ might be. Here are my guesses:

The Rituals

After barely escaping from Moder with his life, Luke makes a vow never to return to those accursed woods. But when dozens of campers go missing, the United States hires Luke as an adviser to a group of Marines heading in to free the campers, and he must one again face the terror in the woods.

The Third Ritual

Ten years have passed since Luke and the Marines defeated Moder by nuking her forest from orbit, and Luke has finally moved on with his life. But evil refuses to die, and when his wife and children are kidnapped and taken to the forest, Luke, now an obese, middle-aged man, must make one final trip into the forests of the damned to defeat Moder once and for all.

Revenge of the Ritual

Luke’s teenage son and daughter can’t wait for prom night to begin. Problem is, Moder can’t, either. Reborn after being carved in half by Luke’s chainsaw, she’s back for revenge, and aims to teach Luke that revenge is best served alongside fruit punch and refreshments in the gym.

The Ritual In Da Hood

Five years have passed since Luke’s son and daughter barely escaped from the worst prom ever. Now heading out on their own, they take up residence in the low-income neighborhoods of Los Angeles. But evil never dies, and soon they have to deal with bloodthirsty gangsters, drug dealers, corrupt politicians, and an evil god who refuses to die.

The Ritual: Back 2 Da Hood

They thought the terror was gone forever… but they should have known better. Now, to save themselves and Los Angeles, Luke’s son and daughter must unite all the gangs, pimps, hos, and low-income residents of Los Angeles to stand a chance of defeating Moder once and for all.

The Ritual: Tropical Getaway

Finally retired and ready to enjoy his golden years, Luke and his wife head for Hawaii for a week of fun in the sun. Little do they know that someone else has packed their suitcase and swimtrunks: Moder, who’s lust for vengeance knows no bounds.

The Ritual: Moder vs Mecha-Moder

Desperate to end Moder’s relentless attacks against his family, Luke heads to Japan and joins the world’s leading experts on robotics to create the only thing that has a chance of stopping Moder once and for all: a mechanical version of herself. Now, it’s flesh vs steel as two titans clash, with the fate of the earth at stake.

The Space Ritual

Luke and his family blast off as they join mankind’s first colony ship on the way to Alpha Centauri. But humanity’s quest to find a new home among the stars may end before it began, as Moder, having wrecked the earth beyond repair, seeks to conquer the universe. But Luke and his family won’t let humanity die without a fight in the final chapter of the Ritual saga.

The Ritual Babies

In this light-hearted prequel to the original story, a spell accidentally turns Moder into a child and sends her back in time to preschool, where she learns – with an equally young Luke, Dom, Phil, and Hutch – about the power of imagination, make-believe, and friendship. Sadly, the relentless teasing Moder endures from her new ‘friends’ turns into a murderous rage, setting up her quest to kill and enslave them decades later.

And for even more fun, here are some crossovers and comedies I’d love to see.

The Ritual 2 Fast 2 Furious

In this side story to ‘The Ritual in Da Hood’ and ‘The Ritual: Back 2 Da Hood’, Dom and the family find themselves racing their lives as Moder gets behind the wheel and challenges them to a series of increasingly lethal street races. In the wildly-popular finale, Vin Diesel and the Rock punch Moder to death.

The Ritual: First Blood

John Rambo thought he had left the battlefield for good. But when you’re pushed to the limit, killing’s as easy as breathing, as several death-metal teens are about to find out. Kidnapped as a sacrifice to Moder, Rambo now must use every skill he’s learned to put an end to the forest god and her unholy followers.

The Sharknado Ritual

Luke, Dom, Phil, Hutch, and Moder must put aside their differences and work together if they’re going to have any chance of surviving when a continent-sized sharknado heads towards their forest.

The Ritual: Adventures in Babysitting

Moder’s seen it it all throughout her many centuries of life, but she’s never had to tackle babysitting before! In this beloved family comedy, Moder finds herself babysitting several preschoolers when some of her followers head out to recruit more worshipers, and soon learns that not even godlike power is enough to make a rowdy 5 year old take a nap.

Bill and Ted’s Excellent Ritual

In this radical adventure, Bill and Ted’s time traveling exploits deposits them in the mysterious forests of Sweden, where they’ll take on some viking death-metal teenagers in a battle of the bands! But even if they win, they’ll still have to fight off the totally wicked forest god out to enslave their minds! Good thing they’ve got Death and a bunch of historical figures backing them up!

Follow that Bird! A Sesame Street Ritual

When Big Bird tries to get back to Sesame Street after running away from his foster family, he takes a wrong turn and ends up lost in a remote Swedish forest. Now Grover, Bert, Ernie, the Count, Elmo, Oscar the Grouch, and all of Big Bird’s friends must journey into untold depths of terror to save their best friend. Features four Academy Award-winning songs:

‘In the Forests with My Friend’

‘Flayed Flag Fun!’

‘The Immortality Song’

‘Sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do!’