Jurassic World and Suspension of Disbelief

I finally got my chance to watch Jurassic World this week, and I came away thinking about Writing Excuses. As I’ve mentioned before, it’s a podcast that has, I think, some of the best writerly advice out there. They did a post a couple years ago, with Patrick Rothfuss, on suspension of disbelief. He made a lot of great points about how it’s not actually about having all your facts straight. Audiences will often forgive factual errors, and often not even notice them*. What they really need to believe a story is verisimilitude. The characters and the world need to feel believable. If the audience gets a sense that the story is true, they won’t care too much whether or not it is correct. Jurassic World illustrates this perfectly.

But before I get to that, here’s a brief spoiler free review of the movie. I liked it. I think people who like dinosaurs and Chris Pratt will also like it, because those things went well together. There, how that’s out of the way, on to the object lesson.

Patrick Rothfuss was the big star of that episode, in my opinion, but the other point that really stuck with me came from Mary Robinette Kowal. She pointed out how there’s this popular story that convinces us all, with no explanation, that there is a magical undersea kingdom and also talking fish. It’s called The Little Mermaid. Because “mermaid” is right there in the title, we all know right away that if we want the emotional payoff that the story promises, we need to accept mermaids, so we voluntarily do. In other words, don’t hide the most implausible part of the story. If your premise needs it to be there, put it front and center. The audience will do the work of believing for you.

Jurassic Park had an absurd premise. We figured out how to clone dinosaurs. The scientific explanation for how we got their DNA was flimsy, but we had all chosen to accept it, in exchange for a movie where dinosaurs run around and eat people. It was totally worth it. Jurassic World had an even harder sell. On top of that absurd and easily acceptable premise, it also had to convince us that the park’s owners would be so idiotic as to reopen the park again, and also genetically engineer a super-dinosaur. This is more difficult to believe. The original film merely violated laws of nature, which we humans have a rather adversarial relationship with anyway. The new one is violating common sense.

However, once again the tactic of putting their biggest stretch front and center worked to its advantage. I do know people, and I know that often they fail to use their common sense. There have been projects that cost human lives before, and often the machine of progress and financial profit just ground on ahead. As time passes, people sometimes forget past tragedies. The trailers gave me lots of time to think about how this might apply to Jurassic Park, sorry, Jurassic World. I went in theaters willing to believe that this was what had happened, that dangers aside the promise of profit was eventually too much to resist. Still, my suspension of disbelief was in a precarious balance.

Personally, I think they handled it spectacularly. They never gave me a scene explaining how the park had been reopened. That’s good. I didn’t need or want one. I was willing to believe it had happened, and by leaving the precise events to my imagination they ensured I would come up with something that I would find plausible. What I really needed to believe was characters who acted like the kind of people who would work at Jurassic World. I got it.

I particularly liked the personality of the CEO, Masrani. His personality was similar to Hammond’s, and some people didn’t like that, as it felt like a retread, but I honestly thought it served a purpose. We are told Hammond personally gave him the park on his deathbed, after securing a promise to take good care of it and use it to remind people of how big the world is. I did have trouble believing that Hammond would really let the park reopen after what he went through, but I can see him thinking, “look, when I die somebody will use the technology and reopen the park. The least I can do is put that power in the right hands.” Masrani seemed like the kind of person Hammond would trust.

There were other details that made the park itself work. I liked how the people pushing for the big engineered dinosaur weren’t cardboard figures slobbering over money. They also talked about progress and keeping costs covered and staying ahead. One of the protagonists, Claire, talked worriedly about “customer satisfaction holding steady in the low 90s.” I liked that. It reminded me of all the real bosses I’ve looked at who are always afraid that doing well isn’t good enough. The rides and education centers were exactly like what a dinosaur zoo amusement park would be. The way Owen Grady, Chris Pratt’s character, interacted with the dinosaurs felt true to how animal handlers really interact with wild and dangerous animals, at least based on everything I know.

So for about two thirds of the movie, my disbelief was well and truly suspended, especially when they gave me an explanation for all the super-dino’s abilities. Then, for me at least, they fumbled it. Ending spoilers from here on.

The final fight with the dinosaurs was cool, but a little too neat. While watching it, I liked it, but it seemed to break some things about the world that had been established. Primarily this was that the velociraptors, who had been established to have a complex, animalistic and ambiguous relationship with Owen, suddenly became canine-loyal, willing to fight a larger animal to the death for him when earlier it seemed they were perfectly willing to turn on him. Also, the film was too tidy in how it made all the big scary dinosaurs show up for the last scene. This was something else that came up in the podcast. There’s a fine art to wrapping things up, but not so tidily that you remind people there’s a writer behind this. When the dinosaur I had almost forgotten about showed up, I definitely remembered there was a writer.

But once again, none of this was really insurmountable for me. You know the part of the story that really broke my suspension of disbelief? The part where the leads got together.

The main complaint I’ve heard for this movie is that the characters were a little flat, even by action movie standards. Most of the way through it, I thought this was unfair. I liked all of them, and I thought they got as much development as the Mad Max characters. Then came the gratuitous kissing, and I realized the problem. It wasn’t the lack of development, it was that they developed the characters and then broke it.

They tried to set up Claire and Owen as opposites. They did a great job. Claire was tidy, controlled and not great with people because she’s more comfortable with data and schedules. Owen was also not great with people, but you got the sense that was because he likes animals better. He’s rough, outdoorsy, and honestly has standards of personal hygiene that gross Claire out.

Of course, when the crisis hits, they find a way to work together, but you know how in Mad Max, Max and Furiosa come to trust each other but don’t get together in any romantic way? Those writers got that the two aren’t the same.

The thing about “opposites attract” is that it happens when both people see something in the other that they appreciate, that balances their own traits. My boyfriend is a lot of extroverted, outgoing and dominant than me. I like the way he takes me out of my comfort zone. He likes the way I slow down and introspect. If one of us was always pressuring the other to be different, this wouldn’t work. Claire and Owen never really have a moment where they see the value in the other’s of view. Their relationship is not going to last once the adrenaline wears off. Of all the implausible things in the movie, that was the one I couldn’t get over.

*Accuracy itself is an interesting topic. I might have to use that for an upcoming post.

Mad Max and the Art of Pacing

Last night I saw Mad Max again, because my friend wanted to go see it and I easily enjoyed it enough for a second watch. Also, I thought a second watch would help with the second blog idea I got from the movie. Earlier I wrote about how it used the female characters, and specifically how it subverted the Damsels in Distress trope. The other thing that stood out to me was the action, not just the adrenaline of it, but the way they used it.

The typical action movie alternates prolonged scenes of battles, chases and stunts with quieter scenes. The quiet moments allow the audience to take a breath and let the action sequences stand out more. They are also the place where much character, plot and setting is developed. Mad Max omits these quiet moments almost completely. There are a handful, but they are so short, and so tightly hemmed in by mad paced action the movie feels like a massive chase scene. This is both the source of my biggest criticism and my biggest (story-centric) praise for the movie. On the one hand, a little more time taken to establish some more about the world and the characters would have been nice, as would a few more breathers. On the other hand, the way the action is used is better than what I see in the vast majority of films of its kind.

Ostensibly, the slow scenes in the typical action movie are supposed to flesh out the characters and fit in all that story stuff. In practice, because the writers are often far more invested in getting to the “cool scenes,” these scenes are rushed. They often include the dreaded infodumps, which are not only dull but also have the effect of pushing the audience out of the story. Writing teachers say “show don’t tell” because showing draws the audience in, makes them feel they have experienced the story. Telling the audience something blocks that experience. I know that in last year’s Guardian’s of the Galaxy, Gamera was stolen (research?) from her family. I don’t know anything about how the escaping wives in Mad Max ended up where they are, but I don’t care any more about Gamera than any of them. I do care more about (name) from Pacific Rim, because I didn’t get told about how the Kaiju destroyed her town. I saw it.

The action scenes run the risk of another problem. In many action films I’ve seen, there is plenty of punching, kicking, dodging, blocking, more kicking but different, and after a while all the moves and stunts run into each other. As Confused Matthew often says, they are video games that the audience can’t play. Nothing relevant to the story is actually changing.

One of my favorite books on writing, Making Shapely Fiction by Jerome Stern, invents a word that I want every writer in the world to know; position. Position means where the character stands in relation to everything else in the story. Suppose the protagonists are running from a villain who wants their family heirloom that unlocks a portal to another world. If the villains catch up, the characters fight and the protagonists get away, things have happened, but nobody’s position in the story has changed. For that to happen, the villains would have to get the heirloom, or the heroes would have to lose it in a swamp, or they could come to trust a previously untrusted companion because of how they fought, or the heroes learn a weakness of the villain, or the heroes lose all their water, then in story terms something has actually happened. Still, even then, if there is five minutes worth of action for a single position change, this can actually slow the overall pace down.

Mad Max’s format forces it to avoid both problems. For one thing, because everything that had to be established also had to fit itself into an action scene, nothing was told. Everyone is characterized by what they do, every bit of worldbuilding is shown or implied or comes out naturally in dialog, and in short all the information you need to understand the movie comes to you in the middle of action.

The action, meanwhile, becomes full of changing positions. In one of my favorite scenes (early film spoiler ahead) Furiosa and Max are trying to outrun the villains in their big badass truck. At first they have the advantage, but then a henchman, who has sneaked on board, sabotages it to slow them down. Furiosa doesn’t quite trust Max yet, and neither do the rest of the escapees, but they are forced to cooperate to repair the truck without slowing down, and as the scene progresses there are numerous subtle signs that they are coming to trust each other. Despite their repairs, the bad guys catch up and it’s time for the chase scene to get a little more battle-y. The villains are getting close enough to get some good shots at Max and Furiosa. One of the escaped wives, Angharad, takes change and , hangs herself out of the cabin, blocking the shooters. Because she is the most prized wife of the villain, his snipers are no longer willing to take their shots. However this risk results in her falling to her death. This is incredibly tragic for the heroes, especially the other escapees, but it does save them all, as the villains stop to recover the body for the villain.

That’s 6 position changes, and I haven’t even covered what happens to the henchmen who got on board. Reading it written out takes some of the drama out (as you can see) but you can still imagine how this is much more engaging then fancy punch, fancy kick, duck, dodge, punch that looked like it hurt, different punch, on and on for even a quarter of the time. Stunts are awesome, but they can’t carry a story on their own.

This is one of the reasons that I’ve seen Mad Max twice, would definitely see it again, and highly recommend it to anyone in the mood for a two hour chase scene.

It’s also a good thing for me to watch as a writer. I work primarily in prose. I like action. I want to write stories with battle scenes, but thrust, parry, thrust comes across far better in a visual medium. I’ve heard people ask how to write good action scenes in these situations, and I think this is an answer. Let the disadvantage become an advantage. Change the positions of your characters within an action scene. Let things actually happen.