by Ray Morton
For better and for worse (and there’s a lot of both), we are living in the era of the tentpole: giant, high-concept movies costing hundreds of millions of dollars, usually with a sci-fi, supernatural, or superheroic theme and filled with non-stop spectacle, action, and visual effects. This is the type of movie that was kicked off by the original Star Wars in 1977 and has gradually come to dominate the American film industry to the point where it is the only type of film that most major studios are interested in making any more.
As a rule I enjoy this type of movie, but I think even the most rabid fan would have to agree that the genre is in trouble. For a number of reasons – too much repetition of the same basic narrative and filmmaking models, an over-mining and therefore exhaustion of the same basic story and production elements, and (frankly) substandard execution in the hands of people less adept at the genre than those who pioneered it – the overall quality of tentpole films has been declining quite a bit in recent years. I saw most of the big movies that were released this summer and I found watching them to be a very dispiriting experience, especially from a screenwriting perspective.
- The summer kicked off with Iron Man 3, a movie that certainly contained a number of enjoyable moments, but that also suffered from a strange insistence on keeping its hero from actually becoming the titular hero (by having other people wear the Iron Man suit, by having the empty suit operate by remote control, by having Tony Stark wear pieces of the suit but not the whole outfit, and so on). The narrative also lacked a clear theme – it begins as the tale of a man struggling with PTSD and ends with Tony Stark coming to terms both with being Iron Man and with leaving Iron Man behind, issues we didn’t know he was wrestling with until they popped up in the film’s final moments.
- Next up was Star Trek Into Darkness, a maddeningly random and unfocused collection of ideas, scenes, and concepts that never gelled into anything resembling a coherent whole and whose screenwriters not only brazenly recycled the work of other screenwriters from thirty years back, but actually seemed to want to be applauded for doing so.
- Then came Man of Steel, a grim, joyless exercise whose sole purpose for existing seemed to be to trash everything that was entertaining and special about the Superman character (instead of being fun, the film equates having superpowers with being emotionally disturbed; it has Earth’s Greatest Guardian needlessly let his own stepfather die and inexplicably fail to save thousands of people from being slaughtered by the bad guys; it redesigned Kal-el’s iconic costume beyond recognition and good taste; and had Superman – a good and noble character who has always held himself to a higher standard -- commit murder as a cheap plot device) in some misguided and cynical attempt to make the character “dark” (because that’s apparently very important these days), “edgy,” and “cool.”
- But for me, the absolute nadir of the summer was Pacific Rim. I don’t know if giant robots fighting giant monsters was the greatest idea for a movie, but it was certainly no worse a premise than those of the summer’s other tentpoles. However the development and execution of the piece was so lackluster and the script such a massively uninspired assemblage of every trope and cliché of the genre (and of modern screenwriting) -- a simple premise needlessly complicated to the point of being incomprehensible (each giant robot requires two pilots who are psychically linked so they can operate each side of the machine via virtual reality in order to battle giant monsters who are coming through a dimensional rift as the advance force of an alien invasion. Huh? What?); a needlessly long prologue used to convey a needlessly convoluted backstory (detailing a history of the robot/kaiju war that probably should have been the plot of the movie); a narrative consisting almost exclusively of long, endless action sequences; a hero with a tragic past (in this case, a brother killed by monsters); a by-the-numbers opposites-attract romance; too many cardboard supporting characters with too many pointless subplots; a seemingly unending series of flashbacks and dream sequences; a pound and a half of terrible, bumper sticker dialogue (“Today we are canceling the apocalypse” and so on); an uneven tone (broad, stupid comedy interspersed with an almost laughable solemnity); and an unforgivably high page count – all put together with so little energy or enthusiasm that film was literally a chore to watch.
Pacific Rim was such an excruciating climax to such a dreary season that I just couldn’t bring myself to see the season’s final tentpole: The Lone Ranger -- I felt like I had already seen the same movie four times and I just couldn’t put myself through it for another three more hours. Judging from the film’s calamitous box office reception, apparently I wasn’t alone. I ended the summer feeling pretty hopeless about the future of the tentpole (and, by extension, the entire future of movies).
But then I saw Gravity, the new outer space adventure written by its director Alfonso Cuaron and his son Jonas Cuaron and starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney and I started to feel hopeful again.
There were many things that I liked about the film, but for the purposes of our discussion, what impressed me most was that it contained the same elements as the other tentpole films mentioned earlier in this piece -- it was science fiction (albeit not as far away from present day reality as most films in the genre), it consisted of non-stop spectacle, action, and special effects, and the screenplay contained many of the same elements that the scripts of the other films did (a protagonist with a tragic backstory, a plot consisting primarily of action sequences, a few choice bits of bumper sticker dialogue, etc.) and yet it, unlike the other films, worked like gangbusters.
So why did Gravity work while the other tentpoles failed?
I think it ultimately came down to four basic things (CAUTION: some spoilers ahead).
- It’s smart: In their desire to appeal to all audiences everywhere, tentpoles often tend to dumb themselves down with a lot of lowest common denominator content and storytelling, but Gravity doesn’t do that. Its makers make consistently intelligent choices about plot and characterization. The narrative is very logically worked out within the context of the established premise and the writers stick to that logic throughout, never falling back on convenience or coincidence or Deus ex machinas to make the story work. The plot developments are all believable and realistic within the world of the story. The characters are presented as competent, intelligent professionals who use their skills and talents in intelligent and clever ways to get themselves through a terrible ordeal, with no hip, cool rebels or loners who don’t play by the rules to be seen anywhere.
- It’s focused: Gravity has a very clear theme that is woven into the story from beginning to end, with no additional premises tossed in at the last minute as in Iron Man 3 did. Likewise, it has a very clear narrative that is presented and developed consistently from the first scene until the last – the plot never becomes cluttered, distracted, or confused with extraneous backstories, flashbacks, non-linear storytelling gimmicks, or subplots. This is marvelously efficient and, therefore, effective storytelling.
- It avoids excess: overly eager to please, most tentpoles throw too much into the mix: too many characters, too many plotlines, too many set-pieces, too much exposition, too many climaxes, and too many minutes – the movies just go on and on and on until the audience has been bludgeoned into submission. Gravity does the exact opposite: The narrative has been stripped down to essentials. There’s not a wasted scene or minute and all of the action advances the plot. The script never bothers with unnecessary love interests, sidekicks, or wingmen. There are no purposeless stunt or effects scenes, comic relief, or “getting ready for the battle” montage sequences. No aliens are thrown in just to spice things up. And the movie is (blessedly) only 90 minutes long – it tells the story and then gets out. There’s no fat anywhere and, as a result, the film grabs you at the outset and doesn’t let you go until the credits role.
- It believes in itself: the makers of too many tentpole movies seem embarrassed by the material they are working on and so feel the need to goose it either by sending it up or by trying to make it “edgy” or “cool” even when such approaches aren’t appropriate for the material. For me, this was the thing that most spoiled Star Trek Into Darkness and Man of Steel – the filmmakers clearly didn’t have much interest or belief in Star Trek or Superman and so attempted to “reimagine” or “reinvent” both properties. In the case of Star Trek Into Darkness, the results were noisy, busy, and buffoonish. In the case of Man of Steel, the results were grim, joyless, and without hope or inspiration. The makers of Gravity do not make this mistake. They clearly love their concept and trust. They tell their story directly and enthusiastically – milking it for all that its worth and never trying to twist it into something it’s not. I think this is a major reason for its success – the filmmakers’ passion for their story was transmitted to the audience, which came to love it as well – and a lesson I wish the makers of many other tentpoles would learn.
So why talk about all of this in a screenwriting column? Because – these are the kind of movies that the industry is going to making for the foreseeable future and therefore these are the kind of movies we’re all going to be writing and I think we’d all rather they turn out well rather than poorly. And we have proof that when these precepts are adhered to, the results can be very good indeed – there have been a lot of lousy tentpoles made in recent years, but in addition to Gravity, we’ve also had films such The Avengers and Skyfall, wonderful tentpoles that have worked both creatively and commercially. And even if you’re not crafting tentpoles, writing scripts that that are smart, focused, tight, and believed is an admirable goal no matter what the genre.
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Copyright © 2013 by Ray Morton
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