A little under a year ago I offered up a quick list of goings-on that I was sick and tired of seeing pop up in the movies. With a whole new year of cinema now spread out before us, I figure it’s as good a time as any to present another one. Here are four plots, characters, tropes, etc. that really need to take a hike.
“GASP! The killer has the power to lower my bars!”
I can tell you from experience that anyone who has ever tried to write or direct a horror movie (or thriller, or whatever) within the last decade hates the invention of the mobile phone, because it kills off what used to be the most reliable tension-building scenario in all of fiction: Someone is trapped somewhere with no ability to summon help.
Now, in reality, people do still manage to get stuck somewhere and be unable to call for help all the time. But moviemakers aren’t at the mercy of reality, they’re at the mercy of second-guessing audience members who now demand to know “Why don’t they just call somebody?” As a result, bad movie after bad movie now trots out that most obnoxious of 21st Century movie clichés – the cell signal that drops out randomly in a dangerous situation – whenever the tension needs a cheap boost. Even good movies are forced to waste time showing us endless coverage of malfunctioning chargers, bad batteries, clumsy phone drops and overly low ringer volumes in order to explain why the good guys aren’t just dialing their way to safety.
For a while I was willing to give a pass to the slightly smarter second-cousin of this hacky writing-shortcut – “We’ve got to climb higher/go to the dangerous area because that’s where we can get a signal!” – but these days it’s become so common it probably needs to go, too.
Army Field Manual Superpowers
You’ve seen this moment a thousand times in a thousand movies: A mysterious do-gooder – often a fairly average or ordinary seeming person – has become a huge thorn in the side of The Bad Guys, messing up their plans with combat/weaponry/survival skills that no living person ought to possess. Wishing to know more, the Bad Guy Leader (or sometimes another, separately operating Good Guy) orders up the background data on said mystery man … and there it is, right at the top, a full explanation for everything he has been able to accomplish thus far: “Ex-[insert-branch-of-military-here].”
Now, I want to make this very clear: I’m not looking to disparage the skill sets of actual members of the armed forces – those who’ve served are consistently rated as attractive job applicants in a wide variety of fields for a damn good reason. However, according to the movies, the training for pretty much any given field of military service includes black belt level ninjitsu, instant/permanent mastery of every conceivable form of firearm, superhuman resistance to pain, the power to defy gravity and any other ability a modern-day action guy might need.
To be fair, this particular character detail has an understandable and storied origin: Post-WWI Hollywood frequently turned its sights on The Forgotten Man (you’ll want to go to the 4 minute mark of that video clip – one of the all-time most effecting musical sequences) – i.e. the notion of the ignored/unspoken veteran, and it re-emerged in the wake of Vietnam as the reality of highly-trained/decorated vets concealing their background (“So-and-so was a Green Beret? But he’s just a [insert-regular-guy-job], and he never talks about it!”) arose in the American consciousness.
But it’s become an irritating easy out. At first, the “ex-military hero” reveal was more of a way to establish character. In First Blood, John J. Rambo at first appears to be a shaggy, homeless drifter, so the discovery that he was actually a VERY important, highly-decorated, super-competent warrior (trained not only in survival but high-tech weaponry and complex combat tactics) told us not only what we could expect from his fight scenes but also indicated just how far he’d fallen for such things not to be readily apparent. Compare this to a similar reveal in The Transporter, where a Bronze Star and a photo of Jason Statham in special forces fatigues is supposed to explain how he can dodge bullets, improv skydive, kill a car with a tire iron while dangling underneath a moving truck and beat up an entire room full of much larger men using only a bucket of oil and a pair of bicycle pedals. Not. Exactly. The Same. Thing.
“You’ll never make that again … so let’s make that again!”
There’s certain logic to some Hollywood and/or American remakes of foreign language films. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, for example, was based on a book that has since gained a sizable English-speaking American fanbase, so you can see what the point (at least from a business perspective) of making an English-speaking version. Martin Scorsese’s The Departed takes the story of Andrew Lau’s Infernal Affairs and ports it from Hong Kong to Boston.
Other times… not so much. See, not every movie is renowned for its story. Sometimes it’s all about a particular actor, or a particular style or sequence – all of which are pretty pointless to try and duplicate.
Case in point: Here’s the trailer for an Indonesian action film called The Raid, which blew the doors off a bunch of international film festivals last year. It’s supposedly coming to a limited U.S. release (with a new musical score from Mike Shinoda) this year, but it’s also set to be re-made. My problem with this? Of all the raves I’ve heard about The Raid (and they’re pretty much all raves – can’t wait to see this!) none of them are about the story, which is supposedly pretty standard stuff. The selling point is the brutal, inventive action scenes – a fusion of chaotic Western style military gunplay and Hong Kong/Japanese style hand-to-hand precision-brawling, i.e. stuff that probably won’t be replicated in a U.S. feature. Why remake a movie if the only reason to remake it is something you can’t/won’t do?
Pretty Fly for An IT Guy
Time was, nerds in movies were guys (or gals) designed to blend into the background – the scientists who gave the cool hero their newly-invented weapons, the technicians who monitored satellites or repeated digital exposition. Maybe – maybe! – if there was time for it, a movie nerd might have a clumsy “tic” and contribute some physical comedy to alleviate tension or take off her glasses and shake out her hair to reveal surprise hotness if it was a female nerd.
Well, not anymore.
See, nerds run Hollywood now, and along with greenlighting expensive features based on action figures, old pulp sci fi novels and sequels to Tron, they’ve flexed their muscle by loading up nerd movie characters with more cool points than a Fonzarelli family reunion. Hollywood nerds are now cool – they blast well-chosen rock music in their workspaces, wear kitschy t-shirts and blue jeans under their labcoats, pack their cubicles with nostalgia reference toys and doodads, plaster their computers with trendy sticker-graphics and confound their hopelessly normal coworkers with 1337 speak and arcane pop culture trivia. Oh, and if they’re women? Forget glasses-off/hair-shake surprise hotness – Hollywood’s quintessential 21st Century nerd girls can be handily summarized as Victoria’s Secret mannequins that accidentally got shipped to Hot Topic (see: NCIS‘s Abby, who looks/acts like Lisbeth Salander and Rainbow Brite made a baby).
Hollywood, I appreciate the effort, but you’re kinda making things hard out there for us nerds. Yes, of course, some of us are super cool fashion plates who simply avoid combing our hair so that our raw, unchecked sex appeal will not distract people from our near godlike intelligence, but many others remain just as boring and awkward and, Hodgemanesque as ever, and your overly positive stereotypes are placing far too high of expectations on My People. We merely wish to go about the business of running the planet behind the scenes in our nondescript beige slacks and poorly-matched ties, without our coworkers expecting us to type out our coding in time to an original vinyl of Iggy Pop while offering you a bite of our famous bacon-wrapped Pretzel M&Ms.
Bob Chipman is a film critic and independent filmmaker. If you’ve heard of him before, you have officially been spending way too much time on the internet. If you find yourself in Boston on January 13-16 stop by and see Bob in person at Arisia 2012