Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Why JJ Abrams is worth every $#%&!!! cent he makes.

I just saw the latest Star Trek movie.

If you haven't seen it yet, go now. If you have, go again. That movie is a two-hour master class in one of the most important aspects of story you can learn.

I call it "Bad to worse."

What it means is that it's not enough to have a protagonist overcoming challenges on the way to achieving his goal. You do that and you end up with 'Taken', the Liam Neeson movie that's moderately entertaining, but totally uninvolving.

What you need is to have a protagonist trying to overcome challenges and failing. Or succeeding only to face bigger challenges. Preferably both.

I know. You want examples.

Okay, an example of the first is when First Officer Kirk tries to convince Captain Spock to pursue Nero. He doesn't succeed. He fails, so spectacularly that Spock kicks him off the Enterprise, marooning him on a desolate planet light years from where he needs to be in order to accomplish what he needs to accomplish.

An example of the second follows almost immediately. Kirk leaves his shuttle craft in order to hike the 14 kilometers to the Federation outpost, only to be attacked by some huge, mean, hungry creature. But he's saved, sort of, when a bigger, meaner creature takes out the first creature. And then starts chasing him.

The brilliance of this movie is that it does this over and over again.

In lesser hands (like Pierre Morel's -- the guy who directed 'Taken') Kirk would need Mr. Scott to transport the two of them onto the Enterprise while it's traveling at warp speed and it would work. With Abrams, it works, but Mr. Scott ends up in a cooling duct full of water, at risk of drowning if Kirk can't get him out. (To be fair, a lot -- perhaps most -- of the credit should go to Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, the writers. But Abrams is the director, and therefore ultimately responsible for the story.)

One of my screenwriting teachers at the UCLA Extension used to say, "Put your hero up a tree, then throw rocks at him." JJ Abrams then sets the tree on fire and throws in an earthquake.


  1. Its a fine line, “Bad to worse” can go worse than bad with arbitrarily complex plotting, especially at the expense of characterization.

    By the second and third Pirates of the Caribbean flick, I couldn’t give a toss who was double-crossing who. The one scene that held any promise of a character revealing traits beyond bland or eccentric variations of scoundrel, Capt. Jack Sparrow’s unexpected reunion with his father predictably ended up being played for nothing but cheap self-referential irony.

    A “Bad to worse” moment that always makes me smile is at the climax of Slither, when Nathan Fillon’s small town sheriff has a mishap with a grenade. You’re ready for the hero to triumph spectacularly, but the unspectacularly deadpan outcome is “bad”, Nathan Fillon’s utterly brilliantly hilarious double-take reveals the “worse”.

    Seriously, if I taught a master-class on the double-take, a whole lecture would be titled “The Nathan Fillon Slither Anti-Climax Double-Take”. In a single upward tilt of the head, he conveys fear, weariness and “this is ridiculous”. Amazing.

  2. I am interested in your take of Kirk as a character? How do you feel he grew throught the process of "bad to worse"? Did he learn from mistakes?

  3. Yeah, I think Kirk grew. In terms of theme, he learned that there is a Greater Good that he can benefit by serving. It's a good theme, one a lot of Hollywood movies employ.

  4. There's more to a movie than bad-to-worse. Even in the fantastical realm of sci-fi, there should be a reasonable amount logic. And in a film featuring not one but two Spocks, there should be an enormous amount of logic. Star Trek fails repeatedly, so the film itself shifts from good to bad to worse over the course of its more than two hours.

  5. I think the genius of the "journey" in Star Trek is two fold.

    Kirk DOESN'T change.

    1. The universe changes to accomodate Kirk, so he can take his rightful place as captain.

    2. Spock changes.

    Your *lead* character and your *protagonist* don't have to be the same, especially in buddy movies, but also (often) in rom-coms.