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.