What Life (the movie) Teaches you about Writing

What Life (the movie) Teaches you about Writing

My roommate and I watched Life last night. We’re geeks and sci-fi fans and like to watch bad movies with a few drinks. It’s fun to make up your own plots. Our version of Life involved shoving in as many Alien references as possible. Jake Gyllenhaal was definitely an android the real question was whether he was a kindly Bishop or murderous Ash? We also naturally assumed that Calvin was the Jason Voorhees of his species. It was fun, but after the movie ended we kept on talking about it and I noticed that we got increasingly frustrated and wondered why?

After doing our own version of Mystery Science Theater 3000 for a couple of years, we discovered that bad movies can broken down into three categories: boring, dumb or frustrating. Some can even be all three, (looking at you Suicide Squad). Dumb movies tend to be the most enjoyable, you understand what you’re getting into and you can just sit back and laugh. Boring are the worst, because boring. And frustrating are the most interesting, because they suggest maybe a good or at least decent movie was lurking just below the surface.

Life was probably never going to be a good movie, but it could have easily been a decent one. Life is a film you’ve seen before, part Gravity, but mostly parts Alien. The film is about a research team on the International Space Station that collect a satellite with Martian samples on it. One of those samples contains microscope life, which they name Calvin. Eventually Calvin grows big and starts murdering everyone and it’s a race to keep him from getting to earth, where one assumes he will slowly, but inevitably, murder every individual on the planet.

Life’s not boring, it’s well made, everyone puts in a solid performance. Like the best monster movies the humans are competent. The crew of the International space station feel like a bunch of smart engineers and scientists reacting as coolly as they can to everything going wrong. The premise of discovering alien life that is the best at killing us is so overplayed at this point that I doubt Life could have done anything interesting with it, but even cliched it could have been alright.

The problem with Life rests solely on the tentacles of it’s lead, Calvin. Calvin is a decently designed monster. He goes through some Alien style transformations and moves in appropriately creepy way. But he’s the Mary Sue of monsters. He’s the best at everything. He’s smarter, faster, stronger than the humans he’s attacking even when he’s just the size of a star fish. He’s neigh invincible, does just fine in the vacuum of space and immediately understands how to use tools and escape every trap the crew puts him in. And Calvin’s biggest flaw is that he breaks his own rules.

In his video take down of ‘The Death and Return of Superman’ Max Landis asks ‘how do you kill a vampire?’ The answer is whatever way the writer wants. You are the god of the fiction you create. If you decide vampires die from peanut allergies rather than stakes and garlic, you can do that. But if you then show one of your vampires enjoying a Payday without any problems, that can’t be a throw away scene. You need to explain the rule breaking, it needs to work with the rest of your world.

In Life rules for Calvin are stated just so that he can break them or ignore them entirely. The biologist who studied Calvin, before he went all Hannibal Lecter, is constantly saying things like ‘Calvin is carbon based so he burns’, and yet he’s immediately immune to fire. ‘Calvin can’t survive long in the vacuum of space’, he survives long enough to drown an astronaut and still scamper around the exterior of the ISS without any problem. ‘Calvin needs oxygen to breathe’, when they shut off the oxygen Calvin is never evidently hampered by this and goes about killing at least three people without missing a beat.

Calvin’ doesn’t hate people he needs kill us to survive’, maybe this one is true because he says ‘kill’ not ‘eat’. Early on we see Calvin consume a rat, like all of it, bones, organs, flesh. But when Calvin starts killing people he only east a little of their insides before running off to go kill someone else. Remember that astronaut that drowned? The biologist said Calvin knew what he was doing when he cracked the tubes in her suit. He doesn’t eat any of her.

Good monsters are powerful, but with rules and weakness that give their human victims a fighting chance. Vampires can fly, hypnotize people, are super fast and strong, but trap them in a peanut factory and their done for. The Xenomorphs from Aliens have acid blood, and razor sharp tails but go down with a plasma round to the face.

Rules are vitally important for monster stories, because these stories are like a game. The humans are on one team and the monster is on the other. The humans slowly discover the monster’s weakness and try to use that against it to either escape or trap the creature. While the monster is shown to be tough and clever by figuring out ways to escape the traps and hunt down the humans. It’s about an ebb and flow, slow escalation, the humans discover the rules and use them to their advantage thinking they’re safe, the monster then outsmarts the rules.

As the writer you can break your own rules, but that will make the audience feel like your cheating. The game is over, the humans aren’t playing against a monster they’re stuck at that stage in a video game where you’re supposed to lose the boss battle. You need to play your own game, think within in your own rules. You can introduce new rules and changes, but keep a consistency. A monster that over comes every barrier isn’t scary, it’s boring and frustrating.

In Aliens there’s a scene were a set of auto turrets take out scores of the alien xenomporhs. The humans think they’re safe because they know the Xenomorph’s weakness to plasma rounds to the face. The Xenomorphs prove how clever they are, by crawling along the ceiling and under the floorboards to get at the humans. They followed the rules established for them and thought around them, making them all the more dangerous and keeping the tension going.

If the same scene happened in Life Calvin would have just discovered a sudden immunity to bullets. Sometimes to make a monster truly frightening you need to show it losing.

Wonder Woman Reactions

Wonder Woman Reactions

***Heads up Spoilers!***

I like super heroes. You may have noticed this, (here, and here) so of course I ran out this weekend to see Wonder Woman. As you probably already know, it’s a damn good film, its not perfect though. And I’m still wrestling with how groundbreaking it was or wasn’t for the super hero genre. But it was a solid origin story. It was fun and funny and did way more right than the few missteps it took. And it was the first super hero movie in a long time that I found inspiring, though the reason I found it inspiring is a mix bag.

Like women in modern society ‘Wonder Woman’ the film had insane, unfair, and neigh impossible expectations thrusted upon it. It was directed by a woman and had a female star which was pressure enough for an action movie without it alos being the first female led super hero film in this new super hero Renaissance. Studio execs have long used poorly done female super hero movies, like Halle Barry’s infamous ‘Catwoman’, as an excuse not to bring more female characters to the screen. And yet, like women do every day, Wonder Woman donned her armor, grabbed her lasso and not only met those expectations, but rose above them.

The undeniable way in which ‘Wonder Woman’ was groundbreaking was that it stared Wonder Woman. Wonder Woman is not just a ‘female super hero’, she is THE female super hero. She is considered the first and is by far the most iconic. Even people who don’t know anything about comics, know and love her, and that’s despite the fact she’s never had a big studio movie before and her TV show ended in 1979.

By design Wonder Woman is feminist. She lives on Themyscrira a mythical island home to the Amazons, an enlightened race of female warriors, designed by the gods to make mankind better. This narrative is kept in full for the movie. Director Patty Jenkins nails the Amazonians. They feel powerful and competent. During their brief battle scene they leap from cliffs firing arrows, sweep spears across the battlefield from horseback and bash heads in. They’re not invincible they die, but that just makes them feel more remarkable.

The Amazons are special without feeling special. They’re played straight, another mythical race like the Asgardians of Thor. They have a purpose, social order and disputes as well as being proud warriors. They just all happen to be women. No Amazonian comments on this, even when Steve Trevor shows up, he’s not treated with suspicion because he’s a man but because he’s an outsider and the island is hidden for a reason.

I loved all that, it was so placidly, perfectly normal. It made complete sense for the Amazonians from story perspective. And yet it is so rare to see a single female warrior treated like an everyday fighter in mainstream pop culture, let alone a whole race of them. Usually female fighters are sexy fem fettles, or characters that act so ‘strong and bad ass’ that they feel self-conscious, like they’re making up for something or some male character will point out that they’re a girl, saying something like ‘you fight well for a woman’. None of that happen to the Amazonians.

This sense of female empowerment through just treating characters like normal people continued with Wonder Woman. Diana is naïve without being dumb. She’s been raised all her life to believe in a noble mission and simplistic truth. Mankind is inherently good. Ares clouds mankind’s thoughts and makes them fight and it’s up to the Amazonians to stop Ares and guide people back to that goodness.

When Diana sees people suffering she wants to help and it feels earnest. She’s not doing this to redeem herself or because of dead parents, but because she truly feels what these soldiers are doing is wrong and she should stop it. When she steps out into no man’s land in complete battle regala it feels earned and awesome. As she slids, strifes and bashes her with through German soldiers, her war drum pounding theme song plays and it’s impossible not feel something.

Diana is assisted in her journey by Steve Trevor, who in the comics is her token love interest. Trevor is from the same ilk as Thor’s Jane Foster and Iron Man’s Pepper Pots, an automatic girlfriend/boyfriend that the hero just sort of has. Few in this crowd rise to the level of independent character like Louis Lane or Mary Jane Watson. And before this movie I would have never guessed that Steve Trevor would be one of them.

The few times I bumped into Trevor before this movie he was a total cad, like in the 2009 ‘Wonder Woman’ animated film. He was constantly ogling Diana and there was a lot of unnecessary ‘Man are from Mars and Woman are from Venus’ crap going on. If you were to have told me that Chris Pine, who played a pretty cad like Captain Kirk, was going to pull off a nuanced Steve Trevor I wouldn’t have believed it, but he does.

Pine gives perhaps his best performance in this movie. His Steve Trevor treats Diana as a bit of an eccentric, but also as an equal and someone deserving his respect. Yes, he comments on the fact that she’s attractive, because she is, but so are most super heroes. Marvel makes sure to work in a shirtless beefcake scene in every film and DC took note. Trevor shows the most skin in ‘Wonder Woman’. But beyond that Steve Trevor’s story is perfectly blended with Diana. Trevor doesn’t feel like an added love interest that the writers don’t know what to do with so they give him some random job in the plot.

Trevor and Diana profit from each other both in the story and from a storytelling point of view. Trevor’s arc isn’t treated as subservient to Diana’s and when he decides to sacrifice himself it isn’t for her. He flies off with the deadly gas because it’s the right thing to do and that has a bigger impact on Wonder Woman and then any ‘fridging’ (killing off the love interest, often girlfriend, to give the hero added motivation) would have had.

‘Wonder Woman’ succeeds were most super hero films do and it also flatters where most do too. It’s third act is a mess. It has some good ideas, but everything happens too quickly, while at the same time dragging the final fight on way too long. The three villains in the film are its hammiest aspects. Ares is a decent foil, but he’s not given enough time to develop. Dr. Poison has a great look like most villains, but outside of being a plot device, doesn’t get to do much. And the less send about the proto-nazi Ludendorff the better.

Wonder Woman also faces some problems going forward. Her biggest weakness is that she’s part of DC’s grim dark cinematic universe. Since she popped up in ‘Batman V Superman’ Diana has been the best thing about this universe. But she might be forced to pull a lot of dead weight in her upcoming sequels, especially if ‘Justice League’ doesn’t work out.

I also have mix feelings about Diana sticking around in man’s world post ‘Wonder Woman’. I loved her working at the Louvre, but she’s pretty anti-war, and yet has been around since World War I and decided not to stop the Nazis, Pol Pot or any number of atrocities? If that’s an unfairly serious question to ask of super hero, then how about why didn’t she do anything about the near destruction the planet during ‘Man of Steal’?

Marvel plans all its films out way in advance and has a defined timeline which lets them avoid problems like this. Thor and Hulk didn’t get involved in Civil War because they were off planet, Iron Man didn’t call the avengers for help against the Mandarin because he was self conscious (not all the reasons given are solid, but at least they have them). It’s true a line or two of dialogue could try to tie this up, but it still means that Wonder Woman is a century old god rather than a peer of Batman and Superman like she’s usually portrayed.

My final concern has less to do with the DC movies and more with Wonder Woman in general. Her rouges gallery isn’t particularly strong and her main villain is a character called ‘Cheetah’. Cheetah is a cat-lady, like a were-cheetah? Given the power level that Wonder Woman displayed at the end of her film, I doubt any cat lady could take her. This is a uniquely DC problem as their character’s powers tend to be far more unchained then Marvel’s. Thor might be a god too, but remove him from his hammer and he’s much more manageable.

But after seeing ‘Wonder Woman’ Patty Jenkins and Gal Gadot have my full confidence. I’m excited to see what they have in store for the iconic character. And I hope that ‘Wonder Woman’ lifts up not only DC’s movies, but Marvel’s too. There are many amazing female super heroes that deserve the level of care and respect Wonder Woman was given on the big screen. Let see who’s next!