Today, I would like to talk a little about visual storytelling.
Rehashing what has Already Been Said
Most of you, I’m sure, would agree with the idea that a story isn’t a story without someone to tell it, and that a great story requires a great storyteller. I, for example, could relate to you my trip to the supermarket—in fact, I will.
My manservant and I took the supersonic stealth jet for a jaunt to Super Edwin’s Grocery Emporium because, for some reason, he felt that I would not let him have a moment’s peace until I had ready access to sweet, multicolored cereals, which I could consume while huddling under blankets and watching cartoons. I reminded him, with the aid of a sharp slap to his face, that I am considered a supervillain to many, and that, above all things, I desire order, not peace. Anyway, as I sat in the shopping trolley and he pushed me from aisle to aisle, we encountered Good Brains, a NeoBrain Acolyte™ who had recently undergone some kind of epiphany and had begun a new life as a self-styled superhero. Well, right as I had my Laser o’ Death centered between his eyes, he reminded me that Super Edwin’s is a no-combat zone. So as I traded insults with that pompous little ass, my manservant wheeled me into the cereal aisle, where I pointed out which ones I wanted, Good Brains critiquing each one in turn. The little worm even followed us into the checkout line and made a snide remark about how I wasn’t a real supervillain if I had to pay with coupons. I didn’t retort, though it chafed. I just let him go on and on, until finally in the parking lot, I pulled out my Laser o’ Death and reduced him to ashes. I don’t have to use coupons. I choose to.
Now, that is not a particularly well-told story. The characters are one-dimensional, their motivations are based on a random encounter, and the ending is simplistic. And it is still better than any of the Star Wars prequels. I know that picking on these movies is like punching out a one-legged, cancer-stricken child, so I will not dwell too long here. I will simply point out that their failure, and the failure of many new films has to do with the emphasis of visuals over story. Of course, these films can do well in terms of revenue, because as any supervillain knows, it can be surprisingly easy to distract people with shiny baubles and flashes of color. Culturally and artistically, however, they are as dead as Good Brains.
This kind of critique may seem odd, coming from a man who typically will not inflict such disappointment on himself by seeing such movies. But why go and see Skyline when it was obviously going to be a terrible mistake? When friends would come back from it with horror stories, I felt powerfully psychic, like Doctor Mental. Why go see Tron: Legacy when all I understood from the trailers was that it has colors against a black background? Again, friends came back from it and were initially moderately excited, but now, a couple weeks later, can only seem to muster a defensive “meh.”
Even Avatar, a film I did watch, was just so-so. It got much acclaim for its innovative special effects and its lush visual world. And it also helped spur interest in and sales of 3D televisions, which in my book is marked in the “cons” column, but that topic is for another time. The movie also made big bucks, so it wasn’t a totally bad movie. Let’s look at the story and characters to see why it was only so-so. Because what people do for a living doesn’t necessarily define their characters, I’ll describe some of the characters in Avatar without describing their jobs. Our main character has a physical injury, which he overcomes with technology at the price of betraying a race of people. He also has psychological problems, which he overcomes by trying—too late, some would say—to save those people once his deception has been made public. Our love interest is a young woman with a rebellious streak. Our main bad guy is a guy with no moral center or redeeming qualities: he’s racist to the core, viciously greedy, and unquestioning in the face of a lot of really important questions, such as, “Could the conduct I’m supporting be considered evil?” Our lesser bad guy is also a guy with no moral center or redeeming qualities: he’s racist to the core, viciously brutal, and unquestioning in the face of a lot of really important questions, such as, “Has any historical figure ever been allowed to kill enemy and friend alike with reckless abandon and not, in the end, been hanged, shot, beheaded, assassinated, or forced to commit suicide?” I guess in comparison to these guys, our protagonist really does look like a saint, even after fucking over an entire race of people. Thanks, moral relativism!
Honestly, summing up the characters in that way seems like a cheap shot, but if I can make those kinds of comparisons, maybe the characters are flawed, and not in a narratively interesting kind of way. As I demonstrated in my own tale, above, it’s hard to tell a good story with flat characters. You can make them look as 3D as you want, but one-note characters are still uninteresting.
That is, until you make them into an internet porn sensation.