Terminate With Extreme Prejudice

What better way to start off the new year – yes, I know, belatedly – for this blog than by talking about things that end satisfactory? (Also a good time to drop the Start every post title with a gerund shtick.)

More specifically, by explaining how novels and movies that stick the landing are great, and those that don’t are rather disappointing. Of course, I’m not talking about the Happy End. Neither is my point “All’s well that ends well“. I’ll talk about novels and movies that fulfill the promises they make. (I will not talk about webcomics in this post. That’s not because I ran out of material. Truth to be told, there’s so much great stuff out there that I don’t even know where to start and where to end. And after every single post I wrote about webcomics, there came an update that made me think “Why didn’t I got to include this wonderful example?” So I will continue writing about them in forthcoming posts.)

If a movie disappoints me, it is typically because of one of two specific failure modes: Either the movie is entirely different from what I expected, or the movies ends rather different from what I expected based on the build-up of the story during the beginning and the middle. If I know beforehand that the movie – or some part of it – is bad, and watch it anyway, I may experience discomfort, but it would be wrong to call it disappointment.

The first failure mode can only happen when I watch a movie cold, without reading up stuff and watching more than one trailer. I won’t give examples, but rather a counterexample: I was not disappointed after watching Prometheus, because I already had been fully aware of the problems with the plot and the characterisation, and I went to see it for the cool visuals only.

The second failure mode happens more often. Typically, the issue is not that the movie was outright terrible, but that it could have been much better.

One example of this is the movie InTime, a science fiction – though I would call that kind of story fantasy – story about a world where people have to buy additional lifetime, time is literally money, and will drop down dead when their clock is down. The plot is about a man and his girlfriend fighting the system, so it could be called a Bonnie & Clyde story. Since a the beginning of the movie the hero’s mother dies in his arms just a second before he could load up her clock, the dramatic end could mirror that by either him or his girlfriend dying in the other’s arms. Or, true to B&C, the end could leave them both dead.  Another possible ending for an against-the-system plot is the open end, the Bolivian Army Standoff, where the cut comes before we see either the final confrontation or the budding revolution, and are left to wonder how it will work out. What does not work for such a story is a cheesy Happy End. Unfortunately, that’s what the movie makers used. The movie was still quite good, IMHO, but not nearly as good as it could have been. (To be perfectly frank, I don’t think that the movies’ premise could have supported a really great movie.)

If a story mixes different genres, styles or themes, a really great ending depends on a good mixture during the third act (in a movie, that’s roughly the last quarter). The dominant genre, style or theme for the third act needs to be chosen correctly. Thrillers and action movies are prominent examples of this. In my opinion the best ones are those that mix the thrills and / or the action with some deeper questions:

  • The Silence Of The Lambs mixes police procedural thriller with psychological drama / horror
  • The Matrix mixes action / sci fi with philosophical exploration

Each of these is a fine example of excellent mixing, throughout and at the end of the story.

Ok, any discussion of how a story ends will have SPOILERS, so make sure you have no reason to mind before you continue …

The novel The Silence Of The Lambs is a perfect mix of procedural thriller and psychological drama. The phenomenal confrontation between rookie FBI agent Clarice Starling and Canibalistic Serial Killer Hanibal Lecter is embedded in a fast-paced, terse, but still detail-rich description of the manhunt for Serial Killer Jame Gumb. Both are tied together very strongly by the learning curve Clarice experiences, her Hero’s Journey. She is perfectly schooled and extremely well-trained, but not, as Dr. Lecter would explain, properly educated (groomed?). She has to develop deeper understanding, empathy, and a proper attitude including self-control, both to earn Dr. Lecter’s respect and collaboration, and to gather the clues that will ultimately lead her to the final confrontation with Jame Gumb. The movie neglects the specifics of her learning process, reduces the intellectual confrontation to a mere battle of wits, and focusses on the deal-with-the-devil psychological nightmare. Of course, it does this in a brilliant, Oscar-winning – and rightly so – performance.

In the novel, the third act, after Dr. Lecter’s escape from the Cage, is a strong, focused thriller plot culminating in the shoot-out. The psychological drama is over, but its effects are still in play. The deal-with-the-devil is done, but the question remains, will the information she gained from him be sufficient to find Gumb? In the movie, the third act starts rather weak, the search for Gumb feels rather arbitrary, the thrillerific tension is missing. Of course, the wonderful cross-cutting of the approach to Gumb’s house and the really tense glow-in-the-dark scene of the final confrontation make up for that. It’s a great movie! (It should also be noted that the movie is almost 25 years old, so that the perception of a proper thriller may have changed. On the other hand, the years did not affect the novel in a similar way.)

Now let’s talk about The Matrix:

It’s an awesome action movie with a deep philosophical core, comprising two essential questions:

  • How do we know what is real and what is just our perception? How important is the difference? What does reality mean?
  • How do we choose between the comfortable peace of indulgence, and the fight for our values (and our friends)? What are the consequences of either choice?

The first question is mostly covered during the first half of the movie. The second question is answered before the third act begins: Cypher’s betrayel demonstrates the evil choice, and Neo’s decision to risk his live to save Morpheus shows the heroic one.

Since the questions are answered before the third act starts, the climactic action it is no longer encumbered by pondering, navel-gazing or log-winded talking. But the answers are what fuels the action, giving it deeper meaning and intensity. Neo makes the decision that will make him the One after Morpheus is captured, but he actually becomes the One during the climax.

What makes the third act of The Matrix even better, a true example of what I call Terminate With Extreme Prejudice, is the way it resolves a severe conundrum:

  1. To save Morpheus, Neo has to defeat Agent Smith
  2. To defeat Agent Smith, Neo has to become the One
  3. To became the One, Neo has to save Morpeus (because if this happens to early and to easy, the importance would be downplayed)

You see how this is impossible, because the third part is the precondition for the first one?

The brilliant solution? The Defeat Of Agent Smith is achieved in two steps:

  • Still on hs way to become the One, with the ability to dogde bullets, and with the help of Trinity, Neo can neutralize Agent Smith to save Morpheus
  • When he really becomes the One, Neo can, on his own, eliminate Agent Smith, without even the need to dodge bullets

And the best? This two step process is set-up (planted) long before, when Neo asks Morpheus whether he will be able to dodge bullets. (“You won’t need to!”)

Difficult problems intelligently solved makes for extraordinary storytelling.

See you next week.



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