The Matrix

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 …

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