Simple, Not Stupid

So just in case you haven’t figured it out by now, I really, really, really liked Pacific Rim.  If you haven’t seen it yet, you really should.  But perhaps if you take some more convincing I can share some insights into why I liked it so much.  Believe it or not, it has a lot less to do with my love of the kaiju genre than you might think, and it’s a great chance to talk about my perceptions of modern audiences and the failings of much of modern storytelling.

Failings is too strong of a word, but there’s no doubt that there are trends in storytelling that I think mark us as a less sophisticated culture in terms of what we’ve come to expect from movies.  Ironically, it isn’t about stupid or smart, but about the perception of stupid and smart.

I hear too often that a story is “predictable” or that it lacks depth when often it’s unjustified.  We seem to have entered into this cultural expectation of overly complicated stories with the assumption that a simple story told well is somehow easy to do when it’s really the opposite.  A needlessly complicated story is relatively easy to make seem intelligent because it seems smarter by virtue of its complexity.  It’s like comedy versus drama.  Comedy is more obvious when it fails, and the same applies to simple stories.

To clarify, I’m not using the word simple to mean stupid or easy.  Instead, I’m referring to stories that are lean and easy to digest.  What is it about such stories that leads us to dismiss them so readily?  We know that good food should taste good.  We enjoy a lot of things because they are enjoyable, and it is a mark of a good song that it’s catchy or a good video game that the controls are easy to grasp.  But if a story is easy for us to understand, if it is less interested in obfuscation and more interested in being approachable, it’s deemed slight, less worthy of our respect.

Pacific Rim is a perfect example of simple storytelling done right.  It introduces its setting, its characters, their conflicts, and the larger story conflict smoothly and efficiently.  This isn’t a film that feels the need to leave us in the dark for half of its run time, only portioning out the backstory in labored flashbacks like precious treasure we should be grateful to get.  Instead, everything is clear from the start (with a few small exceptions), and it’s not hard to see the struggles our characters are going through or the greater story obstacle they must resolve.

When exactly did this become a bad thing?

Was it The Sixth Sense that convinced us a good story is supposed to surprise and shock us?  Was it before that?

There are a hell of a lot of stories out there, and there are a hell of a lot of ways to tell stories.  Not every story is a mystery.  Not every character needs to be motivated by dark secrets.  Not every plot needs a last minute twist.  And a hell of a lot of stories suffer for having to cater to a style of storytelling that imposes such restrictions.

This need to be mysterious is why so many stories are told in out-of-order fashion today.  It creates the illusion of complexity, but really all it is usually doing is making the story difficult to follow.  Last year’s John Carter imposed an unnecessary backstory on our hero (slightly annoying) and chose to reveal it only about halfway through the film (much more annoying).  The Lone Ranger saddles Tonto with his own tragic past because apparently a character who is motivated by anything other than guilt is beyond us.  Or perhaps simply because a mystery had to be imposed, and this was the easiest way to do it.

Even before being abused, I was never a big fan of non-linear storytelling.  It too often seemed like a cheat.  It can work, but only when it’s deliberately designed to work that way.  Memento is non-linear (or perhaps anti-linear is the more appropriate word), but it does so because it genuinely is the absolute best way to capture the perspective of our protagonist.  But if it isn’t absolutely essential, it’s just a way of creating false mysteries.

(I used the non-linear storytelling style in my previous novel Emperor Mollusk versus the Sinister Brain so perhaps I’m being hypocritical, but I chose to do so for very specific purposes.  Whether it works or not is always up for debate.)

The thing I absolutely adored about Pacific Rim was how resolutely uncomplicated it was.  That doesn’t mean it was stupid.  It’s certainly less gimmicky that way, and if an audience has been trained to expect mysteries and obfuscation (I really like that word in case it wasn’t obvious), it can come across as unsatisfying or even flat.  But for me, great writing isn’t about surprising the audience.  It’s about giving the audience a story they can enjoy, even if they see the ending coming from a mile away.

This is why I didn’t particularly enjoy Super 8.  It wasn’t its predictability.  It was its attempts to be mysterious while being completely predictable.  Another Abrams film, Star Trek: Into Darkness, succeeds at being unpredictable, but only by discarding any semblance of plot logic in favor of reveals and shallow surprises.  When I write my novels, I tend not to worry about surprising the audience.  Surprise is thoroughly overrated.  Surprise usually only works if the writer is cheating in some way.

No doubt, my criticism of Abrams is pointless.  The guy is more successful than I’ll ever be, and I think he’s even very good at what he does.  It’s easy to sit on the sidelines and say negative things about his work, but the guy makes popular media.  Any complaints I lodge at him can sound more like sour grapes than anything else.

But that’s why a film like Pacific Rim deserves more respect than it generally gets.  It is not complicated.  It’s direct and to the point.  The story is not an attempt to throw you for a loop.  There’s no sudden revelation that everything you’ve been told up to this point is a lie.  The characters’ motivations are obvious (as they usually are in real life) and the conflict is up front.  The film relies not on gimmicks or narrative tricks, but on a hope that the audience will invest in a story because it is worth investing in, not because they need to be convinced it is more complex than it is.

This beautiful simplicity is also what makes the battle scenes a joy to behold.  Rather than attempting to impress you with how he can swoop the virtual camera or how many jump cuts he can splice between punches, Del Toro elects to give us a view of the action that we can follow.  He assumes, rightly or wrongly, that a giant robot punching a giant monster is pretty damned cool, and we don’t need to be convinced.  We only need to be allowed to see it happen.

It’s an underrated mindset, and one that I hope makes a comeback sooner than later.  The new generation of filmmakers love their swooping shots, their shaky cameras, their rapid jump cuts.  Maybe there’s no coming back from that, but Pacific Rim reminded me how much I love a story I can actually follow without a flowchart and a battle scene where two punches can be thrown in a row without having to change camera angles.

That’s a beautiful thing, and just as I appreciate writer who isn’t trying to drowned me in vocabulary words and an artist who is more interested in capturing the moment than in the number of stitches he can draw on the superhero’s costume, I love a director who respects me enough to get out of my way and let me enjoy the film, rather than stepping in front of me every ten seconds to remind me he’s there.

That’s just one of the reasons Pacific Rim is a great film, and probably why a lot of people will dismiss it as fluff, too.  But if you take a moment to think about storytelling beyond the gimmicks, beyond the obfuscation (again, love that word), you just might realize how all those tricks make an ordinary story seem better than it is while right in front of you, another great story is being told well without gimmicks.

Keelah Se’lai

Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,

Lee

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6 Comments

  1. Kate Cornell
    Posted July 17, 2013 at 7:38 pm | Permalink

    I thought Pacific Rim was great. I had the ending in my head within 15 minutes, but it didn’t matter because there was a ride that was going to be enjoyed. We all know the drop comes with the T-Rex on the Jurassic Park Ride at Universal, but we keep jumping off and running back to the line.

    In many ways, I like a simple story in an action movie. It means I don’t have to sit there and say, “Why was that guy doing that? It doesn’t make any sense because it will later?”

    Pacific Rim advertised exactly what it was and it executed wonderfully and beautifully and the thing with the chest rockets and the sword and drifting all just great. Just a great ride.

  2. Posted July 19, 2013 at 12:25 am | Permalink

    Preach it! Thank you for this post. I still need to get out and see Pacific Rim, but now I’m even more excited. Love me some simple stories told well.

  3. Posted July 19, 2013 at 9:20 am | Permalink

    I’m not sure that all simple storylines are dismissed as fluff, although it doesn’t help that Pacific Rim is scifi. Django Unchained was a pretty simple storyline, too, but didn’t get dismissed as easily for that because it dealt with slavery — pretty hard to dismiss a simple story as fluff when it’s about that topic. (Django was I thought unfairly criticized for being superviolent, which I thought was a unique reaction to it, prompted by people’s discomfort with the theme of slavery: people couldn’t say “Boy, I wish you hadn’t brought up the whole ‘white people enslaving black people’ thing,” so they said instead “Did you have to make it so violent?” which was a way I think of saying “Couldn’t you sort of make slavery look the way Paula Deen wants us to remember it: romantic and beautiful and noble?” (I also thought that Tarantino used the violence to show just how brutal slavery was; we already know whippings and the like are harsh, but the overabundance of blood on our national movie screens seems to me to be symbolic of the blood on our national conscience.)

    But I digress. The critiques I’ve read of Pacific Rim that didn’t like it pointed out things like the father/son team seeming to hate each other but still being able to drift (I think I’ve got that right?) and that the characters seemed almost to be cardboard cutouts. I haven’t seen it, so I don’t know.

    But I do agree with you that stories need not be twisty or surprising or anything. I suppose you could make a confusing twisty dark “Robots v. Kaiju” story, but why? Monster stories need not be subtle to be enjoyable.

    I assume I’ll see the movie on Netflix, so hopefully giant robots still look impressive on regular-sized TVs.

    • A. Lee Martinez
      Posted July 19, 2013 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

      I think your thoughts on Django are dead on.

      As for the notion that the father and son team had a conflict of personality and that this might have made drifting difficult, not once in the story does it mention getting along is the key to a successful drift. It was more about understanding and being able to read your partner, something the father and son could certainly do.

      I would urge you to see it on the big screen because it is worth seeing in an environment that doesn’t distract you. Plus, this movie deserves to be seen in a theater.

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment.

  4. JB Sanders Jr
    Posted July 19, 2013 at 11:31 pm | Permalink

    Hi Kate.

    After seeing Man of Steel, Pacific Rim was like a breath of fresh air, and I’m with you on the jump cuts, just because you have an actor who can’t do a believable fight scene. That style has become the norm in action movies and I consider it a lazy way of story telling.

  5. Posted August 12, 2013 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

    I also liked Pacific Rim for the reason that it was fun and uncomplicated. It gave you exactly what you expected of it and there’s nothing wrong with that. My only regret is that I didn’t get a chance to see it on the real IMAX screen because that would have been awesome.

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