Chez McBride, we’ve been recharging our batteries and doing not much of anything over the final days of summer holidays before we all go back to work and school. Cue lots of movie watching. As a story teller, I like to say that I want something new and fresh, something unconventional and exciting, yet all of these movies felt like déjà vu; I’d seen the same, or similar story told often, with only the characters and setting changed. Then again, there’s a reason why so many films, TV shows and books seen formulaic, and that’s because the formulas work. Subvert viewers’ or readers’ expectations too much, and you risk alienating your audience. The challenge for story tellers, regardless of the medium, is to find the right balance.
For readers wanting a more informed opinion, I’ve linked three of the four movies to my favourite speculative fiction movie review site. And for those who care what I think, here it is.
Leaving Orson Scott Card’s political and religious views well out of the mix…
It’s been a long, long time since I read the book on which the movie was based, so I came to the movie fairly fresh. The premise of the story: what would happen if war was computerised? And who better equipped to run the programmes than genius children, with their highly adaptable brains and lateral thinking? And how is that going to mess with said kids’ heads?
Throughout the movie, I kept wondering how much more interesting the movie could have been if the gender roles were reversed. What if Ender were a girl? What if his sister was the sadistic bully, and his brother the one who was “too compassionate” for battle school? What if Viola Davis and Harrison Ford swapped places, with Ford showing more concern for his young charges, and Davis taking the “win at all costs” position?
Ender’s Game was one of two movies recently viewed that mentioned New Zealand; Ben Kingsley’s character, with his ta moko, was instantly recognizable to this ex-pat Kiwi household as Maori – until he opened his mouth. We couldn’t decide whether to be proud that our little nation rated a mention, or offended by that poor excuse for a New Zealand accent.
Reminds me of: Movies featuring genius kids (especially if they are “The Chosen One”), kids triumphing over bullies, and/or kids being used and manipulated by adults. That encompasses a lot of movies, from “Matilda” to the “Harry Potter” and “Hunger Games” series.
“Castaway” in space, with a good 50% of the tension conveyed by Sandra Bullock breathing heavily beneath a space helmet. Bullock’s character development is predictable, her salvation assured; you know right from the beginning when everything starts going pear-shaped and Bullock starts panicking that her traumatic, life-threatening experiences will shape her into a much stronger (and still living) person by the end. Still, don’t let that detract from the deftly depicted dramatic tension, superb acting and stunning special effects.
Reminds me of: Movies in which the main character is isolated and pitted against his/her environment, and movies in which extreme adversity is character-building, such as the aforementioned “Castaway” and “127 Hours”.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
Of all the movies mentioned in this post, this was the one I connected with the most. Walter Mitty’s life (at least, in the earlier part of the movie), is not too dissimilar from my own. Ben Stiller’s Walter is cautious, introverted and risk-averse, with an outwardly conservative, boring life. The scene inside his head, however, is outlandishly adventurous (we even shared the teenaged Mohawk and the Buzzcocks T-shirt).
We all know that Walter is not going to get the girl until he becomes adventurous in “real life”. Of course, he does, (and that’s where Walter Mitty and I part ways), journeying to distant and isolated places, jumping from a helicopter into storm-tossed and shark-infested waters, outrunning volcanic eruptions and trekking in the Himalayas. Ben Stiller is oddly sexy in his three-day growth and ratty old fisherman’s jersey.
Mitty’s contrast is photographer-of-no-fixed-abode Sean O’Connell, who is everything Mitty is not, yet in a nice ironic touch, has the deepest respect and regard for Mitty and the qualities he brings to his seemingly boring day job.
Reminds me of: movies in which the main character starts out timid and conservative and is forced to grow a pair through a series of zany adventures , thus getting the girl in the end. One of my favourite examples of this trope is “Stranger than Fiction”, which is a great example of established trope meets imaginative twist. (Elsewhere – would “Zombieland” count? “Fight Club”? “The Hobbit”, minus the girl?)
The Wolf of Wall Street
The movie is based on the true story of infamous, swindling stock broker Jordan Belfort, and was my least favourite of the four. I had to look to minor characters to find anyone to empathize with, the closest being the FBI agent who pursues Belfort’s conviction for stock fraud. It went on forever and had some curious editing choices, such as an over-long scene in which a super-stoned Belfort tries to get down some stairs and into his car, and frequent addresses to the camera that are conspicuously absent in the final scene. The movie ends with Belfort working as a motivational speaker, addressing a roomful of hopefuls in Auckland, New Zealand. Another moment in which the Kiwis go, “Hey, look! They mentioned New Zealand! They know we exist!” followed shortly by, “Wait a minute…did they just use New Zealand as shorthand for ‘arse-end of the English-speaking world’?”
Reminds me of: movies in which main character uses dubious methods to achieve a meteoric rise in fortunes, has more money than he knows what to do with, parties ridiculously hard, destroys his marriage with his trophy wife, and is ultimately brought down low by the law. Examples include “Blow” and “Casino”.