Thursday, January 24, 2008

Action Movies and Bad Decisions

Discussed herein: bad decisions, pompous movie reviewers, Cloverfield, various kinds of death, Scream, whether Sofie Fatale's dismemberment in Kill Bill was realistic or not, the difference between watching a movie and being in a movie

People think highly of themselves when it comes to reviewing action movies, I’ve noticed. Even the most self-depreciating schlub will credit himself with having laser-precise critical thinking abilities in bullet-ridden, explosion-rattled action scenes. He’ll criticize a movie’s characters for making decisions that seem illogical, all from the comfort of his theater seat and with the buffer of reality between him and the on-screen action. Given the luxury of retrospect, which action movies rarely provide, these characters might also realize the flawed nature of their actions, I suppose, though the more frequent result of boo-boos in shoot-em-ups would probably be getting shot up.

Mr. Naysayer irks me just a little. Though he has every right to say that a characters’ illogical actions prevented him from enjoying a give n movie, I feel like he might be holding folks on screen to higher standards than he would himself if he were plunked into a real-life version of a hokey action scene.

A discussion of Cloverfield on a blog I’ve started following prompted this train of thought. (And for the record, stop reading if you have any desire to see Cloverfield without knowledge of what kind of horrible end the film’s characters meet.) More than a few readers said they felt annoyed at the inherent stupidity of the movie’s human protagonists. (I specify “human protagonists” because the real star, of course, is the monster.) I admit that these people’s decision to travel back into a destroyed Manhattan to rescue a friend was a foolish one. The characters themselves probably realized this two, seeing as how all but one dies in some kind of horrible fashion. (In order: taken down along with the collapsing Brooklyn Bridge, swollen to the point of bursting as a result of some evil monster venom, eaten and then spit out, and then broiled the military-initiated inferno that ultimately destroys all of Manhattan. Only one of the six escapes the island on a helicopter, and even her survival isn’t assured.) But given their fractured mental state and the events leading up to their ill-fated trek through the city, I wonder if they could have been able to make a good decision.

In the film, de facto leader Robert (Michael Stahl-David) seems shellshocked enough by the arrival of the monster and the subsequent death of his brother Jason (Mike Vogel) on the bridge that a phone call from a seriously injured Beth (Odette Yustman) sends him back to rescue her. Lily (Jessica Ford), the only apparent survivor and the girlfriend of the newly dead brother, agrees to come along too, possibly out of some displaced grief over the end of her relationship — if she and Jason are no longer, then why shouldn’t every effort be made to help Robert and Beth? In a way, her decision to come along can almost make sense in light of the fact that whatever heroics she performs could erase her guilt at letting Jason die. Finally, two more — amateur videographer Hud (T.J. Miller) and sardonic hanger-on Marlena (Lizzy Caplan) — follow along in a manner one reviewer accurately described as lemming-like. But even then, does walking into certain death with people you know beat out risking possible death alone? Hud and Marlena seem to think so, even though people in that situation probably wouldn’t have ever consciously processed that thought.

Yes, the decision is a terrible one. But it’s easy to say that because we the audience members don’t share the bonds of friendship that we’re led to believe drive these characters to act like assholes. (A thought: Saving Private Ryan meets Godzilla.) My defense of the characters' collective lack of logic was perhaps a lousy one: It’s a monster movie and therefore it doesn’t matter. But even the review that the Independent ran this week noted that Cloverfield’s human protagonists are essentially the extras in the movie. The heroes working to stop the beast don’t figure largely into the story, and, much like the unimportant normals appearing in most such films, these "extras" do stupid things and die. For some, it seems, these people’s decisions proved far more problematic. I have to wonder, though, even if they didn’t make choices as horrendously bad as the Cloverfield cast’s, would they really be so on top of their game? How, exactly, does one not die in a monster attack?

The situation reminds me a lot of Scream, a good movie that spawned a whole genre of deathly boring imitators whose characters seems all-too-aware of how people should act in movies but died anyway. In Scream, Neve Campbell’s character has that awesome line about slasher movies in which she calls them “insulting” because they routinely feature “some stupid killer stalking some big-breasted girl who can't act who is always running up the stairs when she should be running out the front door.” Then she’s promptly put in her place when the killer comes after her and she stupidly flees up the stairs, proving that even the most self-aware person might cease to function so calmly and coolly when thrust into an adrenaline-raddled state. To compare this all to another film, I’m going to recall how some friends deemed Kill Bill unrealistic for having Bellagio-style fountains of blood flowing from body holes. I countered with “That’s the point, you shit,” and followed up with the notion that most of them haven’t ever chopped off somebody’s arm with a samurai sword and for all they knew, Sofie Fatale’s dismemberment happened entirely realistically.

In the end, I guess my point is entirely moot. As I already said, everybody has their own opinion about what in a given movie worked and what didn’t. However, I just hope that people declaring that the girl running down the alley in a life-or-death frenzy should have totally turned left when she instead turned right. (The idiot.) Movie characters definitely must be held to some sort of realistic standard for the choices they make, but those critiquing these movies should also stop and ask themselves two questions: “Would I have actually been able to think clearly, given the situation?” and “Do this quibbles in motivation really matter in this kind of movie?”

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