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July 21, 2014

What Wins Out -- Smart or Stupid Stories?

Well, maybe not something as binary as “smart” and “stupid”, but you can’t beat that attention-grabbing terminology.

Coming off of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (dat title), I’ve been thinking a lot about the movie and its particulars.  I didn’t expect it to be that good, but much like last year’s Pacific Rim, I was pleasantly surprised.  Of course I’d prefer not to speak for anyone else, but if you need a recommendation for Dawn, you’ve got it.  In a cultural climate where there have been four Transformers movies, it’s good to see that there are still films -- even summer films -- that put in the effort and absolutely kill it in execution.

But now that the movie’s taken a place inside my unreasonably-large head, I can’t help but consider it in light of other movies, video games, and stories in general.  Dawn may be a movie that has apes with machine guns (it’s as stupid as it sounds), but it’s an intelligent movie with the skill to put forth and examine its themes.  It’s a smart movie, all things considered.  Inherently smart, gunner-monkeys aside.  Even so, it doesn’t take away from any other high-quality stories out there.  Pacific Rim is inherently stupid, but it’s also got some juice to it.  It’s got high execution as well, and brains to go along with the metaphorical brawn.

So you know what that means.  I think it’s about time we try and sort this thing out.

Lest you think I’m just trying to capitalize on recent trends, I’ve actually been thinking about this subject for a while.  See, I’ve been thinking about how (and when) I’m going to do some more posts on Kamen Rider -- and while I have a few ideas, I’m leaving them simply as that for now.  Ideas.  Just something on the farthest of backburners.  Still, over the past year or so I’ve seen several installments to completion, and the question that I’ve had to ask myself is “Which series do I like the most?” 

The answer to that is Kamen Rider OOO.  But the question that follows is “How do I rank the others?”

I’m tempted to give the #2 slot to Fourze, because -- while unabashedly stupid -- it warps around to being unbelievably well-executed by virtue of being 100% gung ho almost from start to finish.  Its passion is its character, if not its logic and general competency.  On the other hand, fan-favorite W makes a very strong argument for itself by virtue of being significantly smarter; all told, I think W is the better-written series, thanks to some better pacing and overall story beats.  But it can’t match the hype and energy of Fourze, which is kind of important for a franchise built on flamboyant suit battles.

In any case, the question changes to “Which of these would I rather watch all over again?”  And both make pretty good cases for themselves.  As do all high-quality stories.  So let’s tweak the terminology a little bit; in the case of this post, let’s not call them “stupid” or “smart”.  Let’s call them “hot” and “cool”.  A hot story is one that’s not so concerned about being thoughtful or intelligent or any of that (though there’s nothing stopping them from doing so, i.e. Pacific Rim), but about delivering thrills to an audience.  They want to give others something to remember -- something to get their hearts shaking. 

Meanwhile, a cool story is one that plays things in a more downbeat manner; it sets most (if not all) of the visceral thrills aside for a more cerebral approach.  If you’re going to remember it six months on, it’ll be because your brain is still processing the myriad ideas pushed forth -- which just might end up being the case with this Planet of the Apes movie.  So, assuming that you have one hot story going up against one cool story, and both are perfectly-executed, in an ideal state neither one is better than the other.  Inherently, at least.    

Speaking personally, I think I’d prefer a hot story to a cool one -- however slightly.  You know me by now, I hope; I like stories with heroes, and adventures, and passion, and all the stuff that wouldn’t be out of place in a Saturday morning cartoon.  I think that by this point, there have been enough stories across plenty of media outlets that have shown that you can have your action and excitement, BUT you can also have your thoughtfulness, too. 

The Captain America movies have shown that, along with plenty of other Marvel Cinematic Universe movies.  You don’t have to be complex, but you do have to offer up something of merit.  That’s the clincher.  (Then again, there are those who legitimately enjoy the Transformers movies BECAUSE they’re so stupid, so don’t take my word as law.)  That’s not to say that I’ll ignore cool stories, but given the choice between feeding my mind and feeding my soul, I suspect I’d usually go for the latter.

But hey, that’s just my opinion -- and mine isn’t the one that matters here.  Once more, this post is for you, and all about you.  So feel free to weigh in, and answer the question at hand: what wins out, smart or stupid stories?  Why do you think that is?  Which one would you prefer, if you were in a situation where you only had the chance to see ONE movie from one camp or the other?  How much overlap is allowed?

Riveting questions, to be sure (well, maybe).  So you know what to do, I hope?  Are you ready?  Get set…comment!

And as for me?  I still need to rank some Kamen Rider installments.  I’m considering just naming Wizard as the #2 series, because it’s almost eager to marry a kick-happy hero with a sorta-evil dragon inside him with an allegory for depression and suicide prevention.

Plus it has this.

Yep.  It's that kind of series.  Also, I want that sick beat to play at my funeral.


  1. I recently got into a discussion with someone lamenting over "good" Science Fiction being a lost art. My response straddles your hot and cold analogy

    "I can't really blame people for wanting characters (or love) in stories because ultimately characters are what drive the story, they're what 'matter'. If your primary focus is to teach or pitch scientific theory make a dry list. However, weaving these details seamlessly into a breathing world from the viewpoint of a single character in the world and making it seem justified and real is what defines 'good' Sci-Fi to me.

    I want to see characters using this technology to get ahead in the world, aiding their friends or outwitting their foes. I want to see a plan go horribly wrong because an erroneous human judgement threw a monkey wrench in a 'perfect plan' and see the subtle adjustments they need to make to salvage the mission.

    It is through these trials you can really show off your expertise in a field of knowledge and let even a layman relish the accomplishments of men. This has a thousand percent more impact than dry narration describing the functional details of a warp engine. "

    To me it doesn't matter how smart a story is. If it lectures me, I'm going to dismiss it as teaching. The smartest stories teach through demonstration, weaving the lesson into the trials the MC faces. I don't want to know how sub-light atomic particles react in a vacuum, but I see the appeal of seeing a genius scientist nodding and smiling at a plan involving some.

    It's all about cred. The only real difference between Fantasy and Sci-Fi is that Fantasy makes stuff up. No one can really doubt what is happening in the story as long as it is consistent in the world presented. When you stamp something as Sci-Fi you should expect criticism. In fact, you're inviting it. The point of it is to challenge science to consider other options.

    Smart movies should be the same way. They should trigger considerations and arguments. It's part of the appeal. Hot movies as you put it, instead invite you to just look at the flashing lights and shut your brain off. You probably won't take much from the movie besides amusing / cool moments scattered within. You l.eave the theater with a grin on your face, content you didn't learn a damn thing.

    Which is better? Hard to say. There's a place for both. In terms of movies, I prefer 'hot' movies it's a better element for movies. Novels are in a better element for 'cold' stories as they're a slow and casual investment. Movies you want your two and a half hours to count.

  2. Ah, interesting point on the sci-fi. Very interesting indeed -- least of all because it serves as a reminder that science and I tend to mix as well as...uh...what was it? Oh, right. Apple cider and liquefied cabbage. Whew, I'm still at the top of my science game!

    In any case, I guess it really is the optimal state for characters to have more of a hands-on approach when it comes to the science in a sci-fi story, isn't it? In a way, it kind of becomes a tool -- or even a weapon -- for the characters to use. (And the writer, natch, but the "hand of God" should try to conceal itself as much as possible.)

    Speaking more broadly, though? I guess you could say that a cool story is the high-risk, high-reward type. It takes more skill, but the payoff is much higher if you can pull it off. So I guess it's a sign of ambition, as well. Sort of. It's not that a hot story is lacking in ambition just by being simpler -- and it's pretty much my intent to stick with Team Hot in my write-ventures -- but a refocusing on what matters. Like you said, cool stories want people to walk away with their brains abuzz. Hot stories? Well, I can't help but think of Hammerfall's aptly-named "Hearts on Fire".

    I would say more, but now I need to go to YouTube. For...research. On, uh, precious metals.

    *massages fingers in preparation for throwing up the horns*