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June 29, 2015

What Makes You “Feel” for a Story?

So I saw The Lego Movie not too long ago, and I’ve never been filled with more rage.

Not because I didn’t like it, mind you; I think it’s amazing.  But if you’ve been reading this blog for long, you may know that when it was in theaters, I didn’t go to see it; instead, I went to go see the 2014 remake/reboot/repugnance that was RoboCop, as tribute for my brother’s birthday.  Calling it a miserable experience would be an understatement.  But now I’m mad all over again because instead of going to see a movie with incredible visuals, impressive action, intelligent design, and a final act that puts the whole story in a brand new light, I and other people saw cinematic tripe.  And unlike me, some people willingly chose to see RoboCop Because nostalgia.  Or because “it’s mature”.

My blood’s about to boil through my skin.  So let’s move on to the topic that’s been on my mind: how stories get you to feel something.  Besides a blinding maelstrom of fury, of course.

I almost feel dumb for mentioning it, since I’m working under the assumption that I’m the last person on earth who hasn’t seen The Lego Movie until recently, but…just in case, SPOILERS INBOUND.

It should go without saying that The Lego Movie is funny.  Consistently funny, and capable of bringing the laughs to such a high degree; I’d bet that it’s impossible for even the hardiest of grouches to sit through it without as much as a smile.  Taken as a comedy, it’s a rousing success, and as a result capable of leaving an impact based solely on how sore it’ll leave an audience’s cheeks -- the most obvious way it makes a person feel something.  But really, I’m surprised how effortlessly and gleefully it eschewed Hollywood conventions.  It’s a parody of The Matrix that in no uncertain terms tells The Matrix -- and plenty of other stories that bank on “the chosen one” concept -- to eat shit.

So basically, it’s a smarter movie than its visuals would suggest; there’s plenty of thought that went into it, with ideas and themes that are at once communicated simply and bursting with power -- a terrifyingly-positive movie that tries its hardest to unlock the inherent potential of the average Joe.  But what blew me away was just how emotional it ended up being before movie’s end.  If you had told me a month ago that I’d be fighting back tears in any scene featuring Will Ferrell, I would have slapped you across the face.  But here we are with a movie that manages to mix divine designs with something as humble as the relationship between a father and son.

I...I have something in my eye.  Oh, wait.  They're tears.  Okay, good.  Perfect.

For me at least, The Lego Movie is an overwhelming success -- something that’s truly affecting on multiple levels.  It’s got the comedy, it’s got the action, it’s got the drama, and it’s got the smarts; all things considered, it’s a total package.  It’s as if the guys behind it went wild; collectively, they all went “we just don’t give a shit!” and threw in whatever they felt like throwing in.  They wanted to make a good movie unbound by the expected traits and trappings, and they got it.  And they proved what can be done, conclusively, when a talented creator (or creators) practically reaches through the screen to touch the audience.

I’m surprised I could feel so much from a movie about plastic blocks.  But here I am -- and coming off of something like Jurassic World (and incidentally, both movies have Chris Pratt in starring roles), it’s baffling how one movie could make me feel so much, while another movie could make me feel so little.  Well, besides blooming contempt; I just love how the movie tries to subvert two people kissing thanks to adrenaline-fueled circumstances, even though it ended up playing that kiss straight well beforehand.  But that’s just one of its problems.  And while I’ve more or less made my peace with it, and while it’s not the worst movie I’ve ever seen by a long shot, it’s frustrating to feel this way about what should be a dramatic revival of the Jurassic franchise.

Like I said in my post, the only characters I genuinely cared about were Gray and Zach, and even then they weren’t even close to amazing.  Claire was all right, but she was so unbelievably stock that her potential was capped from her first scene on.  Owen felt less real than the CGI dinosaurs that surrounded him.  I didn’t feel like bothering with the rest of the cast then, and I definitely don’t feel like it now.  So to answer my own question (the title of this post), I guess what makes me “feel” for a story -- to get mentally or emotionally invested -- is the characters.  They’re the starting point for pretty much everything, so if a story -- movie, video game, whatever -- is going to make me feel something, it’d better have a worthwhile cast.  And ABSOLUTELY a worthwhile lead.  NO EXCEPTIONS.

That’s the simplest answer that I can come up with -- but this time, it doesn’t leave me satisfied.  That’s the answer I’d throw out no matter the situation, from making a good story to baking a cake.  The Lego Movie may have a memorable and lovable cast (it might have the best Batman in years), but even then I wonder if they’re only good because they take certain archetypes and shift them just slightly to the right, or if they’re only successful because they wring out enough laughs to dull the senses.  Hard to say for sure.  But the more I think about it, the more I suspect that The Lego Movie -- and indeed, stories that can make people feel something -- have a deep understanding of what needs to be done.

And my theory is that that something is this: a good story makes its story feel like the most important thing in the world.

There’s always going to be a boundary between a story and an audience -- between fiction and reality.  But a good story manages to blur that boundary, if not break it down entirely.  For just a little while, it puts everything in the real world on hold; what happens outside the story doesn’t matter nearly as much as what’s happening in it.  The Lego Movie is about saving the world in the broader scope of things, but it’s also about characters coming to terms with their weaknesses and their inability to reach their ideal forms -- but realizing that they can supplant those with ideal forms that are just as good. 

And beyond that, it’s a movie that’s secretly (or not-so-secretly) about reigniting a passion for creation and freedom, both in its godlike figures and in the audience at large.  It’s a movie about something, and no matter the level, any normal person would want them to succeed.  Any normal person would want to see things through to the end, happy ending or otherwise.  That’s a concept you can apply to any story, from something as grand as heroes standing strong against alien invaders to something as miniscule as comforting a grieving friend -- while grieving in tandem.

Framed in that perspective, maybe that’s why I feel so disconnected from stuff like Jurassic World.  I wouldn’t hate it just because it didn’t take time to talk about the ethics of genetic tomfoolery; the problem is that it has at least two big issues.  The most obvious one is that the movie is so heavily reliant on contrivances and clichés that it’s impossible to take its story and any messages it might have with even a hint of sincerity. 

But the second issue rears its ugly head when you ask a simple question: “What’s the purpose of this movie?  Why is it reviving the franchise, besides a shot at big money?”  The inherent story of Jurassic World -- the justification for its existence -- is “Dinosaurs break free and kill people.”  Or as a corollary, “Dinosaurs fight other dinosaurs.”  It’s something, sure, but it’s something completely insubstantial.  That’s especially true when it doesn’t have the spectacle needed to express that 100% of the time.

The story doesn’t feel important.  You could say the same thing about RoboCop ’14, or even something like Final Fantasy Type-0.  In the former’s case, it’s hitting the most basic plot beats and refusing to be substantive while being strung together by an unraveling through-line.  In the latter’s case, it’s built almost exclusively around an emotional core that not even a race of alien moon-men could understand, while everything else that could add weight and could be interesting gets shoved off to the corner.  I can’t feel for a story, or empathize with anyone in it, if design-wise or execution-wise it’s all just a bunch of fluff.

What I’ve said here is far from a revelation.  And on top of that, what I’m asking for isn’t some nigh-impossible task issued from on high; I’ve name-checked The Lego Movie a lot, but you know what else does a good job of bringing the feels?  Pacific Rim.  It may have some flaws, but the hot-blooded action and steely conviction that builds its foundation makes every moment of that movie matter -- and in a lot of cases, feel weightier than the giant robots that stomp through it.  So yes, there are many ways for the entire process to go wrong, but there are just as many ways -- if not more -- for everything to go so very, very right.

Well, that’s my theory, at least.  But when it comes down to it, that’s all it is: a theory.  It’s no fact of the creative arts, and no law for all would-be artisans to live by.  It’s something I’m going to be mindful of from here on, but I don’t expect anyone else to do the same.  Everyone has their own answers to “how to write a good story”, and I’ve got to respect that.  And that’s exactly why I’m opening the floor.

So it’s all in your hands now, reader.  What makes you feel for a story?  What does it for you?  Characters?  Ideas?  A series of unfortunate events?  What stories in the past have brought out the feels in you?  And to top it all off, what’s your rule to live by when it comes to creating an effective story?  Weigh in with as much or as little as you feel like saying.  Show the world your reason for being…or something similarly-weighty.

Put your pride on the line.  Ready?  Set…comment!

And that’ll do it for now.  See you next time.

But seriously, fuck RoboCop ’14.

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