The Breakers: Blade Runner

Oh yes… you knew this was coming if you’ve been watching my blog.  My all time favorite film.

spoilers

Luv me some River Song.

So I finally dissected Blade Runner with the Hero’s Journey and had a fun time doing it.  I also am doing a little different setup, because I broke it down by time when these steps began to my estimation in the movie.  Now when you watch it again, you will be able to follow right along.

Now, a personal taste note.  I have the Unrated version, the “Directors Cut” and the “Final Cut”.  I plan to get some freaky box set of the movie on BluRay when I get the chance.  This article was done watching the Final Cut, which is excellent in many ways.  Particularly with the cleaned up special effects, which barely needed it, but also the use of the ambiguous ending and included stock unicorn footage from Legend which Ridley Scott added in to give a huge level of ambiguity.  Generally I love this edit… but…

I like the monologue and the original “I want more life, F****r.” line… NOT Father.  More about that later.  Let’s begin

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First off, this is a film noir trope twist set in a cyberpunk future.  It’s really the first of its kind.  Many have tried to follow after it, some successfully but most… not so much.

12. Status Quo

Yes, we start with the top of the clock.  The world is set up brilliantly during the opening credits.  First with the opening crawl with the blah blah blah of what the world is.  But then FOOM!  Volcanic eruption on flame showing the bleak world and we slowly pass through this strange city of “Los Angeles” to the Tyrell Arcology where Leon has a bad job interview and puts four pills into the Blade Runner, Holden.  This blends rather seamlessly in to the Call to Adventure, so the two layer onto each other with Deckard’s “arrest” by Gaff and trip to the police station to see Capt. Bryant.

Cinematically brilliant.  This is where movies catch a break when it comes to exposition.  If you do it well, you can get away with what is essentially 5 pages of describing the world in a manner that could technically be really boring.  Another movie that gets this right is the remake of “Appleseed” where Deunan is brought to Olympus.  I may have to take a gander at that movie next.  Hmmmm?

Now comes the stylistic debate.  Voiceover, or no?  I like the trope of a good voice over.  I know that Harrison Ford had to be all but forced at gunpoint to do it, it’s a great trope.  I know Ridley Scott said the studio did it because “American audiences are believed to be too stupid”, but it’s also expected.  Some of the lines were… meh… but it added that wonderful film noir feel you can really enjoy if you let yourself fall into the style of the tropes.  But, does it hurt the film if it’s cut out?  Not in any way that’s substantial.

1. Call to Adventure

Some may say that Capt Bryant forcing Deckard to do one last mission is the real call to adventure, but I maintain that its really the Assistance.  Gaff forcibly pulling Deckard from the Noodle vendor is where our hero is irrevocably yanked from his life and dropped into the mess.  He makes one futile attempt to avoid the call when he argues with Bryant, but that feeble slap quickly blurs into the second step.

This goes to show that resisting the call can be feeble and still effective, and build on the Status Quo.  Here is one area where the voice over adds some great depth but does it in what I’d call a blah way by talking about Bryant’s racism.  We get a good feel for it with all the excellent acting.  I really appreciate how understated acting of M. Emmet Walsh plays out.  He never gets too over the top and shows that menace can be subtextual and brilliantly effective.  Once presented with no choice for threat of retribution we go to…

2 Assistance

Deckard is given his best tool: information.  Not only does it continue to feed the Status Quo, it is entertainingly done and snaps hard with the high contrast feel of the film noir tropes.  Two men talking with each other by talking around each other in some regards.  Detailed exposition is given out with the eyedropper of dialogue.

But Bryant also gives a nice twist to the whole assistance section by subverting… lightly a “Grill the suspect” trope.  Sending Deckard over to get more help from the Tyrell corporation and getting toyed with by Dr. Tyrell with his new production model was ingenious, plus it introduced us to a huge pillar of the world: The Voight-Kampf test.  Information leaks out about the world even more, plus the stunning visuals, the introduction of the Femme Fatale in the form of Rachel, and the creepy/crazy little scientist.  The layering on this part of the Hero’s Journey is fantastic.

Because then you have a mirror image of assistance in Roy’s interrogation of Lu Chen with Leon.  (James Hong is one of my personal all time favorite character actors, so I’m biased there)  Again, you get subtext and connection to illuminate more about the antagonists going up against Deckard.  Roy is a perfect vaudevillian…no… Shakespearian counterpart to Deckard’s amiable aping of Humphrey Bogart.  You need this level of high fallutin’ artistic menace to something as plebian as a burnt out retired cop.  The juxtaposition of the characters just works.  Even the dull, thudding threat of Brion James’s Leon is a great frame for Rutgar Hauer’s fantastic job creating a pathos ridden Roy, seeking a very good MacGuffin: the desire for more life.  I mean come ON!  How awesome is that?  This guy’s got such a distinctive goal.  He just wants to live longer and now Deckard is set in motion to cut his already short life even shorter.  Mind you, this technically occurs a little later after Deckard’s searching of his hotel room, this is all braided together so it belongs here thematically.  ***Note: IMDB lists the character name as Hannibal Chew for James Hong.  Horsecrap.  He’s called Lu Chen in the movie by Roy.  So I don’t know what they’re thinking.

Ahhh but we can’t forget the last layer of assistance: J.F. Sebastian.. discovered by Pris, who then gives us another glimpse into a rather unpleasant aspect of society.  Only the physically prized people and slaves are sent off world.  Earth is left with the dregs.

3. Departure

With everyone now set on their courses, collisions are seen on the horizon, but first we get a near miss as Deckard investigates Leon’s hotel room looking for clues.  This  is actually a lot more complex in this too, because Deckard “departs” in multiple ways.  First his investigation gets underway as he finds the sequin and the snake scale in the tub plus Leon’s photos.  All this done under the watchful eye of Gaff, plus Leon shown outside on the wet street looking up knowing he cannot go back for what HE prizes: his memories.  This gives him an extra oomph when he plays the heavy to Roy’s interrogation of Lu Chen.

When Rachel confronts Deckard about her Voight Kampf test you see an internal departure.  No longer is Deckard separate from his work, he’s re-integrated and she is nothing more than a machine.  A very complex, hard to understand machine.  This is his emotional departure as he puts on the hard detatchment required for him to do the job.  Rachel on the other hand is undergoing so much turmoil from being essentially cast aside by her creator.  This is one area where the script is not really clear why Tyrell did this unless it is to imply she failed so he threw her away, or that he did it to complicate the situation the police were facing for… reasons.  That said, Rachel endures her own departure echo as being thrown out from paradise.

The Unicorn Dream also begins to create the unreliable narrator.  Is Deckard a replicant or not.  Now recent conversations with Ridley Scott say he is, old interviews with Harrison Ford say he wasn’t.  Others say, Ridley also might have manipulated Ford into thinking that for the sake of getting a better performance.  The scene still is an exemplification of a spiritual departure.  Deckard must now look at the nature of his own existence on some level.

4. Trials (Begins 0:43)

The Photograph search is a puzzle trial.  Simple, but intriguing.  Although film would never have that much detail available, it is still brilliant to watch and see the wheels turn.  This is a scene that would have been impossible to do in almost any printed media.  Comics could have taken a shot, but come far short.  The puzzle, once solved gives a clue on where to look next and that’s the night bazaar.  To this day I love the idea of a street corner stall electron microscope.  I find that hilarious.  What kind of a world do we live in where such precision technology could be reduced to that degree of commercialism?  Goes to enrich the status quo and give us the next trickle of information.  Also, this is the third time we see reinforcement that the Earth’s eco-system is dying.  A theme that was strong in the novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” but largely non-existent in the movie save as a flavoring.

The trials take us on a very typical Film Noir trope of ‘chasing the clues’.  We also get a tip of the hat to Film Noir classic “Casablanca” with Deckard showing up at Taffy Lewis’s which has an erotic stage show and seems very much cabaret inspired. (Side note, I love the champagne glass in which Deckard gets a free drink.  I don’t know why, but I find them beautiful).  Taffy Lewis is a wonderful sleezeball bar owner of nefarious implications.  Even in his short bit of screen time he sets the tone well.  This really brings out why even toss off characters can be powerful in setting your scenes.  Never underestimate the power of a bit player to make a scene something special is my takeaway here.

Interrogating a second Femme Fatale, Zorah, was masterful acting, but also a well developed scene.  From the “waiting at the stage door” trope to the “narrowly escaping sexy death” subtleties line up the clues and do the storytelling while the conversation is under the repartee of Deckard and Zorah that unto itself is riotous.  Then we get the iconic chase scene through the mass of humanity.  It tells us a lot about Deckard as well as the desperation of the replicants in general.  Zorah is so desperate to get away, she goes out half naked, completely inappropriate hoping that the mass of humanity would hide her even in that provocative outfit.  Deckard is also very careful in his shots, showing he is trying to take care not to harm an innocent.

And after all that, we get the last big trial for Deckard: Surviving Leon.  Although the cops did not notice either Leon or Rachel who witnessed Zorah’s death from the way the scene plays out, it creates a “hero at the mercy of the villian” scene when Deckard cannot defeat Leon, but can protect his bottle of booze.  I have a soft spot for Leon for a personal reason I’d never reveal online so, this is such a fun scene for me.  Plus his iconic “Wake up!  Time to die” line, I mean just perfect.  I even forgive the Deus Ex Rachel part of it, because it sets up so much and is quite appropriate.  For those who wonder why Rachel was even there?  It was set up by the vid-phone call.  She changed her mind and came down to see what Deckard wanted, the police were all over the place, and found him in the center.  Leon shows up interrupting her talking to him till she puts a bullet through Leon’s head with Deckard’s gun

5. Approach (Begins 1:03)

Roy and Pris meet up and J.F. figures out who they are.  This begins the final approach of Roy to his goal, Dr. Tyrell in an effort to get more life.  The scenes here are good because it sets up more the character of Roy and Pris, and J.F. is the gatekeeper to their goal.  They must seduce him to gain access and do so in a manner that is charming.  They appeal to his ego, playing both the amazing creation in action and lost children.  “We’re so happy you found us.” is Roy’s clever lie to paint themselves as lost waifs that need his protection.  They then get the key to access: J.F. and Tyrell’s chess game which Roy is good at playing.

With his bell being rung, and both shaken up over two deaths, Deckard and Rachel bond.  This is more or less a trial of the spirit for the two as both realize their feelings for each other are forbidden, but also that Deckard has more clear understanding of what is going on.  Rachel, after something that too many nowadays would call ‘rape’ not seduction, gives in to her own feelings.  It’s a very film noir trope again,  (I told you it was film noir.) as the detective falls for the dangerous femme fatale and vice versa.  Watch “The Big Sleep” or “Dark Passage” sometime and see how that works.  You’ll shake your head.  This sets up the approach to escape in a way, but is also necessary to push Deckard on to finish the job fast so he can get out of the limbo he is trapped in.

Deckard kills Pris enraging Roy (Desync- Begins 1:28)  Now for an oddity.  The last step to the final crisis: aka conflict with Roy Batty, Deckard fights Pris.  She is Roy’s gatekeeper.  Tipped off that trouble is coming by the fake phonecall following Tyrell and J.F.’s death in the Tyrell building by Roy (this is why it’s a de-sync) Pris readies for Deckard and becomes the most dangerous challenge and sets the stage and tone for the final battle.  It is one of the most bizarre fights I’ve ever seen.  Darryl Hanna is great.  She’s playing essentially a super strong prostitute, so it makes sense that her moves and actions are almost more artsy, dance-like and flailing than a trained fighter.  We also learn that Deckard is not a fist-fighter, but a gunslinger.  Without his gun, he’s pretty much useless.  Something that becomes a big deal.  But, once Pris dies… rather horrifically IMHO… it leaves the viewer almost shattered at the end of the sequence.  Dat scream, yo?  And it serves as the signal that Roy’s home from what he’s just been up to, which is his OWN crisis.

6. Crisis (Begins 1:20)

First off, it’s “I want more life, fucker!”.  Not “father”.  Why?  The power of that one statement is so complex with the curse word.  You already know he is coming to see his de facto father.  Long been established with the subtleties of the film.  He does not need to hammer it home.  What makes this complex and nuance by the cussing is this points out the same problems an abused child has.  They love the parent, but they hate them at the same time.  It makes the murder so much more powerful when you take it all into effect and pour on that very weird kiss to which I give HUGE credit to Joe Turkel and Rutger Hauer for making it both believable, creepy and completely appropriate for the scene.

Even though the death of J.F. occurs off screen, it is none the less powerful as J.F.’s brief flight from someone he thought was his friend becomes his doom.  Then to watch Roy Batty descend in the elevator showing the conflict on his face as to what he’d done is so powerful… Not to mention Vangelis pulling out all the orchestral stops for the first time in the movie… yeah… nails it.  Tour de Force climax that a writer could only hope to put into a book.

Now we resync everything together.  Roy’s climax is done.  His Macguffin is forever lost and his tragedy nears his completion.  He returns to find his lover dead, and the man sent to kill him hiding somewhere inside.  But Roy is better than Deckard in every way, except he lacks a gun.  The great leveler, we see Roy needing to counter the old American addage “God made man, Sam Colt made all men equal”.  He does this brilliantly, by taunting Deckard into a shaking mess then going through a wall to disable Deckard making the gun nearly useless to him.

Here is where Deckard’s climax goes to 11.  A gunslinger who can’t shoot against a trained killer who’s already killed 3 people in the film and implied to have killed many many more is after him… and he made that guy mad.  On a positive note, Roy wants him to suffer like he is suffering, as well as realizing this is his swan song.  Deckard is just trying to get out of this alive at this point.  No other thought is driving him.  Time after time, Roy gets in Deckard’s face, taunting him and threatening him, but never tries to kill him.  It is as if the torture of the ordeal is enough.  He’s enjoying it on some level, but he’s also trying to drive a point home to someone who essentially represents the Grim Reaper come for him.

In many regards, this turns the climax on its head in this light.  We view the whole thing through Deckard’s eyes.  Roy is this unstoppable monster that has taken away his ability to defend himself, or do his job and now seems to want his life in revenge.  He and we as the audience are freaking out because we don’t know when that deathblow is going to fall, and Deckard climbs and climbs and runs and runs through the ruin of the building which stands in for the ruin of the world till he reaches the top and becomes trapped.  So frantic to escape, Deckard throws himself across the gap hoping to make an escape, and fails.

7. Treasure (Begins 1:44)

The real “all is lost” moment and “in praise of the villain” speech are rolled together.  Not only that, it is the scene of victory and Treasure for Roy more than it is for Deckard.  This is some serious tangling of tropes and throws the definition for ‘what is success’ out the window.

Roy give his own eulogy here as he watches Deckard dangle.  He luxuriates in the power he holds over a man he can save instantly or just watch drop with the satisfaction he avenged not only Pris, but Leon and Zorah too.  Waxing rhapsodic, you see Deckard is completely beyond hearing anything that Roy is saying.  Gravity has a way of focusing one’s priorities and his priority is to just not die.  So who is Roy talking to?  The audience really, in one of the best monologues captured on film.  But in context of the story, he is talking to himself.  He’s taking stock of his short life and realizing he has seen and done incredible things.  By the end of his speech and Deckard’s near fall, it catalyzes his love of life and expands it from the selfish to a universal.  Deckard rightly points out that in his final moments, all the things that had upset him, he realized time was unimportant and only life was important (see what I did there?  😛 ).  It gives him a peace so profound he not only accepts his fate, he transcends it.

Deckard on the other hand is stuck with a more mundane treasure.  He gets to live and return to the life he had of a burnt out retired cop.  All the high concept, spiritual epiphanies of Roy Batty washed away just like the tears in rain (an ad libbed line BTW) as he tried to comprehend what happened while he was focused on not dying.  Although Deckard is not just given his life back, he is given one big wrinkle too as his reward.

 

8. Result (Begins 1.46)  9. Return (Begins 1:48)  10. New Life (Begins 1:51)

Now here’s one spot where the story gets a little weak IMHO.  Why did not Gaff do his job and kill Rachel… in Deckard’s bed… while she was asleep?  He had the chance.  The origami unicorn confirms it.  But now, since he cannot allow Rachel to be killed, part of the Treasure is that he now must run from the law as Rachel is now an illegal replicant.  His new life begins as that of an outlaw.  But he does it together with a new love and new outlook on life.  He heard a little of Roy Batty’s ramblings in his death throes.

As the viewer, we’re given the extra treasure that  the ambiguous ending allows us to have.  Is Deckard a replicant?  How long will either live?  (Which if you had the voice over, you’d know… no incept date so no lifespan limiter.)  It’s one of the few times the ‘happy ending’ was kinda good because it was not purely a happy ending and the voiceover was perfect.  Another note on the voice over… having Ford being so resistant to it added to the attitude of a burnt out cop even moreso.

The finale hits all the tropes for a Film Noir ending.  “Detective Gets Girl”, the “Cops get the Right Man”, “Running away to an uncertain future”… all of it’s there so that makes one helluva satisfying payoff, with the happy or ambiguous ending.

Squeeeeeeee!

 

 

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The Breakers: Mad Max:Fury Road -Something Wicked This Way Comes

The Breakers was the original idea for this series title.  Its more of what I was thinking of but derped when trying to name it.

Just for those who didn’t guess it by the title:

spoilers

 

Originally, I was going to write about only one movie, “Something Wicked This Way Comes”.  A gem of a little film and the first horror film that Disney ever really did.  Sure there are scary parts throughout many other films (The Black Cauldron or Darby O’Gill and the Little People), but this one was devoted to it.

What I was going to discuss was the dissection of story with the Hero’s Journey again, but had an epiphany about it while talking to a friend on what I was going to write.

I realized that Joseph Campbell’s “Clock” denoting the 12 main ideas of the Hero’s Journey were handed extremely differently between Mad Max: Fury Road and SWTWC.  I further realized that this is not an isolated thing, save for MMFR.

First, here’s a reminder for those who don’t remember what the clock looks like.

What is this monster realization?

Well, first off, In SWTWC (and also in T5E I looked at last time) is that if you look at the clock, and treated it as proportional time given to a story, proportionally.  On the other hand, when you watch most movies, the first six steps take up well over three quarters of the plotline, leaving sometimes only 15 minutes of a two hour story  (and in some cases even less… I’m looking at you SW:ANW).  For the last three steps (Return, New Life, Resolution) it is somewhat short shrift IMHO.

Furthermore, sometimes half the movie is spent in steps 1-3 and then spends most of the last half shoving through 4-9, while leaving 10-12 hanging.  I realized that I saw this in many films actually, but this is the first time I realized that Roger Miller did something very different from this in MM:FR.  He flipped it to a certain extent.  Now, the setup (Status Quo, Call to Adventure, Assistance and even Departure) are all crammed into the first 15 minutes, while the ending four slices of the clock take up almost 30-40 minutes on their own.  Even better that it works astoundingly well.

Mind you, Roger Miller got to cheat a little.  He was not establishing anything new.  If you were going to this film you had either seen all of or at least some of the previous movies so you knew what the status quo was.  In such an apocalyptic setting, it didn’t take much for him to get that call to adventure, nor help… though he does get it twice (The first when Nux demands him up front on his car and the second when Furiosa includes him on the escape getting him to drive the war rig)

The best part of this film is that it pays off with an all in royal flush even though a lot of the action occurs after a lovely trick of a “Lesser Reward”.  They are already looking a “New Life” and ready to start their resolution when Max shows them a greater reward and that is to reverse the “Return” and try to stealth by Immortan Joe and the rest and steal the coveted green space from him.  I am not sure if this is a pushing back of the clock to the “Crisis” point again, or an expansion of the Return.

But with them going back regardless of how you look at it, the return, is fraught with its own peril akin to the “Result” on steroids.  Immortan Joe is defeated… messily, they take the citadel and begin their new lives, with only Max deciding to be Max in the end.  Oh well.  Helloooooo new sequels!  (Which apparently are already started).

Such a bad trailer… I mean wow.  Marketing really didn’t know what to do.

 

On the other hand, SWTWC spends almost 30 minutes setting up the Status Quo alone.  Now, this is definitely NOT a poorly spent 30 minutes.  It is immersive and very much a pleasant departure to a pastoral 1930’s small Illinois town that is somehow untouched by the Great Depression.  It’s one of the first times you will see a writer “Chew the Scenery” like Ray Bradbury does, and Disney lets him get away with.  Some of my favorite in cinema.  It sets up the dichotomy between the evil that is coming and what I think so many of us wished we still lived in.  Not only that, the “Call to Adventure”, “Assistance” and even the Departure almost take a full 50 minutes or so into the 90 minute film before the approach starts.  I like to consider the Departure to be synonymous with the breaking of Miss Foley’s window.  Although we have been watching the damage done by Dark’s Pandemonium and Carnival, its been set up for the trials or at least dangers that threaten Will and Jim and Mr. Halloway.

The final conflicts of the movie occur in 2 points, and they are mostly internal in nature.  Heavy on the temptation and the ultimate failure of Mr. Halloway to stand up for the boys in the face of evil, but he is only toyed with as Mr. Dark retrieves his McGuffin (the boys) and is satisfied with having suitably cowed Mr. Halloway into cowardice.  Of course, this fails, and the final confrontation of inner demons happens at the mirror maze in what could be viewed on one angle as cheesy, but on another, it makes a great morality play on the power of love over regret and sorrow.  Even if you call that the “Result” stage which culminates in the freak storm, it has stepped over the “Reward”, which it turns out has become a bitter sweet reward of a new, changed perspective while retaining a lot of what was loved about the first 30 minutes of the film in protecting the status quo.  Yes, it has changed for poor Mr. Tetley, Miss Foley, Ed the Barman, and Mr. Crossetti forever, but that is to be expected, and thank God Disney did not insist that they be saved from their choices.

BTW, the Reward, Return, Result and New Life take place in the final 3 and lasts less than 1:50 of the movie before the credits roll.  But on the other hand, the handling of those final 110 seconds is masterfully done.  In that, the establishing shots reconnect the viewer with the original ideals, explain what had changed for the characters but yet what was still retained.  In this, Ray Bradbury, who wrote this screenplay as well, was sublime.  It takes real skill to provide a satisfying ending like that in so short a time and not leave us feeling cheated.  Of course, having good skill in using the narrator’s voice helped a ton.  The use of voice-over at the beginning and end are well handled and appropriate as it is done by an adult Will.

Now, why do I consider though this to not be bad goes back to a ‘throw away’ piece of set design.  When the Barber, Mr. Crossetti is discovered to be missing, the only indicator is his pole is still turning and a sign in the window saying “Closed due to Illness”.  Now, I find this brilliant because of something I know of history.  The nation had become numb to many horrors thanks to WW1, which is hinted at with Tom Fury walking with his army uniform and Campaign Hat on with chin strap.  But also a sign like that in Mr. Crossetti’s would have been very familiar thanks to the Swine Flu epidemic which ravaged the US in 1918.  That influenza epidemic was horrifically deadly and often killed those who seemed healthiest in society (by a process which we now understand called a Cytokine Storm), and left many a house behind the quarantine sign.  Which made the excuse perfectly legitimate and believable as well being a very subtle touch for authenticity.

Honestly I thought the movie was more into the early 1920’s, but then realized that the bar was operating openly during a time of prohibition.  Therefore, it must have been after, and I doubt it would have been before because of the cars.  Otherwise it goes into that magical Disney era of Walt’s youth that blends the most pleasant aspects of society from a child’s point of view during that era.  Walk down Walt Disney World’s Mainstreet USA and see what I mean.

What this all is teaching me is that there does not be a balance in how much time is devoted to each “hour” of the Hero Journey clock, but rather how it moves the story forward.  Not only that, sometimes the reward is not always what you think it means.

Scrapyard: Improving My Craft

First, a hat tip to David Lawrence, another aspiring author, head of The Seraphim Regiment : Christian Online Gaming Guild and co-inspirational goofus for driving me in this drive towards making writing my career and really working at my craft.  Thanks for the inspiration to try this out.  Go check his blog out.

Two resources have been put front and center in my writing life right now.  First is one I found and latched onto like a lamprey, while the other has come up behind me and clubbed me a good one thanks to Dave.

The first is “The Story Grid” by Sean Coyne while the second is “The Hero with a Thousand Faces” by Joseph Campbell and the Hero’s Journey.  The two are revolutionizing how I write and work with my stories.  What’s even better is to realize how much I used before learning more about these things on instinct.  I think I can blame 30 years of being a GM for various RPGs and participating in oral storytelling for most of my life.

5-the-fifth-element_1326240088

 

So last night, I started analyzing some of my favorite films.  Yes, 2am, Christmas Eve/Day is a good time to watch a movie when you should be keeping your regular schedule.  What did I pop in?  “The Fifth Element“.  Not the most holiday-like of a film but it was what I wanted to see as I resisted the re-watching of “Blade Runner” because I’m on a giggly anticipatory edge for the sequel.  That, I will watch later today.  What I wondered was why, although “The Fifth Element” is an incredible movie, it doesn’t quite go over the ‘critical hump’ to make it a masterpiece.

What I realized is that it did not quite manage the “Hero’s Journey” in a completely satisfying manner or its delivery of obligatory scenes was not quite up to snuff, and made up for the gap in the storytelling with a richness of top notch production design (which nobody can disagree with.  Nope sorry, your argument is invalid because reasons.) and good acting.

Luc Besson spends a long time building the universe, and although it’s fun to watch everything up to the point of Korben Dallas getting into the story (the true personification of the hero in the story) it is about 20 minutes of setup that is more or less dithering on establishing the “Status Quo”.  It doesn’t really dig into the actual story, which in effect is a very short and basic.

You have also have a lot of parallel villains and macguffins.  Now this isn’t bad per sey because Zorg (and Mr. Shadow) with the Mandalorians are all seeking the stones.  The three threats are all striking similar chords and add some delicious betrayal and complexity, but each time, it slightly weakens the overall whole.  Mr. Shadow is a “Man Vs. God” level threat, and the other two are “Man vs. Man” threat.  You have a small “Man vs. Self” threat in terms of Korben’s depression and helplessness but that is almost an afterthought to create the ambiance of his character as the burnt out veteran. Even though the man vs. self does a quick return at the finale, it’s got no real power other than some base sentimentality and emotional manipulation to make the “gets the girl” trope work.

The movie does spend some good time with the next three steps of “Call to Action”, “Refusing the Call”, “Assistance” and “Departure” which comes in many various flavors.  The movie is more like a rope in this manner rather than a beam.  Many things working together, providing great flexibility and art, which is good, but it is not as strong in the end as a singular focus.  The call comes to adventure comes to Dallas through multiple sources, same does his assistance.  Again, although they are alloyed together and echo each other, it is not as strong.

As for the “Trials” honestly, this is almost non-existent and is wrapped up in the coupled fights before and after the Plavalaguna’s Concert, but it’s also mixed up in a disorderly mess where two of the three villians (Zorg and the Mandalorians) are dispatched leaving only the real Man vs God threat as Mr. Shadow goes right for the temple to kill everything and so too must our heroes.

“Crisis” is present when Leeloo is wounded, but again, it is easily overcome, which hurts.  Yes Leeloo is wounded with some great buildup and diminished, and then we get some angst out of Korben, but that’s about it.  Combine with that the emotional shock of the self sacrificing Diva, we are back to that “rope” I’ve referred to.  Good, flexible, textured, but again, not as strong.  The obligatory scene of “Hero at the mercy of the villain” is here with Zorg vs Leeloo, but again, its a little weak on its own, but with the death of the Diva and Korben trying to figure out where the stones are, it’s strengthened.

Then comes the final battle which combines “Crisis”, “Treasure”, “Result” and “Return” all into one quick 10 minute event.  Leeloo is fully realized, Korben gets the girl, evil is defeated for another 5000 years and they’re all back on Earth.  Badaboom, it’s resolved and for me, the first time I saw this movie, it was satisfying, beautiful and fun just like every good thrill ride.  But why did the movie not make the jump to true “classic” film?  I think it’s because it used rope versus versus a steel beam of singular sources of hero and threat.

We even get an “all is lost” moment in when they assemble the weapon only to not understand how to make it work.  As I think about this movie, it works a lot on thematic echoes.  Protagonist Korben is echoed by Leeloo and to some extent Father Cornelius.  The Villains are echoed.  The Macguffins are singular, but in four parts.  The departure (boarding the spaceplane) is repeated FOUR TIMES!  The “Crisis” and “All is Lost” moments are echoed as well.  And again, what it does it sets up a nice harmonic, but goes back to my basic criticism I think to where it keeps this movie from being considered a true classic, but rather an “Honorable Mention”.

The movie itself hits a ton of obligatory tropes:

  • spaceship with FTL
  • Flying cars
  • Megacities
  • Aliens
  • Cool new technology (that nanoreassembly is an incredible bit of SFX)

They even give a few 1990’s cultural twists that were popular ironic social observations.

  • Cynical former military hotshot
  • Benevolent or at least benign but incompetent government
  • Big Business cooperating with evil blinded by profit
  • Damsel in not so much distress (Damsel saves Knight)
  • Scatterbrained priest with undefined strange religious trappings (Dem robes y’all)
  • Shallow uber-sexual narcissist media figure idiot
  • Stoner ground crew of the Reggae variety

But how about obligatory scenes/events common to sci fi/space opera?

  • We get a few battles in flying ships.  (Flying cars and spaceships)
  • Learning about the alien culture (Leeloo learning human culture… now with nudity!)
  • Big spaceship explosion (So long, Fhlostan Paradise)
  • Hokey Religions and Ancient Weapons (Meet Leeloo the deified ancient weapon)
  • Plucky Rebel against insurmountable odds (Korben and Leeloo vs a cast of several)
  • Last second salvation  (The rainbow barf pew pew that saves the universe)

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Now I’m not trying to minimize how much fun this movie is, because dagnabbit, it’s a blast and I like to watch it regularly.  But as I learn more about my craft, I realize why it’s not a seminal classic or rated among the best films ever.  Now I get it.  Hold this up to say “Blade Runner” you can see how it differs in that manner (even though this is light space opera adventure versus a cyberpunk film noir thriller).

Anyhoo, this is me having fun with mah new skills.  I think I may make this a regular series when I sit down and tear into other movies using the ideas from Shawn Coyne and Joseph Campbell.  If not to help myself improve my craft, but to give observations that may help other writers, or just be entertaining.  So, let’s see if my “Scrapyard” will become a regular series of articles.

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