Friday, November 22, 2013

The Art and Science of Bad Movies


Not long ago I saw Pacific Rim and loved it. A long time ago I saw Armageddon and hated it. It left me wondering: why? The answer wasn’t clear to me at first, but it did remind me of an important lesson about writing and storytelling.

Pacific Rim and Armageddon are both jumbo-sized eye candy served up with extra heaps of action and spectacle. Anyone who knows me won’t be one bit surprised that I loved Guillermo Del Torro’s heavy metal creature-feature because I’m a lifelong fan of giant monster flicks—heck, I can recite the blow-by-blow of every rubber-suited rumble Godzilla has ever thrown down during his 60-year reign as King of Monsters. But what’s not to like about Armageddon, Michael Bay’s 1998 disaster-stravaganza about a bunch of rough-necks who fly into space to blow up earth-bound meteors? It’s got explosions and destruction on a grand scale, so how come I didn’t dig it?

Armageddon Disney Studios Paris
I used to take the high-ground and claim that it was about Armageddon’s shameless disregard for the laws of physics. After all, this movie is actually used as a NASA training film… to see which trainees can spot the most scientific errors (the official count is 168 impossibilities and countless improbabilities). But, come on, all giant monsters/robots would be subject to the square-cube law meaning that any creature or machine of that size would collapse under its own weight. The square-cube law may be my LEAST favorite ramification of our 3-dimensional universe EVER, yet it is powerless to stop my willing suspension of disbelief.

It’s certainly not that either movie takes itself too seriously. Both deliver their thrills with a smirk, most memorably with Ron Pearlman’s performance as a swaggering profiteer in Pacific Rim and the hulking Michael Clarke Duncan crying like a baby during high-gee stress tests in Armageddon. Most action movies do well to keep things light, whether they’re blockbusters like the massively entertaining Thor 2 or low-grade, goofball flicks like Sharknado. A little bit of laughter is endearing, and it helps the audience swallow impossible premises.

After giving this question far more thought than it probably deserved, I reached the conclusion that my preferences were pretty much arbitrary. I wish I had some kind of high-falutin’, intellectually justifiable reason to prefer Pacific Rim, but the truth is that it’s no more logical than why I prefer broccoli over cauliflower. I like giant monsters, but I don’t especially care for blue collar astronauts. Simple as that.

The lesson for a writer is this: know your audience. It’s not good enough to write a genre for genre fans, because you have to know that not all the readers in your genre go for the same thing. Your audience might accept vampires but not zombies, or they might hunger for family drama but not courtroom drama. You’ve just got to know.

It’s like Tom Stoppard wrote in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead: “The audience knows what they expect and that is all they are prepared to believe.” The corollary is that a writer needs to know one in order to provide the other.

Be good, and dream crazy dreams

Sechin Tower is a teacher, a table-top game designer, and the author of Mad Science Institute. You can read more about him and his books on and his games on


Jordan Dane said...

This reminds me of Tom Clancy's quote - "The difference between fiction and reality is that fiction has to make sense."

I'm a fan of Sleepy Hollow on Fox, Monday nights. It's like they created the plot by throwing darts on a board filled with mythologies, history, and the Bible. It's weird yet totally fun. You are so right about cutting lose without taking yourself too seriously.

Sechin Tower said...

I haven't watched Sleepy Hollow, but you make it sound like something I might enjoy!

Unknown said...

I just watched Pacific Rim tonight with my family for the first time! IT WAS AMAZING. It's funny because normally I am not a fan of action movies but it held my attention the whole way through :)

Sechin Tower said...

@lexi I think filmmakers are getting better at including more depth to characters, even in big action movies. I guess they're finally figuring out what novelists have known all along! Of course, a healthy dash of humor doesn't hurt, either.

Dan Haring said...

I haven't seen Armageddon in a long time, but I remember it being rubbish. Pacific Rim, on the other hand, was amazing. Sure, you have to throw a fair amount of common sense out the window, but to me it was an example of pure, fun, escapism.