Special Effect

Nothing I've ever written has come within a parsec of making $89 million. This number incidentally is the (as of this writing) worldwide box office of the 2011 movie Sucker Punch, of which I am about to break that rule of "If you can't say something nice . . ."

So, I probably should keep my fingers off the keyboard concerning this matter.  It ain't gonna happen, though.  Sorry. 

The point I want to make is that it is easy, especially for new writers, to mistake special effects for elements that move the story forward. Generally, they do not advance the plot. They are attention-grabbers.  Shock value.  Spice, but not story.  I think it was either Wes Craven or John Carpenter, when comparing the emotional involvement required to create horror as opposed to simple on-screen scares ("Boo!"), said he could produce the same effect by showing the audience blank celluloid and somewhere in the middle have the film pop!  The same thing happens in movies or books where the writer tries to stuff ten pounds of special effects into a one-pound sack.

Films like Friday the 13th no longer have the ability to scare the average movie goer.  Creating an assembly line of "That's cool!" moments does not work for long if the writer failed to give us characters and themes to care about. Eventually it pushes us past horror and disgust to the point that it just becomes funny.  Next to indifference, unintentional laughter is just about the worst response a writer can receive to his or her story.

Explosions in space, ray guns, car chases, profanity, sex, etc. are all the same when pasted into the works gratuitously.  The story goes out of its way to give the reason for the characters to fist-fight, swear, or get nekkid. Pretty flashing lights get boring after a while, and 300 pages is a long while.

To belabor this point, I am going to rehash a review I wrote a little over a year ago of Sucker Punch. . . .

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My wife's and my entertainment choices rarely agree.  For example, she refers to my library as "That crap you read."  It's gotten to the point that I can begin a sentence with, "I like..." and she instinctively shouts, "Crap!"

"But it's--"


"No, I'm talking about--"


"Will you listen to me?"

"Crap, crap, crap. Crap. Crap-crap-crap-crap!"





"Tonya likes--"

"Good stuff!"  Then she smiles. 

Okay.  Okay. I admit I occasionally watch movies that ... um ...  Well, if The Shawshank Redemption is an A movie and Godzilla Versus the Bongo Monster is a B movie, then these would land somewhere around W. 

When I first saw the trailer for Sucker Punch, I was extremely underwhelmed.  I strained at least a dozen brain cells wondering whether somebody unintentionally made a live-action Powerpuff Girls movie.  A few days before the home video release, I saw new trailers.  In these, this pigtailed blonde in a half ninja, half school girl outfit was whipping around a Samurai sword, dodging bullets, and jumping in slow motion.  Part of my brain -- the part that later I inevitably refer to as Temporary Stupidity -- took note of the ka-pows! and shings! and booms!  and made me say, "You know, that kind of looks cool."

And so while everybody else in the world was going to opening night of Harry Potter, I rented Sucker Punch

The box claimed it was only 110 minutes long.  I'm pretty sure this was in dog years, though.  The story proved a little bit hard to follow, assuming you measure your "little bits" by the metric ton.  I will do my best to recap.

It's a dancin' movie, like Footloose.  But nobody really dances and I suspect Kevin Bacon would have filed for a restraining order if the movie ever wandered within six degrees of separation from him.  Oh sure, every once in a while, Sweet Pea wiggles just a little bit (remember "little bits" are relative here) but it never actually reaches the exuberance of, say, sleepwalking.  But that doesn't matter, because as soon as there is even the slightest chance someone might Vogue, we fly into an extreme close-up of Sweet Pea's eyelashes, which are each just about the same size as the average feather duster.  The angle rotates  to an extreme close-up of her temple, her ear, her blonde pigtail, and the back of her head, where we stop and experience two magical realizations:  we have traveled Somewhere Else, and we are about to begin a mind-boggingly implausible fight scene.

Don't get me wrong, I like to watch an itty bitty Powerpuff Girl slice and dice a 30-feet-tall demon samurai just as much as the next guy.  All the fight scenes are cool.  It would have helped however if they all belonged in the same movie.  Because the next time we get a close-up of her eyelashes we end up on a train shattering shiny robots or in the air popping WWII Zeppelins.

There's Nazis.

And there's steampunk.

And there's robots.

And there's steampunk robot Nazis.

Then, when it's all over and we zoom out from her eyelashes, we're back in the theater and everybody is clapping and telling Sweet Pea what a dancin' prodigy she is.

Oh, and the dancers might be hookers (well, actually love slaves), or they might be patients in a big ole Dr. Frankenstein insane asylum.  The bad guy might be a sleazy wealthy thug packing a tommy gun or he might be sleazy nurse with a key around his neck.  And, the songs are really cool, but they may just be part of the lobotomy.

Either way, my brain hurts.

After the 110 minutes in dog years was over, I realized that the only reason I began watching Sucker Punch was because I was younger and more impressionable then.  I brought the movie back into the living room and set it on top of the These Go Back Tomorrow pile.  

"It was crap, wasn't it?" my wife snickered.

"It was a dancin' movie," I said. "Where everybody was kung fu fighting."

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If you'll remind me, one of these days, I'll talk about how to use special effects . . . well, effectively.  

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