Thursday, 8 June 2017

King Character: Why Nothing Else Matters When The Curtains Are Drawn

A lot of times I wonder how movies get made. They're tremendous undertakings. A movie with a budget of about $100 million dollars takes about a year to get made, give or take a few months. In that time you have to work out actor schedules, filming locations. Just a myriad of dates and figures that need to be ironed out, and that's not even taking into account quality. All that work could go into making an abysmal film. Granted, it can feel hollow critiquing products that have such an immense workforce behind them, but what are you gonna do.

I did not like this one part of this immense process with a thousand moving parts, therefore movie is bad!
So that's movies. Millions of dollars go into them. Sometimes they're as entertaining as watching someone watch grass grow. That said, of all the elements movies need to perfect, there is one which I feel is the most important. In my mind, a movie can have stunning visuals, an incredible story, rich quip-filled dialogue, and the most impressive stunt work this side of the tallest city in Dubai.

None of that means jack if it doesn't have character.

Now I should preface by saying I'm not writing this from any sort of objective standpoint. I'm not talking about how successful a movie will be critically or commercially once it gets this one element right. Plenty of times a movie has really strong characters, but the movie gets torn to shreds because of an otherwise poorly developed element. For me personally, I'm more than willing to forgive a movie for what it drops the ball on as long as its characters feel fleshed out and relatable.

So why character? Well, if I think about my favourite movies, the thing I go back to is how I related to the character. 'Scent of A Woman' is a story of a blind miserable old man who decides to take a tour of life's pleasures, enjoying each and every one of them, until finally, he'll take his own life. That's a great story, but it's secondary to the character of Frank Slade. When the pivotal moment of that movie comes, and you're wondering if he'll actually go through with it, the tension can't exist unless you care about Frank. You have to feel how the events of the movie have affected him. Also it doesn't hurt to have Al Pacino play the guy.

He is just as ridiculous as this photo in the movie. 
This applies to modern movies as well. This year alone my favourite cinema experiences have relied on character more than anything else. 'Logan' is a sublime experience. It's a crushing look at the end of the life of an immortal man. Everything that works in that movie is an extension of that character study. The action is propelled by Logan's increased frustration, and every time Dafne Keen's Laura takes a life, the toll of that is felt tremendously. Bodies are disposed of in Logan en masse, but with a weight and resonance unlike any superhero film before it.

Without character, a movie loses me. 'Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice' is a beautiful film. It's sharp and vivid, and a fantastic exercise in cinematography. What it also has is an overly convoluted plot, and gaps in logic that the viewer has to take building size bounds to try and figure out. It definitely has a messy story and seems to operate solely to get its title characters to duke out their aggressions. There's no why to it, and as a viewer, you're left frustrated.

Caring about the character as more than live action toys slammed against each other keeps the viewer from bemoaning the nitpicks. 
All of that gets fixed if you understand the characters of Batman and Superman. If you understand who they are, what defines them, then their actions have a sense of purpose, and then the events of the movie unfold organically. 'Power Rangers' was a movie that had a lot of the same issues as Batman v Superman, but because so much of the movie was spent developing and understanding what made their characters tick, I could forgive so many of the things that were wrong with it. I was given people to root for, with individual stories to follow.

Another big example comes with the recent 'Pirates of the Caribbean' movie. In it, Captain Jack Sparrow galavants his way from one mishap to the next, all in the name of his own self-preservation. Often times wasted. As entertaining as that was 14 years ago, the good Captain has suffered a distinct lack of any growth, rendering his actions kind of inert. What do I care if Captain Jack lives or dies if there's nothing there to care about?

The idea of another batch of Pirates movies severely exhausts me.
Mad Max Fury Road is a simple story, but I cared about Furiosa's journey. Godzilla was a tremendous sight to behold, yet every single human character is so banal, that I fall asleep when I try to watch it. The Force Awakens felt like a safe, retread of the same story for the third time, but the characters had were memorable. Every Marvel movie has its flaws and they're almost beat for beat the same movie at times, but you remember Captain America jumping onto a grenade as a scrawny kid, Iron Man driving the missile up into space with no hope of return. Each of those moments is borne out of the filmmakers having a good sense of who their characters are and what makes them tick. 

Just this past week, 'Wonder Woman' has enthralled audiences around the world. It's being heralded as one of the best superhero films to come out in recent memory. A breath of fresh air. It also has dodgy special effects, an overly convoluted ending, and takes no risks when it comes to how it presents its story. Absolutely none of that matters to the majority of audiences because the character of Wonder Woman was so well developed, and presented with an earnestness that often gets lost in the process.

More like this, pretty please.
I could list off examples all the live long day, but the point is, without characters to care about, a movie loses me very quickly. Even better, if a movie has nothing else going for it, if it has character, I might end up loving it. The reason I watch movies is to be transported to another world and experience a story that explores things I can't fathom. That's useless unless I can relate to it, and I can't do that without a character. 


Kyle Williamson said...

Well said Damian,characters have always been the backbone of a good drama. With all the technology available to us in the modern day it seems many filmmakers have forgotten the basics.

Damian Levy said...

Thanks man. Yeah tech definitely has something to do with it. It's just easier to churn out a movie with big special effects, as long as its attached to a property, and then the character and the story are just afterthoughts. At least that's what it feels like.

Lemony Snickett said...

Dear Mr. Movies, I agree with you that character is a fundamental and perhaps the most important aspect of movie building, and as a result actors are maybe the most aspect of cinema as they inhabit and convince us of the characters. That being said, I don't there is a more inseparable pairing than plot and character. A good plot is driven by characters and in turn influences them or on occasion the cycle is reversed. Essentially, I'm not sure you can have a good plot without good characters.

Love your work.

Damian Levy said...

That is true. Plot and character are best when they work in favour of each other. It's disappointing when they don't seem to be working together and the arc of the character is separate from the telling of the story.