Tag Archives: bad movies

What Bad Movies Can Teach You About Writing: Part Three

riddick2In my last two posts, I talked about how terrible movies can teach you much about how not to write. This week, I’ll wrap up this three-parter with an analysis of the character of Riddick (the always-wooden Vin Diesel) in the fourth movie of the Riddick series, released in 2013 and named simply Riddick.

First, a synopsis of this epic tale. In the previous Riddick film, Riddick had been heading for his home planet, Furya, with an escort provided by his nemesis, Vaako. Naturally, this was a ruse to kill Riddick on an unknown planet; of course, the escort doesn’t double-tap, so this installment thus opens with Riddick waking up after having been left for dead.

Riddick gets himself together and ekes out an existence for an unspecified amount of time before discovering a mercenary station. He sets off a beacon, bringing two competing ships full of bounty hunters to catch him. Naturally, Riddick kills all but a few, all the while fighting escapees from the Tremors series. Of course, in the end, he escapes the planet with the help of the three surviving bounty hunters, including a lesbian mercenary (Dahl, played by the fabulous Katee Sackhoff) whom he manages to turn straight (at least briefly) with his manly charms.

He just keeps going and going and going.

He just keeps going and going and going.

Now what’s going on with our hero in this movie? The writers have presented us with a seemingly tough-as-nails antihero who’s immune to all pain. You can stab him, tranquilize him, poison him, and leave him for dead, but like the Energizer Bunny, he just keeps going.

Riddick appears to have no heart; after all, doesn’t he kill almost all the bounty hunters while betraying no emotion? Oh, no, Riddick does have a heart, see, because he saves a dingo puppy, which then becomes his best friend. And when the vile Santana (a bounty hunter) kills that dog, well, all bets are off. Santana just pissed off the wrong guy!

Additionally, you wouldn’t expect a guy like this to live by any conventional moral code, but that doesn’t mean he’s amoral. Of course not! For he rescues Dahl when she is attacked by Santana (because a damsel can’t save herself); later, Riddick reveals that he previously killed the son of one of the bounty hunters to save a child. So he he does have a code – it’s just of his own devising.

Yes, Riddick is one manly man. Throughout the movie, he overcomes all odds, but, the writers hope we’ll surmise, what is he really fighting for? Sure, he wants to go home, but what is there for him on his home planet? He’s driven only be nostalgia for his mostly depopulated homeworld, as well as revenge against Vaako. Ah, such an empty, ultimately pointless life! (This, of course, is left unresolved so that the filmmakers can inflict yet another Riddick movie on the public.)

Variations exist on this theme: the bad girl with a heart of gold (Pretty Woman); beware the good man who goes to war (Braveheart); and, my absolute favorite awful theme, the bad guy who just needs the love of a good woman (Beauty and the Beast).

What lovely eyes you have.

What lovely eyes you have.

Now, what can you learn about what not to do in fiction from this movie? Just about everything. The movie is riddled with character clichés. Riddick himself is a walking caricature: from carrying secret emotional pain disguised by a brutish exterior to his preternatural ability to escape death. This is just silly and unbelievable. With a few notable exceptions, such as the historical “mad monk” Rasputin, no one is actually this slippery. Yes, this is a movie, and we can suspend some disbelief, but readers of modern fiction are simply too sophisticated for this (unless your character actually has preternatural abilities, but even Superman had his Kryptonite).

It is possible to create an antihero with depth – for example, Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) in The Walking Dead. The key, which the writers of Riddick seem to have dropped down the Port-A-Potty, is to make your antihero a thoroughly complex character, with good and bad points and internal conflict more pronounced than an immunity to all pain but his emotional pain. Resorting to the “emotional pain” trope or the unkillable superman may be easy, but it isn’t believable – and it doesn’t make for a story that stands the test of time.

What Bad Movies Can Teach You About Writing: Part One

Far from being mere mindless wastes of an hour and a half, bad movies can actually teach the observant viewer much about what not to do in fiction. Now, you might think you can learn far more valuable lessons from good fiction, but in my opinion, bad examples are the more instructive because they are so blatant, whereas good literature is so seamless that only a very critical eye can identify the craftsmanship. So, as examples, I have selected three absolutely terrible movies: Congo, Evil Dead (1981), and Riddick.

This week, we’ll talk about Congo. This cringeworthy 1995 movie, based on the eponymous book, stands out for its shameless use of one-dimensional stock characters. Herewith, a list.

  • R.B. Travis – The head of TraviCom, a multinational communications firm, he’s your typical heartless businessman. When we meet Travis, he is still carrying his golf club (because don’t all executives spend their days making deals on the golf course?). Worse, when a TraviCom expedition for a rare diamond, led by his own son, meets with disaster, it’s not his son Travis wants to rescue – it’s the diamond. Why you should avoid this character: In real life, anyone this devoid of humanity is clearly a sociopath and probably behind bars.
  • Karen Ross – Ah, yes, the Tough Bitch. Ross bullies her way into an expedition, takes no crap from the African warlord who temporarily kidnaps her team, shoots down heat-seeking missiles from an airplane, jumps out of that airplane, shoots lasers, and single-handedly takes down Travis. She’s the resourceful, no-nonsense gal who turns out to be more useful than those sissyboys. Why you should avoid this character: The Tough Bitch is designed to be incongruous, cause, see, she’s a girl, but she’s still tough! Will wonders never cease? The attempt to turn a stereotype (damsel in distress) on its head is now just another stereotype.
  • Elliot and his pet, hanging out.Dr. Peter Elliot – A primatologist after Dr. Doolittle’s own heart, Elliot prefers animals to humans, because, as he reassures Ross, “Humans are dangerous. Gorillas are very gentle.” When Ross asks Elliot whether his pet gorilla is dangerous, he defends animal honor with, “Don’t perpetuate the . . . myth of the killer ape!” Surprise, surprise, killer apes off most of their team by movie’s end. Why you should avoid this character: The classic wide-eyed innocent, this character is clearly ignorant of the very animals he professes to prefer; anybody who truly studies animals respects animals enough to know they’re deadly when crossed.
  • Eddie Ventro – The Quirky Guy. See, we know Eddie’s unconventional, because when he comes on-screen, he’s wearing a brightly colored shirt – in the middle of a war zone! He also sports a single, dangling earring. Sassy! Why you should avoid this character: Real humans are much more complex than the sum total of their outfits and jewelry.
  • Munro Kelly – The Great White Hunter leading the expedition into the Congo, he’s seen it all, is fazed by nothing, and has a droll remark about everything. Also, he’s supposed to be British, but Ernie Hudson, who plays Kelly, has the worst British accent I’ve ever heard. Why you should avoid this character: Jaded and world-weary is cliché. Especially cliché, because it seems Hudson has never actually heard an Englishman speak, which is the cinematic equivalent of putting an exotic foreigner (about whose culture you know nothing) in your novel just to give it some spice. And speaking of exotic foreigners . . .
  • Herkermer Homolka – Posing as a rich Romanian philanthropist, Herkermer is consumed by a single-minded covetousness that, predictably, leads to his grisly death, because Evil People Should be Punished. Why you should avoid this character: Instant karma doesn’t always get you.

So, what can this horrible movie teach you about writing fiction? Don’t take the easy out of making your characters cardboard cutouts. No one is this much of a caricature. If you’re writing a villain, give him or her a redeeming characteristic; if you’re writing a guy who marches to the beat of his own drum, make that a surprise. Real people are complicated and confusing, and nobody is a textbook case of anything. Give your characters a break – give them souls.