(Note: This is the first in an occasional series assessing the narrative logic of movies.)
We have recently crossed an important cultural divide: Movies now make less sense than rock lyrics. Once it seemed that the nonsensical blather of a song like America’s “Horse With No Name” (with the immortal lines “The heat was hot” and “In the desert/ You can’t remember your name/ ‘Cause there ain’t no one/ For to give you no pain”) could never be challenged by any rival in any other art form. But that was before they released The Saint. This unfathomable spy movie is about a master of disguise who dresses up as, among other things, a Spanish poet and an academic doofus to trick the heroine–a lonely but gorgeous physicist with heart disease–into surrendering the cold-fusion formula she carries in her bra. And that’s the part that makes sense.
How do movies like this happen? It’s hard to say. The Saint may be one of those rare cases in which the inanity is deliberate. The fact that nothing in this movie bears any relation to the basic cause-and-effect propositions of earthly life suggests a conscious stupidity on the part of the filmmakers that may, in fact, be a guiding aesthetic.
With the average film, though, nothing of the sort is intended. Those of us who write screenplays for a living are always perplexed at what leaky logic vessels most movies turn out to be, given the endless development process that takes place before production begins. In draft after draft, in script meeting after script meeting, every narrative line is examined for signs of warp, every motivation of every character is finely adjusted, until the story is as watertight as a birch-bark canoe.
But when a movie nears production, that canoe is suddenly launched into Niagara Falls. The dawdling precision of development gives way to velocity and chaos. Perhaps a big star comes aboard, declares the script a disaster for reasons of his own, and convinces the studio to hire another writer–or five or six–so that the final shooting script is nothing but a pastiche of scenes from a dozen different drafts. Perhaps a director has a “vision” of a big boat slamming into something (a feature, by the way, of at least four recent films) and uses up so much of the budget to bring it to reality that key scenes explaining who was on the boat and why it was out of control are never shot. Or perhaps the scenes are shot and never used because the first cut of the movie is an hour too long.
Then, of course, there’s the simpler observation that some movies are just badly imagined and badly written, and nobody cares enough to do anything about it.
I n any case, this movie season is turning out to be a festival of incoherence. It has brought us not only The Saint but also the brain-dead epics Anaconda, Volcano, and The Fifth Element. Measured against this company, Steven Spielberg’s The Lost World seems at first glance to be a seamless web of logic. Nowhere in The Lost World’s bestiary is there a creature that behaves with the motivational abandon of that snake in Anaconda: striking minor characters with accuracy and blinding velocity in one scene, hovering and hissing and generally dithering around in the next, so that the heroine has plenty of time to escape. When you see this snake swallow Jon Voight and then regurgitate him in front of Jennifer Lopez like a cat presenting a dead bird, when you see Voight give a little ironic wink before collapsing to the floor and dying in a puddle of digestive slime, you are witnessing one of those classic I-Don’t-Think-So moments that help define the contemporary moviegoing experience.
The I-Don’t-Think-Sos in The Lost World are not lovingly premeditated, as they appear to be in The Saint. They’re the products of sloppy thinking. Here is a movie that has no trouble making us believe its presiding whopper–reconstituted dinosaurs–but then continually breaches the credibility contract on relatively minor reality issues like torque, animal behavior, and maritime shipping.
What are the odds that an 11-year-old girl who has been cut from the school gym team would, upon finding herself besieged by velociraptors in an abandoned dinosaur-breeding station, happen to be standing under a pair of handy parallel bars? Is it likely that she could, by twirling around and around on the bars, generate enough power to kick the pouncing velociraptor (weighing in at 300 pounds, easy) through the air and out the window?
Here comes a tyrannosaurus rex, charging down a stream bed after a mob of panicky humans. It growls and snaps at the air, and though it does manage to stomp one victim (who, in a nice touch, sticks to the bottom of its foot like a piece of gum), in general it moves with such a lumbering gait that we might as well be back in the ‘60s watching Valley of the Gwangi. Where is the lethal swiftness of the predator? If a crocodile can outrun a human being, why can’t a T-Rex?
OK, so then they sedate the dinosaur and put it on a ship and send it to San Diego. In midocean, the T-Rex wakes up and somehow breaks out of its heavily secured cargo hold, eats everybody on board, then cleverly scurries back into hiding. So much for the cruel stereotype of the pea-brained dinosaur.
The biggest logic bloopers in The Lost World arise from the conventionality at the heart of the movie. Neither Spielberg, nor screenwriter David Koepp, nor Michael Crichton, on whose novel the movie is based, have shown any interest in challenging the moralistic assumption at the heart of almost every creature feature: That good intentions, spunkiness and, above all, good looks are the safeguards against rampaging monsters. In movies like The Lost World, dinosaurs are not just predators but avengers, nibbling a prissy little rich girl here, chomping an environmentally insensitive CEO there. The bill of fare is numbingly standard. Villains are picked off in order of ascending nastiness–sadistic brutes, followed by smarmy flacks, followed by twisted visionaries in expensive suits. Among the heroes, we don’t have to worry about the principled male scientist, the dynamic female animal behaviorist, or the stowaway children. But even among the good guys, a marginal physiognomy or a receding hairline can spell doom. Keep your eye on that sad-faced electronics specialist. He’s bald, and he’s gonna pay.