Friday, January 15, 2016

Five ways to tell a SF/F story without a bad guy

Yes, I'm gonna bitch about The Force Awakens again, but only to make a bigger point. One of the biggest disappointments of the film for me was Adam Driver's character, Kylo Ren. As a villain, he didn't seem imposing and powerful enough to carry the film the way Darth Vader originally did in A New Hope, and because he came across like a third-rate Vader clone, his shtick felt old. (Just as an aside: Jen from my writing group agreed with me that TFA was a ripoff of A New Hope. She was pretty pleased that someone else thought the same thing as her!)

Did TFA even need a Big Bad? I realize this is Star Wars, and to not anticipate villains of some sort is probably the height of naivete, but one of my original hopes for this movie was for it to somehow distinguish itself from other modern genre movies, now that Star Wars is no longer the franchise everyone else looks to for innovation. Going without a central villain, even if only for one movie, could have shook up expectations in a big way, and could have even reexamined the way the Star Wars universe is perceived.

I reckon that most of the time now, sci-fi/fantasy movies are expected to have a primary antagonist of some sort. If it's a great, memorable villain, like Lord Voldemort or Agent Smith or Saruman, even better, but I'd like to see more mainstream films that buck this trend. Here are five kinds of general story tropes that can work perfectly fine without a bad guy, along with five examples of same.

- The rescue. It's often part of a typical genre movie, but rarely does it encompass the entire plot, and we don't have to look far for an example: last year's "musical comedy" (really, Golden Globes? Really?) The Martian

A rescue story may seem anti-climactic to a certain extent - who goes into one expecting the rescue attempt to fail? - but it's the "how" that's the exciting part: how the hero stays alive, how to extract him based on certain limitations and constraints. Bonus points if there's a time limit.

Part of the appeal of The Martian was seeing how Matt Damon survives, all alone, on Mars. It's a situation none of us could ever picture ourselves in, and yet the ingenuity and positive attitude of Damon's character made us want to watch him, to find out how much longer he could meet each new challenge and hold out until help arrived.

- The discovery. Discovering alien life would be a natural way to use this trope in genre movies, and Contact is a good example. One could argue that this movie has bad guys, but Tom Skerritt acts as more of a rival to Jodie Foster than an outright bad guy, and James Woods only appears for a small part of the movie.

A discovery movie challenges preconceived ideas about man and our place in the universe. We always thought things were x; now they're y. How do we deal with that? Contact provides answers by showing us the ground-level implications of the new fact of alien life, especially from a religious angle. Were aliens created in God's image too, and is that thought sacrilegious?

- The journey. From The Wizard of Oz to The Lord of the Rings trilogy, journeys, or quests, tend to have powerful antagonists that have a profound impact on the plot, but there are exceptions, and I would argue that The NeverEnding Story is one. The wolf Gmork is as helpless to prevent the destruction of Fantasia as anyone else, and while he presents a great challenge to be overcome, he doesn't factor into the story's climax the way a Big Bad like, say, the Wicked Witch of the West does. He's a villain, but not the villain.

I don't think I need to quote Joseph Campbell to get you to understand the appeal of a story with a journey. NES raises the stakes by having Atreyu's journey function as a story-within-a-story, and Bastian, the real-world child who's the film's true protagonist, travels with Atreyu in a literal sense as well as a metaphorical one, as we discover towards the climax. It's a mind-bender of a movie which works on more than one level.

- The search. In this case, I don't mean searching for someone to be rescued, but a search for anyone or anything vital to the plot. All three stories in Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain involve searches of one kind or another, without a prime antagonist.

The search could involve going on a journey, or a discovery could be made during the search (none of these story types are mutually exclusive to each other), but the point is that somebody needs to find something or someone, or else.

The Tree of Life of legend links all three tales in The Fountain. Hugh Jackman, as three characters across three time periods, looks for it, uses it to find a cure for his dying wife, and takes it with him to search for a new home in space. Maybe you liked the way Aronofsky pulled it off, maybe you didn't (assuming you even saw it). Personally, I liked it.

- The romance. A love story of some kind is often supplemental to a genre adventure of some sort, but rarely is it the raison d'etre. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is an excellent case study, in which the sci-fi elements support an unusual romance.

The nice thing about a SF/F romance is that it's not reliant on alien settings or different time periods. In fact, telling such a story in the "real world," or something very close to it, has the potential to attract a bigger audience, one which might not normally watch a genre movie.

In Sunshine, Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet have their memories of each other erased by a business that specializes in this practice, yet in Carrey's case, he can't quite let go of his memories of Winslet. It's a bittersweet love story that speaks to the experiences of anyone who has loved and lost, and the sci-fi elements make it stand out from the vast majority of romances that have explored similar territory.


"Nothing ever ends."


  1. I like your thinking, haven't seen TFA yet but with such an epic big bad to match/top, these options would be fresh for that franchise. I love Contact, got to rewatch it sometime soon.

  2. I just came from hanging out with my friend John who is a way bigger SW fan than me, and he suggested that Ten is the way he is because he's a bully who never should've been put in a position of power. I have to admit that's a better way to look at the character, though it's still not quite enough for me to appreciate him or the movie any more.