5 Co-Stars Who Should Have Been The Lead
Giving women more leading roles doesn't have to mean making more clumsy all-women remakes of popular older movies. Often it just means not forcing a guy to the forefront of a story that isn't even his. If you watch closely, you'll see lots of movies that would have benefited from this simple change. For example ...
Passengers Should Have Been A Horror Film From Jennifer Lawrence's POV
Passengers is a science fiction film that pretty much banked on people wanting to see a movie about two doomed attractive people boning in space (it's kind of Titanic, only with a meteor instead of an iceberg). Like most high-concept modern blockbusters, the story is told from the point of view of Chris Pratt. He's playing Jim, who is accidentally awakened from his sleep pod 90 years before his spaceship will land on a new planet, with no means to go back to sleep. That means he'll die on the ship after either a long, lonely life or some kind of super cool spaceship suicide, maybe by having the robot bartender grind a broken bottle into his neck or something.
Instead, after a year of what we can only assume consisted of vigorous masturbation, Jim gets lonely and decides to awaken Jennifer Lawrence's character, Aurora, to keep him company until they both die. He lies to her, saying her pod also malfunctioned, but she eventually finds out otherwise and is understandably upset (this is, after all, a death sentence). She gets over it, because at the end of the day, he's adorable Chris Pratt. They wind up making a life together, passing on long before the ship touches down. The result is a strange, unsatisfactory story of a romance built on selfishness and deceit that works out in the end because the script says so.
Instead, Aurora should have been the protagonist ... and in fact, it's incredibly weird that she's not. From her perspective, she wakes up 90 years early with some guy she's never met before. Sure, the guy she's with is Chris Pratt, and that sounds delightful, but the scene in which she meets Pratt for the first time would take on a far more sinister tone if the audience only know what she knows.
Now the whole thing is unfolding as a mystery. Can we trust this guy? Is he telling the truth? Now you've set up the audience for a gut punch of a revelation halfway through the film: He alone woke up by accident, and rather than ride it out, he essentially abducted her. He ripped her out of the life she was set to live to instead spend the rest of her years trapped on a spaceship, with him and only him.
At that point, if you want the movie to be about her slowly learning to forgive him, fine, maybe that version sells more tickets. But it still makes far more sense for her to be the protagonist. The emotional journey is hers, not his. Her choices should drive the story.
Or you could take it further and turn it into Alien, only Chris Pratt is playing the role of the menacing predator who wants to ensnare and impregnate the hero. Now you have a tense cat and mouse game through this glitzy futuristic cruise ship, culminating in Jennifer Lawrence blowing Chris Pratt out of a goddamned airlock. Then you just sit back and wait for the Oscars to roll in.
Ready Player One Should Have Been About Art3mis
In the book and the film Ready Player One, we follow Wade Watts, a nerd whose main personality trait is that he can memorize a lot of trivia about pop culture. He wants to find three keys and win billions of dollars through a scavenger hunt set up by the creator of the OASIS, a digital realm where everyone spends much of their time.
Over the course of the movie, Wade learns he can't win this by himself, and he needs to join a team, including a woman who goes by Art3mis. In the story as we know it, she ends up being the token prize Wade gets to have as a girlfriend after learning his lesson, which is that there's more to life than pop culture fandom, even though it was pop culture fandom that got him there. On one hand, it's true that Art3mis is fleshed out to a degree, with her own backstory and motivation ... but in the end it just winds up highlighting how much both she and the movie don't need Wade at all.
Art3mis, aka Samantha, knows as much about pop culture as Wade does. But her father died as an indentured servant under IOI, the evil corporation that serves as the antagonist, giving her a personal reason to win the hunt and take control of the OASIS. At one point, Wade is taken to Art3mis' sweet secret hideout, where we see she has already amassed a sizable number of people for the rebellion. Think about that for a moment. She went from a nobody with no family to leading an army against the all-powerful corporate overlords. So ... why isn't this her story? As it is, the only reason Wade comes into the picture is that he happens to be the first person to figure out he should try driving backwards in a big race. It suddenly becomes hilarious how awkwardly the token dude is wedged into the plot.
If we're just following Art3mis, the story suddenly becomes a compelling quest for personal revenge against the powerful, instead of a clumsy wish fulfillment fantasy in which obsessive, shallow fandom is all it takes to conquer the world.
The Greatest Showman Should Have Been About The Bearded Lady
The Greatest Showman is a musical about the life of P.T. Barnum, played by Hugh Jackman at maximum charm, that made *checks notes* ...$434 million?! Hollywood should be doing way more musicals.
Anyway, the main problem here is that the real-life guy they're trying to make an inspirational musical about was a greedy piece of garbage. In the film, Barnum is given a stereotypical "Started from the bottom, now he's here" rags-to-riches story about a guy down on his luck who decides to pursue his dream (note that the real life Barnum was already wealthy via a number of shady schemes before he started his circus). From a storyteller's point of view, that's just weird. "The world must know about this man's inspirational tale! Also, his tale is actually not inspirational, so we must invent a fictional version!" Why not just follow a fictional character, then?
Or, if you want to follow a real inspirational person, there's a better story right in front of you: That of the bearded lady. In the movie it's Lettie Lutz, though in real life her name was Annie Jones. If you go with the film's version of events, you have a woman who faces constant ridicule, forcing her to hide from others, developing an incredible singing voice while everyone else is out having friends and dating. This leads us directly to the moment in the real film when Barnum meets her.
In the film, it's a powerful moment only in the sense that it advances Barnum's cause. In our film, this becomes the big call to adventure -- she finally has an opportunity to step out in public and learn to accept herself. Then Barnum begins to reveal the true asshole he was in real life, and she has to grow the confidence to realize she doesn't need him.
Or you can make it closer to the real story of Annie Jones, which was actually much weirder. She was placed in Barnum's "freak" show as an infant (her parents getting paid huge money to do it). She had to grow up under those bizarre circumstances and try to build some kind of normal life for herself. (At one point she was kidnapped, in what may or may not have been an elaborate publicity stunt -- with Barnum, you just never knew.)
At various points the real Jones struck out on her own, touring the world with her own act, publicly campaigning on behalf of "freaks" (she wanted to kill that dehumanizing label the exhibits were using), but always returning to Barnum in the end. Here's somebody battling everything from gender norms to the capitalist exploitation of the disabled, and doing it in the late 1800s, before dying tragically in her 30s. But no, by all means, tell us the inspirational story of the smarmy conniving millionaire instead.
War Of The Worlds Should Have Followed Dakota Fanning's Character
In the 2005 War Of The Worlds, Tom Cruise does what Tom Cruise does best: run away from things and protect whatever woman happens to be in his life. In this film's case, that's his daughter, played by 10-year-old Dakota Fanning.
This is, at heart, a horror movie, built entirely on a series of eerie/creepy/terrifying setpieces. But we're being led through all of it by the handsome, glib, indestructible action star Cruise. Let's be honest, it's the aliens who are in trouble here. All of it takes on a much scarier, more apprehensive tone if we're forced into the perspective of a little girl in the middle of an alien invasion, one who doesn't know who to trust.
For proof of how much more terrifying this version of the movie would be, look no further than the best scene in the film, in which Cruise blindfolds his daughter so that he can go into the next room to murder an unstable man who could potentially get them both killed.
In the original film, we know the reason Cruise has to kill Tim Robbins is that he's ranting too loudly and putting his daughter's life at risk. It's still murder, but we understand the protagonist's motivations and how it's for the greater good. ("If it wasn't, would Tom Cruise be doing it? Don't be absurd.")
But from her point of view? We just see her dad going into another room to kill a man. She would view her father the same way all of us viewed Tom Cruise after 2005. Amidst this unimaginable crisis, she watches him stealing cars and getting into fights with his teenage son. The whole film becomes about the loss of innocence in a terrifying, uncertain world. A young girl slowly realizes that the grownups actually have no idea what they're doing.
Granted, there's a reason movies on this scale rarely put a kid in the lead: Child actors are to films what E. coli is to spinach. But there's also a reason Dakota Fanning has consistently gotten work since she was six years old, and it's that she was a pretty good actor even as a kid. She could have carried this thing.
In Avatar, Neytiri (The Na'vi Love Interest) Should Have Been The Star
Here's a fun game: Without looking it up, what is the name of the main character in James Cameron's Avatar, i.e. the highest-grossing film of all time? If you guessed "Jack Sullivan," sure, that sounds about right.
The only reason this guy is the lead is so that the audience can have the point of view of a white dude taking us into the world of Pandora and the Na'vi. Sullivan is part of Earth's military, there to learn more about the alien race, eventually earning their trust so that the humans can extract MacGuffin-tanium from the Hometree. As Sullivan spends time with the Na'vi, he begins to sympathize with them (that is, he falls in love with one of them -- Neytiri, played by Zoe Saldana). He regrets his actions once the humans launch an assault on the natives, and joins the fight against the humans.
Say what you will about the plot of Avatar (which is built almost entirely out of plot points from similar movies), but James Cameron actually spent a lot of time and effort on world-building. He even went so far as creating an entire working language for the Na'vi, who of course are ultimately the protagonists. But you know what would have been an even better storytelling challenge? Actually telling the story from the aliens' point of view from the start, while still getting the audience onboard.
If we just make Neytiri the protagonist and pick up the story with her, the audience could get a better sense of what life of Pandora is like before and after human colonization. Then she can meet Jack and make the decision to allow him into her tribe. Her mistake leads to the attack on her people, and she comes to terms with the realization that the colonizers are not to be trusted. Sure, we can still get the guy's change of heart and he can still help them overcome the humans, but instead of being the white savior, he's just a means to an end for the hero, Neytiri.
Now you have the thing this movie was probably always trying to be, a clever twist on the alien invasion genre in which humans are the invaders and the world being threatened with extinction is someone else's. The difference is that it's not some dude whose choices save the day -- the outcome rests in the hands of the natives, i.e. the people who actually have something to lose. Who knows, maybe one of the dozens of planned sequels will eventually get there.
Mike Bedard has a Twitter account if you're prone to following people on there.
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