The Dumb Ending Sci-Fi Blockbusters Won't Stop Using
This is the golden age of sci-fi and fantasy epics. Modern CGI means it's way easier to render both monsters and massive battle scenes (you don't even have to feed a bunch of extras!), and we're definitely going to get both in the respective finales of Game Of Thrones, Star Wars, and (probably) The Avengers this year. But I do worry that this means we'll continue to see one of the most common and lamest storytelling tropes in all of film:
The overwhelming enemy force is instantly thwarted via a very obvious, easily-exploited weakness.
Some of you may instantly think of this as the Signs ending. In that movie, the aliens are taking over the world, only to find out they're more allergic to water than the goddamned Wicked Witch of the West. It's a resolution so unsatisfying that it goes beyond mere nerd nitpicking. The planet is 75 percent water, and these guys showed up naked. Literally the only logical explanation is a screenwriter who reached page 115 and realized he'd written himself into a corner, with Mel Gibson already yelling for his pages from the makeup chair.
But how hard can we be on Shyamalan when other, bigger movies still do this all the time? At least one of the epics I mentioned in the first paragraph will probably end this way.
One could argue, for example, that the ending of A Quiet Place makes just as little sense as Signs. If you haven't seen it, John Krasinski (aka Jim Halpert: Survivorman) wrote, directed, and starred in a movie about Earth being totally conquered by nearly unstoppable aliens that are super sensitive to sound. That means 90 percent of the movie is people tip-toeing around. Humans are so utterly under the thumb of the invaders that we can't even eat potato chips unless we're standing under a waterfall. However, in the end, the protagonists discover the monsters' fatal weakness: really high-pitched sound! See, because their hearing is so sensitive.
It's a big eureka moment, and then the film ends, like all movies should, with Emily Blunt cocking a shotgun. And don't get me wrong, A Quiet Place is a good movie, and I never would've suspected that the dude who made a name for himself by hazing Dwight Schrute could direct a hell of a suspense sequence. It's just weird that all of the world's militaries, experts, and random citizens had previously failed to come up with this within hours of the monsters turning up. Even if the initial invasion force included a weapon that lowered everyone's IQ by 20 points, wouldn't someone have stumbled across the solution on accident before then? The world is full of obnoxious loud noises!
But even worse, in almost every case, the "too easy" resolution diminishes both the story and the characters. Every one of these movies -- including A Quiet Place -- involve a whole bunch of selfless good guy deaths on the way to victory. Those sacrifices look pointless once the enemy is revealed to be a sad paper tiger.
So why are movies so reliant on this trope, and why are audiences so forgiving of it? We can probably blame War Of The Worlds. That 1897 book has been adapted a whole bunch of times, but in each one, you have an invading army of massive alien tripod robots that render the Earth's military utterly useless. And then all of the aliens simultaneously drop dead because they have no immunity to Earth's germs.
In the novel, the narrator implies that God made bacteria for this exact purpose, which is a dumb Sunday School message to attach to a story about Martians slaughtering thousands of people. But pop culture has latched onto this kind of "instant victory" finale while ditching the God stuff, because no one wants to sit through a sermon from Tom Cruise.
At the end of Justice League, the villain Steppenwolf beats the shit out of five of the world's best superheroes before being torn apart and thrown into a portal by his parademon henchmen because he finally feels "fear." See, at the beginning of the movie, Batman scares a criminal to attract a parademon, and then this plot device is never mentioned again until the League watches Steppenwolf get defeated by his own goons. And in case you get confused, Ben Affleck, wearing his best "Get me the fuck out of this costume AND this franchise" expression, says "Fear ..." while it happens.
It's actually hard to find an alien invasion movie that doesn't do this. The awful plant creatures in The Day Of The Triffids can be stopped with seawater (not in the book, though). These days, the script usually relies on the invading army having a single, ridiculous point of failure. In Independence Day, Jeff Goldblum topples the alien attackers with a computer virus that he delivers from a Mac. In Battle: Los Angeles, the good guys just have to destroy an alien command module, which instantly disables all of their ships/drones. The same happens in Edge Of Tomorrow and Star Wars: The Phantom Menace.
It's so ridiculous that other movies have been mocking that plot for decades. Tim Burton's 1996 film Mars Attacks featured an alien invasion thwarted by Slim Whitman's yodeling:
I get that it's extremely difficult to get the audience from "Wow, this enemy is insurmountable!" to "Happily ever after!" within like ten minutes, so it requires some kind of Achilles heel on the part of the bad guys. But it doesn't have to be one that blows a hole in the movie's own logic by making it seem like the antagonists could never have gotten where they are in the first place. A species or invasion force this ill-conceived would have accidentally caused its own extinction long ago.
In fact, if we killed the "Hey, we just discovered a previously unknown, easily exploited weakness!" ending forever, it automatically forces not just better endings, but better entire stories. In Mad Max: Fury Road, there's a clear chain of story and character logic to why the evil empire gets overthrown. The hero was in a unique position to do it (Furiosa being a trusted lieutenant known to the people), the villain was in prime position to be toppled (the rank and file had every reason to hate him), and the villain's fatal decisions tie directly to both his personality and the themes of the story (his pathological desire to own the female slaves caused him to set out, leaving his empire undefended).
If you're going to devote hundreds of millions of dollars on the spectacle, isn't it worth taking a little extra time to get this part right?
Daniel Dockery is a writer and editor for Cracked that just wants movies to be good. He has a Twitter, so that's something.
For more, check out 4 Horrible Ways We're Bringing Sci-Fi Technologies To Life - Does Not Compute:
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