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The Argument for Less Action in Your Nerdy Action Movie

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I think you and I are the same kind of nerd, so I feel like I can get right to the point about the action movies that they’re making for us nowadays. I’m happy to have them – don’t get me wrong; I remember the old days of waiting forever for any kind of superhero, fantasy, or scifi movie to come out, and the abundance of these movies that we have now is truly remarkable.

One thing I’ve noticed, though, is that they’re sometimes a little exhausting. This is only partly about the overuse of CGI technology that’s crammed into a lot of the nerdy movies they’re making for us. After all, CGI can be used for a lot of things, and it doesn’t have to be used for action and noise and busyness.

Allow me to stray from fantasy/superhero/scifi movies for a moment.

In Forrest Gump, the filmmakers famously used some then-new special effects to achieve a lot of things, but most of them were not about the few action scenes of the movie. The one we most remember, I would argue, is the feather that floats around the city over the opening credits and lands at the protag’s feet. Gump then picks it up, and we have a moment where nothing is happening except the character, this feather, and his decision to put it in the children’s book that he has tucked away in his simple and worn luggage.

This is a great moment in the movie. It isn’t exactly clear yet what the symbolism is, but it’s clear that the movie is starting to say something to us, and it’s something complicated. The movie isn’t shy about giving us a quiet moment – and drawing it out – so that the audience can have a moment to consider some of the larger, complicated themes that will unfold in the story.

Some might argue that Forrest Gump is a different kind of movie than genre-based action movies, but I’m going to disagree for the purposes of this argument. When I think of my favorite scifi and fantasy genre films, they all have moments like this. The themes (of course) are all very different, but that moment of quiet, where very little happens on screen and the audience is told to hold on sec, watch, and think, is present, usually more than once, in all of them.

For example:

Remember when Luke Skywalker stands on the edge of his moisture farm, upset at having to stay on Tatooine and watching the binary sunset.

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I still think about that scene, and how the mix of feelings and the imagery combine to suggest or explore a number of things: we all want more, we all tend to miss the very cool things that surround us because we want more, and we’re all constrained by our own mundanity.

Or when Conan, unarmed and running from a pack of wolves, climbs down into that cave? Here he finds the skeleton of a majestic seated king holding an old sword (which Conan will use for the rest of the movie).

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As Conan approaches the king, though, the music picks up and the pace slows; this is a moment that the movie draws out. He sees the sword and the majestic king, and takes the sword, banging the cobwebs and dust from it.

Then part of the skeleton falls away, the head lurches forward, and the king’s helmet falls off. The skeleton is no longer regal, but appears as an old man, frail and powerless against the passing years that ultimately defeated him. Just as Conan, is in his prime, becomes armed with the sword of a king, he is confronted by the blunt truth of the world – we all die, we all age, we are all vulnerable at some point.

I love that moment.

How about Indiana Jones, shedding his disguise and donning his signature hat just at sunset, while the chanting workers are digging in the correct spot for the arc?

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Or Connor MacCleod, sitting and watching his aging wife in the fields of the highlands of Scotland, as we see that he will never age (because he is The Highlander)?

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Or the characterful interactions of the crew at the beginning of Alien?

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I have been happy to find these moments in some recent action movies (Star Wars: The Force Awakens has a number of great, quiet moments, for example), but they don’t seem to be plentiful. Instead, the new model seems to be overwhelming action sequences, punctuated only briefly by clever quips, ironic asides, and someone angry and brooding because revenge and anger (usually relating to fatherhood in some way) has somehow come to stand for character development.

I also think this is mostly the case with superhero movies, which is a bummer.

The comic books that I remember most from my youth had lots of moments of quiet, where characters were developed and themes were explored. In movies, the bar seems to a lot lower. If the movie avoids making horrible mistakes, and if the comedy writing is good, and if we are presented with superhero-flavored noise and explosions and falling things and music with a lot of bass, then we seem to leave the theatre agreeing that movie was awesome.

NEqyWj0clSKUur_1_2Was Guardians of the Galaxy fun?

Sure, I guess so.

Have I thought about it since leaving the theatre? Has anyone ever tried to start a conversation about what was going on with the imagery or symbolism?

Would I want to watch it again? No.

I feel this way about the majority of “good” superhero movies. Nothing really to complain about, but nothing really to talk about, either.

I love the explosion of nerd culture into the mainstream, and I’m appreciative of the great number of scifi, fantasy, and superhero movies that we now have to choose from. I especially appreciate this shift to more nerdy movies when I sense that a filmmaker who loves the things I love is able to tell stories she wasn’t previously able to tell. What I don’t love is the feeling that I’m being pandered to, that the things I really enjoy about genre films are being reduced to increasingly simple equations of explosive noise, humor, and only those character choices that we’ve seen a hundred times before.

In the books and comics and games from which these movies come we have demanded, and gotten, more.

I think we can demand more from our films, too.

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