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Jupiter Ascending

February 11, 2015

One of my semi-secret vices is film media that looks like, and usually is, absolute brain candy. I’ve watched ghost hunting shows, movie musicals, animated comedies aimed at eight-year-olds, and sitcoms. Heck, at least two of the shows I’m currently following fall under this banner. But brain candy isn’t always (usually isn’t) intelligent fare, and yet I can’t stop myself from consuming it even the trailers make it glaringly obvious that fart jokes are the height of a movie’s sophistication.

In this spirit, knowing that it looked pretty dumb, I recently watched Jupiter Ascending. It was very, very pretty. It’s also the sort of movie you should go see if you want to know how not to build a story. The screenplay is awful.

So yes, the rest of this post is going to contain moderate spoilers for Jupiter Ascending. Read on at your peril.

Lesson 1: Main characters need agency. Especially if they’re written as independent and no-nonsense. We want to like the main character, but if they allow themselves to be overridden all the time, we’ll probably stop liking them pretty quickly. Also, the plot needs to come out of the hero(ine)’s actions. It should not stem from things that happen to the hero(ine) and to which the hero(ine) is constantly reacting. Unless, maybe, the climax involves the main character finally taking control of their life, in which case…

Lesson 2: Make sure you set audience expectations appropriately. Don’t throw foreshadowing and other plot tools around with abandon, but do make it clear what the characters are struggling against so the audience knows what sort of resolution to expect. Similarly, if you’re writing about abuses of power, perhaps show such abuses in several areas of the hero(ine)’s life so we get more of a feel for how they react and are primed to expect a climax in which the hero(ine) upsets the power dynamic.

Lesson 3: Plot structure exists for a reason. As much as I dislike formulaic plots and rail about how stories should step away from the tried-and-true, there is such a thing as too big a step. When the audience can’t tell when important plot/character moments occur, such as the Leaving Of Normality, the Self-Discovery, and the Final Battle, you are probably doing something wrong. Or, you can go back to Lesson 2 and make sure you’re writing/filming/structuring your story so we expect a more experimental plot arc.

Lesson 4: Show, Don’t Tell. If your characters have important backstories or friendships or desires, try your best to demonstrate them through the characters’ actions or flashbacks, instead of explaining them through dialogue. It’s much more interesting to see a failed past romance than it is to hear someone say, “I don’t date nice people.” Similarly, it’s more interesting to see people fall in love than to suddenly see them dating.

Lesson 5: Deal with disturbing topics appropriately. I think we can agree that genocide is bad. Having villains involved in genocide is fine. Having them also be eugenists of some sort is also fine. But don’t give them those traits and then make said traits nearly inconsequential to the larger story. Also, the hero(ine), upon discovering said genocide and eugenics, should be more upset than, “Ew. No sense fighting it, really. I’ll just do what the villain says.” Because (s)he is, after all, the hero(ine). Some things are expected. See also: slavery and perverted sexual advances.*

Lesson 6: Be consistent. If a character reacts a certain way to a certain situation, they should react the same to a similar situation unless there has been character development in between the two. If something is stated about the world, or a character, or a power dynamic, etc., that should remain the same throughout the story unless something happens to change it. If science or magic works one way at one point, it should not change to fit the plot afterwards.

Lesson 7: Fame doesn’t automatically equal quality. Just because you’ve done excellent, acclaimed work in the past does not mean that every idea you have is golden or that you’ll execute it perfectly. There is still a need for an editor or someone to step in, look at what you’ve come up with, and make suggestions and alterations.**

Lesson 8: “I love dogs” is the worst flirting I’ve ever encountered. If that was flirting. I can’t actually tell. See Lessons 2 and 4.

And there you have it. I’m glad I saw the film, if only because I used to have a sense of “something’s off” without being able to identify what, and now I know I can recognize writing flaws for what they are while they’re still happening. Hooray! My writer-editor instincts are getting honed!

Also it was a pretty movie. Very, very pretty.


* Lesson 5a: If the genocide can be swapped out for another crime or motivation with the story staying intact, perhaps consider using one of those crimes or motives instead, because it doesn’t always have to be “kill everyone”. Sometimes it can be “bottle the sunlight” or “take the natural resources” or “extortion”.

** If the movie I saw was after this suggestion process, I don’t want to know what it was like before.

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