G.I. Junk

December 5, 2009

As a writer, it’s always instructive to watch a poorly written movie and to analyze what went wrong.

Oh, maybe I’m being too hard on last summer’s G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, a retelling of the cartoon I enjoyed as a kid, which itself was a rehash of an older entertainment franchise.  I mean, I did say to Deena, “Let’s watch something mindless,” and I got what I wanted.

Still, I can’t help wondering if the movie makers intended for me to burst out laughing the first time the Baroness walks onto the screen looking like Sarah Palin in a skin suit.  Nor can I help wondering if, when the movie was finished, I was supposed to admit that I couldn’t remember the main character’s name.

Somewhere between the underwater space battle, the ninja swordfight over the pit of crackling electrical arcs, and the evil doctor talking through a mask, I finally realized that this movie aspired to be Star Wars and failed miserably.  And I think the problem can be summed up in one elementary topic of story craft: character development.  Sure, I believe the original Star Wars had lots of revolutionary special effects for the time, and that’s what all of us kids buzzed about as we ran around our lawns with our X-Wings making “pew!  pew!” laser gun sounds.  But I also remember being fascinated with the character dynamics.  By the end of Star Wars, I felt like I knew Luke, Han, Darth Vader, Chewbacca, and C-3PO as well as members of my own family.  I never forgot their names.  Interest in where these characters were headed (and, of course, the cool special effects) brought me back for The Empire Strikes Back sequel. When the simulated space battles on the front lawn were done for the day, we sat down for long philosophical discussions about Darth Vader’s revelation that he was Luke’s father.

G.I. Joe had all the ingredients of a great story like Star Wars, but they were undercooked and underseasoned.  The writers tried to establish character dynamics through the use of flashbacks rather than to let the present story do the work.  Characters contrivedly addressed each other by their names (“yes, we will work on that next, Storm Shadow”) so the audience would learn those (corny) names and/or connect them to their previous cartoon incarnations rather than to let this information come out more naturally.

The cinematography didn’t help.  The frenetic, herky-jerky camera work made me nauseous at the same time that it prevented me from even understanding what was going on.  You don’t need to move and shake the camera to film a good fight scene, you really don’t, not unless the actors are so bereft of athleticism that you need to cover up their shortcomings.  (Yes, I’m talking to you, David Carradine, in the latter years of Kung Fu.)  Please, just pan back a little, and let me follow the action like a normal human being and not like someone flipping through comic book panels in fast motion.  Also, it’s okay, really it is, to let a single camera angle last for more than two seconds.  I won’t get bored, I promise.

Maybe I’m just getting old.  Maybe I should just pull up the A&E channel and watch a black-and-white adventure story from the 1940s.  The characterizations in those are usually outstanding.  And because the directors no doubt were raised in the theater, the camera angles are always a good ten feet away from the subject, as if to film the events on a stage.  (The actors always shouted their lines, too, so those of us the back of the movie theater could hear.  Yes, I admit some things have improved in movie-making.)

Sigh.  If only Hollywood would hire me.