Friday, April 12, 2013

The Smart Choice is Boring

I caught Olympus Has Fallen a while back, and if you're looking for some mindless entertainment where a bunch of stuff blows up and people get killed, then you're in luck. This movie will definitely deliver. If you were disappointed in the latest entry into the Die Hard franchise, then you might like the fact that Olympus is pretty much Die Hard in the White House. You'll probably spot several moments lifted straight from that 80's classic.

While watching the movie, I couldn't help but be bothered by several important plot elements. Now, I realize that going to an action movie for the plot might be counter-productive, but I am a writer, and plot matters to me, even with an action movie. Many action movies, Die Hard included, have a plot dependent upon one thing: characters making stupid choices. In order to have our hero be the only one capable of stopping the bad guy, everyone else in the movie has to make the exact wrong call at the exact wrong time. It's a staple of the genre.

Naturally, Olympus Has Fallen presents several moments in which the plot is advanced by the characters' poor choices. Some of these choices are understandable, others are downright frustrating, but in the end, they serve the plot. Because had everyone made the right call, the movie would have either been very short or very boring. As frustrating as it is, sometimes we have to endure these illogical character choices if we want our action movies, and I'm going to explore this idea using Olympus Has Fallen. Not only am I going to examine the poor choices, I'm also going to look at one very smart choice and examine its impact as well.

I'm going to go deep into spoiler territory from here on out, so don't proceed if you don't want to be spoiled.

Let's begin with the stupid call that sets up the crisis. While meeting with the South Korean prime minister, Washington D.C. comes under attack by a plane of death. The Secret Service immediately whisk the President to his bunker. The President wants the South Korean Prime Minister and his security detail to come with him, but the Secret Service say it's against protocol. The President insists and soon everyone is locked inside the bunker while outside, the terrorists storm the White House, killing everyone.

That's when we find out the bad guys are the Prime Minister's security detail. They quickly take control of the bunker and are now holding the President hostage in the most secure room in the world, with access to all sorts of classified material and computer systems. Thus we have the crisis.

This first bad call was necessary to set up the conflict of the movie. It's also the least annoying, as it's a decision made in the heat of the moment by people in a crisis situation. True, had the President listened to the Secret Service, he would have been safe the whole time down in the bunker, but that's far less interesting and the stakes aren't as high. Plus, it shows that the president is a good man who doesn't think of himself above everyone else. That's why the movie needed that bad decision.

The next bad call comes from the Speaker of the House, now serving as acting President since both the President and Vice President are hostages. His first order is to stand down and not go after the President. Furthermore, he quickly decides that he's perfectly all right negotiating with the terrorists and gives them everything they want.

Again, this needs to happen because the story requires our hero to be a one-man army and kill everyone himself. had the military stormed the White House before the terrorists had time to entrench themselves, they would have been able to take control of the situation quickly and been just outside the bunker, figuring out a way inside. That's far less dramatic than one man, alone, behind enemy lines.

Several subsequent bad calls also serve to ratchet up the drama. A Seal strike force moves in via a fleet of helicopters, but our hero realizes that the enemy is packing some impressive anti-aircraft weaponry. Rather than abort, the smart move, the Pentagon sends the Seals in anyway. This gives us a spectacular action sequence resulting in all the choppers shot down. It's the reason we see our hero run across the rooftop, Die hard style, dodging the flaming wreckage.

Eventually the Speaker gives the terrorist the chopper he's demanding, and the terrorist boards along with all the hostages. Moments later, the helicopter explodes, killing everyone on board. This ruse is what gives the terrorist time to complete his nefarious plan while the Pentagon believes he's dead. It allows our hero to come to the startling revelation that This Isn't Over. It's a classic final act plot twist, allowing for a final showdown between the hero and the terrorist.

This seems to be the trade-off we often make as an action-movie audience. We must accept the foolish choices because they set up the action so well. However, that doesn't mean that these choices have to be nonsensical and completely out of character. It's obvious when these choices only occur to move the plot along. It's far better when the bad choices are perfectly in character and make sense.

In Die Hard, the police and FBI continue to make the wrong calls, but that's understandable. These characters are portrayed as either buffoons or arrogant fools who refuse to deviate from their normal way of doing things. The villains are counting on their opponents' hubris to win the day, and that's what makes John McClain the hero. He's the everyman who knows what to do because he's neck deep in the situation.

In Olympus Has Fallen, however, we are treated to the top military minds in the world making equally boneheaded decisions, including violating the prime directive when it comes to terrorists: don't negotiate. The President even gives them that direct order, but the Speaker and Pentagon refuse to listen. Here, those bad choices are not in character and are so obviously serving the plot. Had the movie spent more time giving reasons for these bad decisions, the Speaker being in on it, for example, then it would have made a lot more sense.

Finally, though, we have one moment in which everyone makes a very smart decision. The President's son is caught up in the mess and doesn't make it to the bunker. Our hero finds him hiding in the White House and radios outside that he needs to send the kid out. That's the smart move, getting the kid out of harm's way, and after a short action sequence, the kid is safely out and we don't see him until the resolution. In other words, it's a pretty boring plot point.

From the start of the movie, the President's son is set up as a quiet, shy, and very smart kid. He's also good friends with the Secret Service agent and they have an immediate bond. During the crisis, he's able to hide from highly trained killers, so he's got some brains. The stupid move would have been to keep him with the hero, but that seemed to be where the movie was going with his character. It's the classic case of Chekhov's gun. We see the kid in the beginning, he goes missing during the attack, so naturally we assume he's going to be part of the climax and resolution.

Instead, the movie's one smart choice is to remove a potential protagonist and we are left wondering why they spent so much time setting up his character. While I usually resent it when action movies saddle us with annoying child actors, this actor was neither annoying nor useless, and I was looking forward to seeing how he helped save the day.

Now, am I arguing that I don't want to see characters making smart choices in movies? Certainly not. In fact, I would love to see an action movie full of smart choices. But barring that, I'd at least like to see the stupid choices make sense character-wise, and I don't want the only smart choices to hurt the narrative. I don't think I'm asking for much. You can still blow up half of Washington DC, New York, or whatever city or building you want, but can we try to have it all make a little more sense? I'd like to not have my brain constantly screaming at me about everyone's dumb choices; it distracts me from the big explosions.

More of my Musings

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