After seeing Super 8 and discussing how JJ Abrams’ work differs from Steven Spielberg’s, I started to think about how the craft of storytelling has changed in the past few years.  There was once a time when big visuals could sell anything, but in a world where Super 8 thrives and Green Lantern comes up short, something has clearly changed.  I can’t help wondering what that change might be.

I discussed previously how JJ Abrams sees character as the most important element in any story.  He’s not the only director of note who’s stepped down that road and found a great deal of success with it.  Just look at his Star Trek compared to other films from that series.  Which ones are a the most successful?

The number one Star Trek film is The Voyage Home.  It’s not about sweeping space opera or blowing things up.  It’s about the Enterprise crew dealing with a challenge that makes them travel to 1980s San Fransisco looking for a pair of humpback whales.  Without its character moments (“We’re looking for the nuclear wessels in Alameda.”  “I think it’s across the bay, in Alameda.”), there’s no movie.  None.  Compare that to the next film, The Final Frontier, and you’ll see a movie that’s propped up on visuals, but struggles to link its character moments together.

A similar assertion can be made on the Star Wars prequel trilogy.  While the original films have spectacular sights, they have just as much character depth, wrapping both elements together on a fundamental level–and that’s without the “special edition” makeover.  The newer trio act more like a tech demo than a movie in many events, doing more to show off what the computer animators can do, than showing how rich the story could be.  Even the characters are weaker in the prequels, if only because Hayden Christensen was regarded as whiny and a cast of characters can’t stand on whiny.

Speaking of Hayden Christensen, he was in the film adaptation of Jumper.  While it may have not been the big success of many science fiction films, Christensen delivered a strong performance, starting out as an empowered thief, but transforming into an emotionally complex rebel in a covert war.

Of course, I haven’t mentioned my new favorite director much.  Unlike other filmmakers, Christopher Nolan didn’t study Film in college, he studied Literature.  Nolan’s films are paced like books, starting in the middle of the action and feeling free to move to different points in time.  The Prestige is excellent in this regard because the time shifts come about through a character giving testimony or reading someone else’s journal.  It is so superbly assembled, you can tell the difference between a pair of similar characters just in their mannerisms.

This doesn’t just trend toward movies, but it also applies to books as well.  It’s not just the strength of Pat Rothfuss’ writing that makes The Kingkiller Chronicle such a success, it’s the richness and depth of his characters.  Despite not having any previous novels, Rothfuss stormed in and brought us a cast of fascinating characters–Denna is the most complicated, secretive woman ever.  Tempi seems simple and a stereotype and reveals himself to be the exact opposite.

I’m currently reading the first book of The Lost Fleet by Jack Campbell, a story that thrives on the internal and external struggles of “Black Jack” Geary.  Dauntless isn’t written in first person, but it provides a clear picture of one man struggling to lead a fleet to victory, and to lead them home.  My next post will likely discuss this in more detail.

My point is basically that strong visuals and plot twists might get an audience’s attention, but it takes a truly engaging characters to really make a story work.

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