Here’s why THE MEG works

The surprise hit of the summer? THE MEG, starring Jason Statham.

Here’s why this movie works, even if you know the ending. (Spoiler: I don’t need to tell you the ending. Come on.)

1) Monster in the House is a powerful and primal story

THE MEG isn’t a horror movie, actually.

In a true horror movie, the hero is actually the monster, who’s punishing society for its sins. That’s why the monster in horror movies is the star who keeps returning for the sequels.

Cineplexes around the world are littered with the corpses of horror movies that forgot this rule and let the monster lose. It doesn’t work. That’s now how the story is structured.

Monster in the House is the phrase screenwriter Blake Synder gave to stories like THE MEG, JAWS, ALIEN and FATAL ATTRACTION.

The setup: There’s a monster in an enclosed place and either you kill it or it kills you.

Nothing could be more simple or powerful. This story hits us right in the caveman feels.

And it’s a story that’ll always work.

2) Jason Statham sells tickets

There are actors like Gary Oldman who can disappear into their roles.

Jason Statham and Dwayne Johnson never disappear. Neither does Chris Pratt, whether he’s saving the galaxy or saving dinosaurs.

You could send a film crew to follow Statham, Johnson or Pratt around as they did their grocery shopping at Safeway and it would still be entertaining.

Statham has a particular brand of charm and is especially believable when he does action scenes. You don’t think there’s a stunt double or CGI making it happen.

That’s box office gold.

3) Movies like THE MEG help us conquer our fears

Horror movies tell us no, humans don’t win and don’t deserve to win. The monster kills everybody, punishing society for their sins, and there’s nothing you can do about it. The message of horror movies is, “Don’t commit whatever sin we’re highlighting in this story.”

Movies like THE MEG give us the opposite message: Even if there’s a seemingly unstoppable monster out there, that doesn’t mean we have to give in to fear.

We can beat that monster–or any other monster–if we’re brave and clever and work together.

Giving THE TRANSPORTER a tune-up

tinseltown tuesday meme morpheous

THE TRANSPORTER is the break-out movie for Jason Statham, and though I am perhaps the world’s biggest fan of Jason the Statham Kicking Things in the Face, there are clunky bits rattling around in the engine compartment of this film, keeping it from true greatness.

It’s like a classic car with a gorgeous front end, giant engine and gimpy transmission.

So I’m dragging it into the shop and turbo-charging this thing.

Having recently rewatched THE TRANSPORTER using time-travel technology called Blu-Ray, three things stuck out: the beginning, the middle and the end.

The beginning is amazing. The middle sags.

The ending is underwhelming.

Let’s grab plot wrenches, get our hands greasy and figure out why.

Act 1: A Man and His Car

The first scene of the film is amazing. Frank puts on his driving gloves, fires up his exquisite piece of German engineering and picks up his first package to transport, no questions asked. Turns out to be four bungling bank robbers and this opening car chase is thrilling.

The next major scene brings us to the best part of the movie, after his second job goes bad and Frank’s beloved black sedan goes boom while he’s eating a sandwich. Frank returns to that client’s mansion and rings the doorbell. Result? Awesomesauce.

Act 2: Making Things All Confusing

So that woman you saw in the clip, the one tied a chair with duct tape covering her mouth, well, she was one of the packages in Frank’s trunk, and he broke one of his rules by opening that package and finding her.

Why was she in that trunk? The movie never really gives us a good reason, or any real reason at all. This is why the power of the engine in Act 1 doesn’t get transmitted to the back wheels of Act 3.

The story tries to connect things by saying she’s the daughter of a wealthy bad guy who’s working with the Main Bad Guy from that mansion – you know, the crime lord who blew up Frank’s car – and they’re both make piles of money smuggling people from Asia to Europe in container ships.

The woman says she wants to save those people from slavery and possible death. She lies about her family being in the container, including her father. Who’s actually not inside the container because he’s a villain.

So yeah, it’s a hot mess of tangled plot wires that only makes the audience think too hard, trying to sort things out, which you can’t really do because nothing makes sense.

Also: we never hear why anybody would put this woman into the trunk in the first place. Bit of a problem there.

Act 3: Hey, We Saw a 007 Movie Once or Twice

There are a few more good fight scenes, including the famous Grease Battle in a garage.

Yet the final act devolves into a chase scene that could be taken from any random film involving 007, Jason Bourne or Tom Cruise in Long-Haired Mode While He’s Shooting MISSION IMPOSSIBLE 6: GHOSTS IN MS PAC MAN.

Frank commandeers a crop duster, parachutes onto the convoy of Bad Guys and fights them while trying to steer the semi carrying the container full of people.

In the climax, the father of the love interest gets the drop on Frank, who meekly puts his hands up and gets marched to a cliff and certain doom, though he does grab a rock and seems to be thinking about chucking it at the villains head. You know, eventually. When the mood is right.

He never gets around to it, despite the gun pointed at his nose, and the love interest winds up saving Frank by shooting her dad.

Does that sound anti-climactic? Yes. Yes it does. And it is.

Grabbing a wrench and fixing things

Frank has three simple rules.

Rule Number 1: Never change the deal.

Rule Number 2: No names.

Rule Number 3: Never open the package.

We can fix this movie with three simple plot rules.

Rule Number 1: The hero is the one who changes.

Whatever problem is presented in Act 1, it has to be the hero who fixes it, and he or she must go on a journey to do so. The tougher the journey, the better the story. The more the hero suffers, sacrifices and grows, the better the story.

And in the climax, the hero must face a choice, a single moment where everything hangs in the balance.

The audience is denied these things by (a) not allowing Jason to change and grow and (b) giving the climax to the love interest instead of the hero. She’s the one who shoots the bad guy. Jason is passive in the end. That doesn’t work and is a big reason the ending feels flat.

How can we make Frank change, suffer and grow? Let him lose a few fights. Seriously. It’s a romp, beginning to end, and he’s never really challenged. Let him lose the first few fights. Show him practicing, sweating, training and getting better. Make the uber villain TOUGHER than him and let that villain kick Frank’s butt in their first encounter. Because as things are, it’s a romp. Frank kicks everybody’s butt and you never doubt him for a second. Let the audience doubt that the hero will prevail and make the hero suffer and sacrifice to become good enough to have a chance in the final fight.

Rule Number 2: No surplus names.

When it doubt, cut it out. Kill every character you can and give their role to somebody else.

Which characters waste valuable screen time?

The most obvious one is the father of the love interest. He tangles up the story and detracts from the main villain, the one who blew up Frank’s beloved black car.

The final battle should be between our hero and the uber villain, who dies before the climax. So we’re left with the old man, who’s clearly no physical threat compared to Frank, and that makes for a boring ending.

Solution: eliminate the father as a character and give more screen time to the real bad guy.

Rule Number 3: Never open the fanciest package first.

If you’ve got an amazing action movie, your first step has to be looking at the set pieces. Which one is the most exciting? Which ones are middling? And where are the minor ones?

You need all three types of scenes. It doesn’t work to crank everything up to 11, Michael Bay style, because that simply numbs the audience.

Put the best scenes first and the least-exciting fights last, and your audience will have their expectations bashed against the rocks. They expect things to get more and more exciting as a movie gets closer to the end and you’ll confuse them by reversing the order.

Build up to a climax and put your most exciting scene in Act 3.

So yes, let’s put that amazing mansion fight in Act 3 now, and finish off the movie with Frank fighting the young villain, the one with the bad facial hair, instead of standing around at gunpoint waiting for the love interest to shoot her evil poppa.

This rule also works, by the way, for a series, whether it’s movies or books.

If your first movie is brilliant, your second is good and the closing of the series is average, people will be forever disappointed. They may even hate you for ruining what should be a classic. Am I talking about THE MATRIX trilogy? Maaaybe.

Yet if your first book kinda stinks, your second is good and the last in the trilogy is amazing, people will think you’re a genius, a Lion of Lit-rah-sure.

The same is true for Act 1, 2 and 3 of a single film, even if it’s Jason Statham Kicking Things in the Face.

Pretend it’s Christmas morning. Open the small packages first, the medium ones second and save the biggest, fanciest package for last.

Found art, literary garbage and spam

There are serious artists who get paid serious money by museums and galleries, with opening night of their shows featuring all sorts of wealthy moguls and supermodel types surrounding the Artist in his black turtleneck as he unveils his latest “installation,” which is an indictment of consumerism.

What is this art? A toilet glued to the wall above a pile of trash.

But it is ARTFULLY ARRANGED trash, you see.

If you think I’m kidding: A janitor in London got himself in serious trouble for seeing such a pile of trash on the floor of the gallery and sweeping it up. Because, you know, janitors sort of get paid to clean things up. And this horribly uncivilized and uneducated janitor ruined, just ruined, an Art Installation from a serious Artist paid far more than what the janitor makes, all to arrange trash on the floor.

Anybody can throw trash on the floor — or write pretentious gibberish like “Sacred Emily.” (See this post: Gertrude Stein is a literary TRAIN WRECK)

In the spirit of showing how silly this stuff is, I took a spam comment and went all Gertrude Stein on it, turning it into a high-brow (obtuse), dense (nonsensical) and difficult (incoherent) Poem. (Read it here: Is this high-brow poetry — or pretentious garbage?)

The funny thing is how little work it took. Maybe two minutes.

It would have been easier, and made for a far better Pretentious Poem, had I taken a full day to (a) ponder the pointlessness of life, (b) watch a marathon of Jason Statham films, (c) translate a book into Sanskrit, (d) kill half a bottle of bourbon and THEN (e) take two minutes to turn comment spam into poetry.

The spam comments are interesting. Is somebody writing this stuff? No. Can’t be. It has to be some kind of program that strings together random sentences or words. Or somebody in the Ukraine who knows English well enough that he can order a Big Mac without getting McNuggets, but not well enough to write a paragraph without sounding insane.

Here are two actual pieces of comment spam:

1) My spouse and i still cannot quite think that I could become one of those reading through the important ideas found on your blog. My family and I are seriously thankful for your generosity and for providing me the chance to pursue my chosen career path. Thank you for the important information I got from your web page.

2) I’m honored to obtain a call from a friend as soon as he discovered the important recommendations shared in your site. Examining your blog publication is a real excellent experience. Thanks again for thinking of readers just like me, and I wish you the best of achievements like a professional surface area.

They’re just a bit off, aren’t they?

I think it’s because if they did have a human write paragraphs that made sense, the spam filters would catch them even quicker, so they have to be somewhat random. Which makes them even less effective, like a bullet that misses the target by ten feet instead of ten inches.

But they’re interesting. Some idiots must be clicking on the links anyway.

And decades from now, after this post gets forwarded around the Series of Tubes and garbled a bit, some English literature PhD student will find fragments of THE CIRCLE and write a dissertation debating its true meaning.