more thoughts on Total Recall, Blade Runner, and storytelling
August 17, 2012
I wrote about the huge amount of Blade Runner homage in Total Recall, thick enough that it had to be intentional. And really, that’s fine, because if you’re going to borrow a futuristic dystopian aesthetic, you can’t do much better than Blade Runner. As it happened, the day after I saw Total Recall, SyFy aired Blade Runner, and I caught a few minutes as I was waiting to go out for the evening. And I had a lightbulb moment about storytelling in general.
Because yeah, Total Recall completely nailed the aesthetic, and seeing Blade Runner reminded me just how gorgeous and immersive that world is. But the storytelling — oh, how very different the storytelling is in the two movies.
The dialog in Total Recall is terrible. It’s on the nose, obvious, it telegraphs the plot (which it was most likely written to do) and states the obvious, but doesn’t sound like people actually talking. They’re just words to be gotten through until we get to the next car/helicopter/robot chase-fight.
Then we get to Blade Runner. I watched the scene after Deckard has given Rachel the V-K test. She leaves, and Tyrell is standing there, grinning, and Deckard says, (roughly) “She’s a replicant. She doesn’t know. How can she not know?” It’s a quiet scene of two people talking. Tyrell feeds Deckard information, until Deckard figures it out: “Memories, you’re talking about memories.” The whole thing is essentially an infodump, which you’re not supposed to do — deliver information to the audience in a chunk. Usually, this kind of thing is done poorly. But this is a great scene. So what’s the difference?
In the scene in Blade Runner, the conversation is the kind of thing that these people in this situation would actually say. Also, the scene involves more than just the words: Tyrell is showing off, playing with Deckard, and he’s absolutely gleeful at what he’s accomplished. Deckard has the look of a man who thought he’d seen it all get hit with that one more thing, who now knows that this sucky job is going to suck a lot worse than it did a minute ago. It’s not just an infodump, this is part of the story. The result is, I feel like I’m a fly on the wall. This thing is happening, and I just happen to be watching it.
Versus Total Recall, and bad writing/storytelling in general, which feels like: stock characters going through the motions, flat cutouts on a paper stage, and I never forget that I’m watching a stage, and actors on a stage, who are going through a checklist of scenes. Rather than watching people living their lives, already in progress.
I think when people talk about stories “coming to life,” this is what they’re talking about. As an audience, of books or movies or anything, I’m reaching for that fly on the wall moment. I want to be there, not in the movie theater or in my chair reading a book.
Learning to write is all about practicing the tools needed to achieve that.