What a truly wretched movie taught me about writing

Back in 2010, I saw the most wretched movie I’ve ever seen in my life.

Bold statement? I know. And I’ve seen some real stinkers before. Now, I usually have a policy of not talking smack about anyone’s creative efforts because a) I know how much that can hurt and b) I know that even so, they probably put a lot of their heart and soul into the effort.


I won’t mention it by name, but I will say that it was science fiction and last I checked, it had a 16% score on Rotten Tomatoes. And as we left the theater, I wanted to warn everyone standing in line for the next screening: Do something before you spend two hours you’ll never get back watching something truly atrocious. And then I wanted to punch every person involved in the making of this movie experience. Including, perhaps, the popcorn seller.

Actually, no. The popcorn was the best thing about the movie.

I was still mad about this movie when we discussed it further on Sunday. “Let it go!” Michael said. “You’re giving that movie too much power over your mood.” Which was true. But you know what’s even funnier?

Many, many years later, I still get pissed when I think about it. So I have to wonder, why was I so infuriated?

The story, naturally.

If I had to boil down what got me boiling, I think I could sum it up in four points. (Please note, as River Song might say, “Spoilers!” But it’s been almost a decade, so I don’t think I’m letting the cat out of the bag. If you already saw the movie and can figure out which one I’m talking about, you have my deepest sympathies.)

  1. First of all, tell a story. Aliens are descending from the sky and sucking up the population of a major metropolitan area like a bunch of great big Dysons? There had better be a point to it. That involves not just telling me what’s happening, but why. If you don’t do that, I am going to lose interest… and patience.

    And I don’t have much patience to begin with.

  2. I need to care about the characters. When aliens are hoovering up the population of the world and you show me a handful of self-absorbed morons in an apartment complex whom I wouldn’t want to spend three minutes with in an elevator, much less two hours of an apocalypse, I’ll have a problem relating.
  3. Special effects will not carry the day when everything else is dead on arrival. If you don’t have something to say, if your characters are idiots, and you think you can cover up these problems with exploding ships and monsters eating people and ripping their brains out, it won’t work for me.
  4. Finish what you started. After I saw The Matrix, I couldn’t wait to see The Matrix Reloaded. (I know, I’m about to violate my rule about not trash-talking someone else’s creative work. Exceptions, rule, etc.) After seeing the latter, I never saw the third one. Why? Because the second part didn’t tell a complete story. Now, I don’t mind cliffhangers—on TV. Even in some movies it can work. Look at The Lord of the Rings (the books as well as the movies). Look at The Empire Strikes Back. We’re left at the end with Han Solo in deep freeze and Luke with a major parental problem. But that movie told a complete story from beginning to end and ended up being my second-favorite Star Wars movie of the trilogy. (What’s my favorite? Ask me later.) This movie, though, couldn’t even wrap up its story with a montage of images that ran during the closing credits continuing the plot. Yes, they really did this.

And that’s the part that really pisses me off. We shelled out $10 of our hard-earned money to spend two hours seeing a story the directors didn’t even bother to finish, because they think I’m going to spend another $10 in two years to see what happens next?

Which brings me to my last point:

5. Don’t insult your audience.