When we talk about movies without a story, we either mean films that have very little plot or those that make no sense at all. In both cases, these are technical deficiencies.
Apart from experimental films, there are hardly any films that completely do away with a story. Experimental films (also referred to as avant-garde or art films) seek new ways of expression, but even they want to communicate something to the audience.
One cannot not communicate.
– PAUL WATZLAWICK
- 1 The Heart of every Story
- 2 Our biggest problem today: Story Avoidance
- 3 Finally: Movies with Stories
The Heart of every Story
At the heart of every story we find change. A classic story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. This means that a conflict is introduced, carried out, and resolved at the end. If these elements do not interlock, the viewer feels that something is wrong, that something is missing.
The elements of a complete story
Our biggest problem today: Story Avoidance
To tell a story, a clear narrative stance is required. Every screenwriter represents certain values. They see the world in a certain way and try to express their worldview through a film story. The narrative stance has been lost to us in postmodernity. Postmodern means dissolving or even tearing down familiar structures. Postmodern works play with forms – and they do so masterfully – but they are ultimately devoid of content. A whole series of story avoidance strategies now result in more and more films without content.
Huge ensembles instead of character depth
When there are a lot of characters and storylines, the film can only ever touch on everything. It doesn’t need to go into depth and it doesn’t have to look closely at any character – there is simply no time for that. The film throws out lots of confusing red herrings to distract from the nonexistent story (especially DC movies like SUICIDE SQUAD suffer from this).
Long Action Scenes instead of Plot Points
If the characters constantly have something “important” to do and the film cuts quickly enough, it can distract the viewer until the end with a single fireworks display of effects. If there is one action scene after another, without pause, the audience has no time to think about the plot (as in the TRANSFORMERS movies).
A Focus on Solving Riddles instead of Conflict
If the film asks many questions but tells the viewer that they will find an answer in the sequel, then the viewer does not have to face their own conflicts. This works well until a film series has to be concluded – and even with a grandiose resolution, many contradictions will remain. The most important representative of this strategy is JJ Abrams with his idea of the mystery box (applied in the series LOST or STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS).
Using Nostalgia Bait
One of the biggest avoidance strategies is holding on to existing stories that once worked well. Feeding the audience with nostalgic moments and iconic images works to a certain degree because they remind them of the beautiful past. However, without a story in the present, it won’t last in the long run. The images become mere copies, and their meaning fades from film to film.
Sequels & Prequels
Sequels have existed since the beginning of time, but they only work if they detach themselves from the original to contribute something new. Positive examples include ALIENS or TERMINATOR 2. In the sequel to a successful film, there is often reference to the first part and its greatest moments without developing its own story. The story usually hangs onto the pre-existing structure, thus playing it safe.
In a prequel, every moment is about leading up to the original story. This provides an opportunity for dramatic irony, which the sequel does not have, but ultimately follows the same pattern. A positive prequel example is X-MEN: FIRST CLASS.
In addition to remakes and reboots, there is also the soft reboot. Soft reboots are the realization of the expression “wash me, but don’t get me wet.” It is also referred to as a remake-quel or reboot-quel because a franchise is simultaneously restarted and yet tells the same story. It is nothing more than recycling old material in new clothes (for example, SUPERMAN RETURNS or STAR TREK).
Finally: Movies with Stories
No matter how well-made a film appears at first glance, entertainment alone is not enough. The film should not simply collapse like a house of cards after the movie theater visit when one can reflect on it. A good film is a film with a story because the story ensures sustainability. Films can have many characters, offer action-packed spectacles, and spread mysterious events before us, whether they play in a completely new universe or not. But they must tell us something meaningful. Only then will they stand the test of time.
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