If there is a perfect blueprint for sci-fi and fantasy film-making, it is probably something we’ll need a time machine to discover. Until recently, Hollywood appeared to be under the impression that any and all screenwriting issues could be resolved by hiring Tom Cruise – that was until twin turkeys Oblivion and The Mummy left us feeling like we needed to relocate our brains, so nonsensical were their tangled plots.
Christopher McQuarrie was partially responsible for The Mummy’s Golden Raspberry-nominated screenplay, but he’s also helped create some of Cruise’s more palatable moments, from two cracking Mission: Impossible episodes as director – Rogue Nation and last year’s Fallout – to the barnstorming alien-invasion tale Edge of Tomorrow, which he co-wrote. Now McQuarrie has taken to Twitter to share his “cure-all” for fantasy storytelling. And it goes a little like this: never explain.
In a thread relating to classic movies, McQuarrie told Bill & Ted writer Ed Solomon: “The worst scene in Edge of Tomorrow is an attempt to understand the alien’s intention. Compliments of the studio. They are invaders. They invade. As humans, we should not have to have this explained.”
Further down the thread, the Logan director James Mangold chimed in: “The Alien in Alien did not feel generic ’cause it had character and personality, predominantly defined by its ruthless killing efficiency. It didn’t need explanation. We understood it and it did not feel generic. It was a shatteringly original creature in its purity of purpose.”
Solomon pointed out that the classic Bill Murray fantasy-comedy Groundhog Day was floundering at the production stage until the film-makers “decided to take OUT the explanation of why it was happening. Without the explanation (something studios are ALWAYS trying to get more of), it suddenly worked.”
Does this explain what has been going wrong with the genre over the past decade or so? Is there a battle going on between studio executives desperate for expositional screenplays and film-makers keen to avoid ruining the enigma of a story. The result has been such movies such as Oblivion and The Mummy, both of which felt like exercises in fitting dodecahedronal pegs into tessaracontagonal holes.
The issue is particularly pertinent in fantasy and sci-fi because it is often the magical, unexplainable elements of a story that make it so intriguing. Hence, Star Wars became infinitely more boring when we discovered, in George Lucas’s horrible prequels, that the source of Jedi and Sith power was a species of tiny aliens known as midichloreans. The xenomorphs in Alien where nowhere near so scary once, in Prometheus, it was explained that they were the result of genetic experiments. Terminator Salvation showed us what all fans of the saga thought we’d been waiting for – the Earth, post-Judgment Day – and we all ran crying for our VHS copies of the 1984 original.
Of course, if nothing in these movies is ever explained, they can become throwaway confections, the celluloid equivalent of a bag of popcorn. But perhaps this is McQuarrie’s point. A more cerebral sci-fi movie, such as Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival, requires exposition, or we would find ourselves staring pointlessly at shadowy hand monsters for two hours. It is the film’s shattering revelations about the nature of the aliens’ existence that makes it so memorable.
But films such as Edge of Tomorrow, Alien, Star Wars and Terminator, which are essentially pulpy affairs and all the better for it, do not requite such exposition. Which perhaps explains where Hollywood has been going wrong recently. If it looks like a gung-ho action movie, sounds like a gung-ho action movie and feels like a gung-ho action movie, it probably is a gung-ho action movie – rather than the basis of a dozen increasingly portentous and expositional sequels.