The latest action thriller is “Jason Bourne,” a rogue CIA agent who’s targeted by the CIA itself. While there’s plenty of car chases, car crashes, and fight scenes, it all feels emotionally empty. Just watching cars constantly crashing into each other or weaving in and out of traffic while shooting at each other gets boring after a while, yet “Jason Bourne” keeps it up with more car chases and more car crashes until you’re too numb to even care any more.
Compare this to a unique South Korean movie called “Train to Busan,” which at first glance appears to be nothing more than a movie about a bullet train that suddenly has to deal with zombies. Any zombie movie risks getting bogged down by just showing yet another zombie killing and eating a person as the cast of characters slowly gets whittled down to almost nothing.
Yet if you read the reviews for “Train to Busan,” you’ll see that it’s almost universally loved while “Jason Bourne” gets mostly mediocre reviews. The difference isn’t the action but in making the action mean something. In other words, there has to be emotion behind the characters that we care about so when there is action, that actions is even more interesting to watch.
There’s a simple scene near the end where two survivors are walking through a tunnel and frightened soldiers are ready to shoot them. Then one of the survivors, a little girl, starts singing, and the soldiers realize that since zombies don’t sing, the two survivors must be healthy humans that need to be saved.
There’s little action but because we care about the little girl, her simple act of singing makes that scene far more tense and suspenseful. Will the soldiers shoot and kill her out of fear? Or will she convince them that she’s human?
“Train to Busan” is more than just a zombie movie on a train where people constantly fight more zombies. Instead, the movie has a point to make, namely the hero is a huge fund manager and is selfish. His selfishness has caused him to lose his wife and risk losing the affection of his little girl because he keeps forgetting her important events in her life.
As the zombies attack, the hero gradually learns to be less selfish and finally wins back his daughter’s love. That change could happen in any movie, but when it occurs in a zombie movie, it greatly elevates that story beyond the typical kill the zombie storyline to a truly emotional story.
“Train to Busan” isn’t about more zombies and more gore, but about showing people that caring for one another is the way to survive and bring happiness. Being selfish ultimately leaves you empty no matter how much money you have.
Remember, in any movie, the hero must change and the villain (in this case the zombie apocalypse) is the way to make the hero change. The villain doesn’t exist solely to cause problems for the hero but to provide a path for the hero to change. Without the villain, the hero can’t change.
In “Train to Busan,” the zombie apocalypse forces the hero to realize his selfishness is hurting his relationship with his daughter. When he sees his selfishness in the eyes of others, he gradually learns that being selfish isn’t the way to live any more. Through the zombie apocalypse, he learns to help and care for others and ultimately to realize life isn’t about only caring about yourself.
In every great movie, the actions of the villain always provides the way for the hero to change. Don’t think of your villain as fighting against your hero as much as your villain is providing a tough path for the hero to follow if he or she wants to change and become a better person.
Running away and fighting zombies might not seem like the way to become a better person but in “Train to Busan,” that’s the only way the hero could possibly change. In “Star Wars,” fighting Darth Vader is the only way Luke can change. In “Die Hard,” fighting terrorists is the only way John McClane can change.
Your villain isn’t an enemy but an evil mentor who makes the hero change by torturing him or her every step of the way. Without the villain, the hero can’t change, so your villain is one of the most important characters in your story.
Make your villain necessary for your hero’s transformation. You might not think a zombie movie on a train could have such emotional heart, but it does, and it works solely because the zombie apocalypse (the villain) forces the hero to change into a better person.
Every great movie the hero changes and the villain provides the path for the hero to change. When the hero doesn’t change or when the villain doesn’t provide the path to make the hero change, then you get a far weaker story. Just watch “Jason Bourne” to see an example of a weak story and “Train to Busan” to see an example of great story. The difference will be dramatic.