There’s a pattern among bad movies like “King Arthur” and “The Dark Tower.” Instead of setting up information that pays off earlier, bad movies simply skip crucial information and jump right to the action. The end result is that the action doesn’t make much sense despite all the special effects on display.
Watch the original “Star Wars” and then watch any of the three prequels. In the original “Star Wars,” there’s a scene where R2D2 taps into the Death Star computers and learns that Princess Leia is held prisoner. Not only does this show us that R2D2 can get into the Death Star’s computers, but it also tells Luke where Princess Leia is so he can rescue her.
After Luke rescues Princess Leia and they escape the storm troopers by diving into a garbage compactor, the walls start to close in on them. That’s when Luke calls R2D2 to stop the walls by tapping into the Death Star’s computers again. Because we saw R2D2 do this once, it seems natural that he could do it again.
That’s an example of a set up and payoff. The first time R2D2 taps into the Death Star’s computers, it seems to have no purpose other than to tell Luke where Princess Leia is, but its other purpose is to payoff this knowledge later to stop the compactor walls from crushing everyone.
Now compare this to a scene from one of the horrible “Star Wars” prequels where a woman falls into a cauldron and molten steel is about to be poured on her head. Suddenly, the next scene shows R2D2 tapping into the computers. Then the last scene shows the molten steel machinery suddenly stop.
This ability of R2D2 to tap into the computers was so sudden that the entire scene is drained of tension and suspense. We have no idea where R2D2 has been before he conveniently taps into the computers. We also have no idea how R2D2 knew the woman was trapped in the cauldron. Within seconds the woman falls into the cauldron and then R2D2 stops it. That makes the entire scene dull and boring. By stripping out the set ups and payoffs of information, this scene just shows the visually exciting parts, which make no sense and is over before we can even start to care.
Bad movies skip the set ups and go straight to the action, but because the action is meaningless, the entire scene is flat and boring. Watching strangers in peril is boring. Watching someone you care about is exciting and that’s what bad movies forget to do.
In “Atomic Blonde,” you can see all the action in the movie just by watching the trailer. The end scene shows the hero in a hotel room, surrounded by men, when she pulls a gun out of an ice bucket and shoots everyone. Yet there’s no set up on who these men are and why they want to kill her. There’s no set up on what she’s expecting and how she’s planning to deal with these men. The movie simply cuts straight to the action and leaves out the useful information that would make us care and worry what might happen. Instead, we’re simply spectators on lots of gunfire and random people getting shot by the hero without knowing who these men are and why we should care that they’re being killed.
Compare this to the final scene in “Star Wars” where we know the Death Star is approaching and the rebel base is trying to blow it up. We get to see the rebel X and Y-wing fighters shooting the Death Star up until TIE fighters appear and start shooting everyone down. Then we get to see one Y-wing fighter make a successful run on the Death Star’s port but miss, which foreshadows the possibility of failure for Luke later. Finally, Luke makes his run and blows up the Death Star.
A bad version of “Star Wars” would simply show Luke in his X-wing fighter, show him firing his photon torpedoes, and then show the Death Star blowing up in less than three seconds total. That would strip away all tension and doubt, and remove all emotional suspense from the scene, which is how bad movies work.
So the lesson is clear. Don’t just jump straight to the exciting part of a scene and expect anyone to care. Take your time to set up scenes and then pay them off. It may seem slower, but it will create a more emotionally satisfying story as a result.