The Emptiness of Action

Remakes of movies are often pale imitations of the original. The original movie is often popular because it’s different and unique. The remake often substitutes story and character development for bigger and more frequent action, and that rarely works in telling a better story.

Compare the two versions of “Total Recall.” The 1990 version had bits of humor tossed in with political activism inserted in with a well-developed story. Now watch the 2012 version and you’ll see that almost everything has been replaced with more action.

The 2012 version of “Total Recall” makes pointless references to the original version from the lady with three breasts to the hero trying to sneak past a security checkpoint disguised as someone else. If you never saw the original “total Recall,” then none of these references make sense or support the story. The 2012 version of “Total Recall” seems to rely too much on knowledge of the original, and then it just adds more exciting explosions and special effects to make up for it.

Another remake that totally bombed was the first remake of “Planet of the Apes” that stripped away the philosophical aspect of the original and replaced it with empty action and better special effects. That’s never a formula for creating a better story.

Action only makes sense when we care and the only reason we care is when we can sympathize with the hero. Until we can do that, all the action in the world is meaningless.

Rather than rely on action, think of how to create a low-budget movie. In “Rocky,” the original roller skating scene was supposed to include a bunch of extras but they couldn’t afford to pay so many extras so they just filmed it in an empty rolling skating rink instead, which actually made the scene better because it was easier to focus on the main characters and it gave the hero another obstacle to overcome in letting the janitor let him use the empty rolling skating rink after hours.

When you think low-budget, you’ll be forced to get creative. Instead of relying on bigger explosions and computer-generated special effects to make your story interesting, you’ll have to actually create an interesting story. Then you can let the special effects enhance that story, not substitute for it.

Remember, every story is only as interesting as the hero. If you don’t make the hero interesting by making him or her an underdog with good intentions facing an unjust situation, we won’t care. In “Rocky,” Rocky fit all three criteria:

  • Underdog since he’s an over the hill boxer
  • Good intentions since he’s a nice guy trying to get a date with Adrian
  • Facing an unjust situation when he loses his locker to a new fighter

Now examine the hero in the 2012 version of “Total Recall”:

  • Underdog? Not really since we don’t see him being bossed around.
  • Good intentions? He seems like a good guy but does nothing to prove it.
  • Facing an unjust situation? Not really because we don’t understand what’s going on anyway.

Because the hero in the 2012 version of “Total Recall” lacks all three criteria for creating a sympathetic hero, we don’t bond emotionally with him. Therefore anything he does is simply empty action. He can fight Godzilla bare-handed and we still wouldn’t care despite all the gunfire and explosions around him.

Without a sympathetic character, action is meaningless. Make your hero likable so we’ll want to cheer him on. If your hero is just another face in the crowd, your screenplay will just be another mediocre manuscript that Hollywood can easily find anywhere, and that kills your chances of Hollywood finding you.

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