Friday, 28 December 2012

Annoying SF/Fantasy Movie Cliche #5,674

Watching the first instalment of The Hobbit reminded me of a cinematic cliche that never fails to irritate me, and which I always try to avoid in a game. It is as follows:

SF/Fantasy Movie Cliche #5, 674: "I am a powerful, vicious, skilful predator, but I will give you a chance to flee/attack while I roar and look scary for the cameras."

I have seen this moment in so many films I could not possibly count them. The hero is in peril, menaced by some powerful threat. Yet he does not know it. The enemy is creeping up on him unawares. Skilfully, silently. Soon, it will be in striking distance, and then it will be a simple matter to dispatch him effortlessly, quietly, and efficiently, like any true predator would.

But instead, the creature waits...and waits...for no apparent reason...until the hero finally turns around and notices it...whereupon, instead of administering the coup de grace and tearing out his throat, the creature just goes "RAAARRRRRRR!!!" and waves its claws around for a few seconds while the camera zooms in on its face - and the hero runs away or attacks, whereupon an exciting chase or fight scene ensues.

Sometimes it is even more patently absurd. This is probably the most egregious example from recent years. Watch what the red thing does when it has Kirk at its mercy, and tell me it isn't just plain stupid.

Solitary predators are efficient, cold, methodical, and stealthy, and even then they do not tend to catch prey very often - not even half as often as they try - because catching prey is really hard. If predators spent 10 seconds roaring at every single prey creature they wanted to catch, the prey would always run away and the predators would all starve.

Among the many, many lazy things that Hollywood directors and screenwriters do, this ranks pretty highly. In that one moment - the close up on the creature's face, the ferocious roar, the CGI saliva - a huge mass of cheap shorthand is communicated to the audience. Instead of building genuine tension and excitement through skilful direction we get a mere sledgehammer: THIS IS A SCARY MONSTER!

It it also often used as a naff plot device to get a character from A to B - in Star Trek, for instance, running away from the ice monster is how Kirk ends up bumping into Old Spock. It's because, you see, the director doesn't credit his audience with having an attention span longer than a gnat's, or himself with enough talent to maintain our interest without something loud happening on screen; it isn't enough to have Kirk just meet Spock. There has to be STUFF HAPPENING! at all times.

Predators don't roar at you. They aren't out to scare you. They're out to kill you. That's what they do.


  1. Much as I hate to criticise one of the great monster movies, but watch how many times in Aliens the titular beasties -- the ultimate predator, remember -- wait until their victim has turned around to look at them before they strike. If the Marines ran around with their eyes closed then more of them would have got off LV-426.

  2. This is the classic Call of Cthulhu trope my old group noticed: going insane, passing out or otherwise losing your grip on reality usually led to living another day; but make your sanity check, and the monsters would viciously pursue you and rend you to pieces (so the guy who passed out can find your bits later, heh). The trope is definitely overplayed in movies, but hard to accomplish at the game table, unless you're doing an initiative thing, I suppose. In defense of Star Trek, however, that particular scene read differently to me. It was more like: Monster-"Yum, tasty ice treat...oh crap, a humanoid! Those damned things are always shooting me with phasers. Let me try and scare him away so I don't get shot again. Waitasec...he's not shooting me...I might FINALLY get to see what one tastes like! Yay! Chase on."

    1. This is more or less how I interpret situations where a scary monster is roaring at the hero. My sense is that it most often occurs where the monster is not entirely sure what's going on and/or has decided that the hero is perhaps not food, but rather a threat or competing predator that needs to be run off. Its how I imagine a lion might roar at a leopard eyeing the same wildebeest rather than trying to stalk and kill the (potentially dangerous and probably not overly tasty) leopard.

  3. Of a piece with villain speeches.

    1. In a way it's worse. At least with a villain speech you can imagine somebody being megalomaniacal and irrational enough to want to enjoy the moment and prolong their victory. Predators don't have that. Unless it's a cat playing with a mouse...which they usually only do when it is dead or drying.

    2. For some reason I am now imagining:

      "Do you expect me to talk?"

      "No, Mr Bond - I expect you to.... RARRRRRRR!"

    3. That made me literally laugh out loud Noisms.

  4. Moreover, the immense red thing throws aside the FIRST predator after snatching it away when it was an instant from downing Kirk.

    Maybe it isn't as edible?

  5. Some predators use the roars to stun their prey , lions and dolphins both use their voices as weapons , . Sometimes the roar is part of the attack :)14

  6. The worst part of that Star Trek sequence was that there was a perfectly logical reason for Kirk to meet Spock at the base - it was the only inhabited place on the whole world giving off any radio signals, so where else would anyone go? But, no, the director thought it would be better if Kirk randomly ran into one of millions of identical ice caves and just happened to bump into someone from his future. Happens to me all the time.

    And let's pause to remember that bit in Jackson's Fellowship where the party are surrounded by goblins and orcs and the balrog turns up in time to save them, and then gives them about ten minutes head start before coming after them himself, thus allowing us all to enjoy some dwarf-tossing jokes that really helped with the building tension thing.

    Bah! And, indeed, humbug!

  7. The cat likes to play with mice before eat them, (but after catched and wounded them, so that they can't run)

  8. This isn't just a fantasy or sci-fi cliche: lions, tigers and bears do it in the movies as well.

  9. I'm not particularly bothered by all the roaring monsters, but I LOVE when movies make good use of truly sneaky ambush predators.

    That scene in RotK when Shelob backstabs Frodo in the chest and then bundles him in webbing before he even hits the ground... awesome.

  10. The mouth of the red creature itself is a bit of a cliche these days, isn't it?

  11. It seems like people want to stick two tropes together, but which do not fit plausibly.

    First off you've got the situation where a creature will show off all it's teeth and give you a nice roar; it's when you are disturbing it's feeding ground.

    This is a nice straightforward situation where the camera focus guy/protagonist comes across a predator of some kind. It growls at him, warns him off etc. He slowly backs away, and you think he's got away with it, only for something to piss the predator off and it comes after him all angry.

    Cue big chase, until he clears out of it's territory and it gives up.

    All you need is a serious territorial predator with a temper, they'll perform for you!

    A territorial herbivore can actually be even better, with the paranoid vindictiveness of buffalo or bulls.

    Anyway, the other thing they want to have is that "we know something the character doesn't" tension, like with serial killers or whatever. The problem with these is that they are about powerlessness, about implying a bad end you can't do anything about.

    But most of the time, the directors don't actually want that bad thing to happen, and so they need to imply more danger than they'll follow up on, without it seeming false, so either the foe has to sabotage themselves in some way, some lucky coincidence must intervene, or they have to use obvious stylistic elements to give a more vague impression of danger, without promising anything concrete they'll be held to later by viewers.

    There is an example of that last one early on in that scene, when they first intro the creature; how they use camera focus to cheat; you don't want to make it seem close, as that implies a shortened chase, so they show it from far away and then zoom in suddenly on the roar.

    That tightrope about making something feel dangerous without actually plotting yourself into a hole is fascinating, there are serious parallels there to "fake danger" in rpgs..

  12. Well, with Kirk--maybe the creature is Halal or Kosher, and doesn't eat ham...

    You have a valid point, many animals are given to showy agression displays. I have gotten big, scary, ing poses from a Mountain Lion, raccoons, and believe it or not, rabbits. They didn't want to eat me (I am sure the rabbit didn't, for all that he was acting like he would gladly kick my butt)--they wanted to let me know I was intruding on their space. Actually, the big cat had the most restrained display, because she wasn't at all worried about whether she could take me.

    Predators usually kill quickly--housecats excepted--but often, the real issue is "you are on MY turf!" Quite common. Actually, you can see same almost any Saturday night in almost any dive bar.