Fiction Pet Peeve: Rape Gang Alley.
Fiction Pet Peeve: That Thing Designed for Dramatic Effect and Nothing Else.
Fiction Pet Peeve: "I Have to Go Now, Honey! I'm More Important Than You!"
If you already know what I’m getting at based on the title above, Horror geek kudos to you. Double kudos if you happen to remember the 2009 3D remake of My Bloody Valentine, to which I will be taking a sledgehammer in this article.
Oh, and for which there will be spoilers, in case you care.
Now, to explain this peeve to anyone who hasn’t guessed it, I’m going to turn the mic over to my good friend, Annie Wilkes.
In the book version of Misery, Annie expands on this by contrasting it with a different week of her favorite serial, in which the cliffhanger left Rocketman in a crashing plane, and the start of the next episode showed him finding a parachute under his seat.
Maybe not the most likely thing to happen, she admits, but she finds it acceptable. And that’s the real point of this peeve. Drawing the line where manipulation of the audience crosses over into just plain cheating.
That line is crossed when the story lies.
A couple of my favorite movies sadly nudge their toes over this line. Sorry, Ex Machina and Saw II, you’re in the hot seat this week.
Overall, Ex Machina is a seriously smart and intense Sci-Fi thriller, and if you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend skipping the spoiler section here and watching it asap.
But it does have two little lines in it that drive me crazy…
***Ex Machina spoilers ahead***
Nathan says this to our hero, Caleb, about the flirtation he’s developing with Ava, the artificial intelligence they’re testing together.
What Nathan means in that scene is that he programmed Ava to be capable of sexual interest as a human would be, not to flirt with Caleb in an artificially pre-scripted way.
But later on, when Nathan is trying to ease Caleb out of the head game he’s put him through for the purpose of testing Ava, he proposes, as an alternative to Caleb’s debate between believing that Ava likes him and believing that she’s an imitation of a person liking him, the third option that, “She’s pretending to like you.”
The pause after this suggestion might as well include a "dun dun DUN!" music sting.
What Nathan is saying this time is that Ava is not imitating flirtation because she was programmed to, but because she is conscious and intelligent enough to view Caleb as a means of escape from Nathan’s lab and is manipulating him for this purpose, which turns out to be exactly the case.
It’s a great twist, mostly, but it’s undercut by the She’s not pretending to like you/She is pretending to like you contradiction.
The most satisfying twists are the ones that were hiding unnoticed under our noses the whole time. Twists that come out of nowhere can be okay too, but twists that come out of a place we were explicitly told not to look, those feel like a cheat.
***End Ex Machina spoilers***
Saw II pulls almost exactly the same gambit.
***Saw II spoilers ahead***
The premise of Saw II is that Detective Matthews and a full S.W.A.T team have John Kramer (a.k.a “Jigsaw”) cornered in his lair while one of Jigsaw's deadly games plays out, with Matthews’ son stuck inside it. The twist is that the game has already finished, the monitors in the lair are showing a recording, and that Matthews’ son was being protected throughout the game by a Jigsaw accomplice and is now inside a time-delay safe that will open and reunite him safely with his father, if Matthews can only wait around that long without doing anything rash.
It’s my personal favorite of all the obligatory Saw twists, enough so that it actually topped my list of favorite underrated twist endings.
There’s just one teeny little line you have to ignore, or it ruins everything.
Jigsaw is referring to the sarin gas that kills the losers of the game, and he’s explicitly stating that this will happen to Matthews’ son in the near future, as if the game is still in progress.
All the other cryptic gibberish Jigsaw feeds Matthews throughout the movie makes sense in retrospect, knowing that the sarin game is over and Matthews’ own game only requires him to sit still while the timer runs down, but this one line has no alternate interpretation that works that way.
It’s just a flat-out lie.
***End Saw II spoilers***
The Ex Machina and Saw II offenses can be somewhat defended by the fact that Nathan and Jigsaw are both untrustworthy characters. They damage the sanctity of their own experiments by lying to their subjects the way they do, which doesn’t seem to mesh with their motivations, but they’re imperfect, not entirely sane people. Jigsaw’s even dying of a brain tumor. It can be rationalized that they’d make a few mistakes and occasionally fail in adhering to the scientific method.
What can’t be excused is when the story lies directly to the audience, without a fallible character as an intermediary.
Your turn, My Bloody Valentine 3D.
This one’s simple. It’s a whodunit slasher movie with a shrinking cast of suspects. Classic! Let’s all try to guess who the killer is before our friends can!
Wait a minute, let’s not.
There’s really no point, not when the culprit, Tom, is effectively absolved not too long into the movie by being locked in a cage while more killing happens outside his reach.
It’s a killer-with-multiple-personalities twist, so some moments can be explained away as an unreliable narrator. Tom interacting with the masked killer, for example, is written off as a hallucination, but this doesn’t work on the cage scene.
The cage is not a hallucination. The pickaxe that the the killer uses to bend the door, trapping Tom inside, is not a hallucination. The big reveal montage showing how everything was done has Tom using the pickaxe to bend the cage shut from the inside, but… Annie, would you like to field this one?
You’re the best, Annie. Please don’t hurt me.
We enter into fiction expecting to be misled and misdirected a little, sometimes more artfully than others. When we go to a movie called My Bloody Valentine 3D, we should probably expect tricks as tacky as a parachute under Rocketman’s seat. But we always deserve better than the Cock-a-Doodie lie.
It means the difference between a cheap, cheesy good time and the joyless futility of playing a guessing game with Chris Griffin.
Meg: Is it kitty?
Chris: GET OUT OF MY HEAD!
Hey, audience! Guess who the killer is. And it's not Tom.
It's Tom! Betcha didn't see that one coming, did you?
I don’t want to play anymore, do you?
Agree? Disagree? Comments are always welcome! Or keep up with my fictional musings by joining me on Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter, or by signing up for email updates in the panel on the right!