on Nov 6, 2012
About two months ago we turned a critical eye towards the ending of Mass Effect 3, and also criticized Film Crit Hulk for criticizing the critics of the Mass Effect 3 ending. Basically, it was a giant critique ouroboros, as you get on the internet.
Now Hulk has written a follow-up post: HULK VS. PLOT HOLES AND MOVIE LOGIC. Like a lot of Hulk’s work, this isn’t some scrawny essay on plot holes. This is a Hulked-out treatise that weighs in at about 12,000 words. I do not say this to scare you off. I suggest reading it. But I’m also going to try to summarize it, because I know how you are about reading long articles, internet.
Fair warning: Summarizing something this large is unavoidably a lossy process. If FC Hulk’s point could have been made in 100 words, he wouldn’t have written thousands. Moreover, I skipped stuff that talked about movies I haven’t seen yet. So understand that you’re about to read an overview of an article, written by someone who didn’t even read the original in its entirety. Here it is:
A movie, videogame, or book does not exist to present a perfect, flawless, rigorously logical world, but to tell a particular story. If you’re auditing a story for consistency, then you have missed the point of storytelling.
Mind you, that’s not the only thing Hulk had to say, but I think this is the Tootsie-Roll center of the thing. This is the bit where you bite down and it goes crunch. That’s what I took away from it, at any rate.
But really, you should totally read the article. I hear some people gripe because the ALL CAPS thing puts them off, but give it a few paragraphs. I find that I forget all about it after a minute or two. Then again, I learned to program on 80’s computers, so maybe I’m not exactly a typeface connoisseur. If nothing else, scroll down to part 8 (look for the shot of Michael Bay’s Transformers) and read that bit. It will blow your mind.
It’s really fortunate that this came up now, since this fits in perfectly with the long-form analysis / deconstruction / bitch session that we’re performing on Mass Effect 3 right now. The kids call these things “Let’s Plays”, although I’m sure our show is the only one that focuses on analysis, ludonarrative constructs, technical footnotes, and godawful puns. (Most people just make Mystery Science Theater style jokes and call it a day. And to be fair: Those shows are more popular than Spoiler Warning.) The point is, our show has a bit of a reputation for focusing on and highlighting every tiny flaw in a story.
Despite our reputation as world-class nit-pickers, I agree with Hulk’s thesis here and I think this is an important point to make. Gaps in logic are not an unforgivable sin. They may even be unavoidable.
Here is how FC Hulk defines a plot hole:
A PLOT HOLE IS ACTUALLY A VERY SIMPLE THING AND HERE IS HULK’S PERSONAL DEFINITION: IT’S WHEN THERE IS A CRUCIAL GAP OR INCONSISTENCY IN A STORYLINE (AS PRESENTED) THAT PREVENTS THE PROPER FUNCTIONING OF THE PLOT OR CENTRAL CHARACTERIZATION (AS PRESENTED).
I really like this definition. The only downside is that almost nobody else uses or understands the term in this way. This is something we really need a word for, and we don’t have one. We need a way to differentiate between “something that maybe, in retrospect, could have been explained better as time allowed” and “something that yanks you out of a story because it doesn’t fit and makes no sense”. We need a way to refer to plot holes that lets us make a distinction between fridge logic and “show-stopping failure of reason and continuity”. When there’s a lapse of sense-making, is it something you notice later or while you’re busy absorbing the story?
Trust in the Storyteller
Do you trust the writer? Do you believe they are playing by the rules they’ve established? When something implausible happens, this creates tension. Not tension in the story, but tension in the viewer. How you resolve that tension depends on how much you trust the storyteller. Do you question the veracity of the story, or do you question what you think you know about the world of the story? Did they make a mistake, or are you not giving them enough credit? Heck, this doesn’t even have to apply to just stories. This can apply to almost any kind of writing…
Is this woman a dummy who didn’t proofread her sign? Or is she being clever and making an ironic statement about the need for schooling? You can make the case either way, and it all boils down to whether or not you trust that she knows what she’s doing. She’s got some other signs there. If you saw they were all deliberate ironic statements and jokes, then you’d probably give her the benefit of the doubt here. If the other signs were all played straight, then you’d probably assume she botched this one.
When I saw Starship Troopers, I didn’t give director Paul Verhoeven enough credit. I saw the movie as a big dumb action movie, an excuse to put some attractive people on the screen and have them shoot stuff. When the public service announcements came on, I saw them as a callback to the cheesy but earnest World War II newsreels. (They were actually a reference to Triumph of the Will, which I have never seen.) In truth, they were actually there to make you question what the rest of the movie was telling you. These were supposed to be seen as insidious propaganda. I didn’t see them that way, because I wasn’t looking for subtext in a movie that painted with such a broad brush.
In the DVD commentary, Verhoeven stated that the film’s message was: “War makes fascists of us all.” That’s what he was saying with this movie. When I watched it, the message I took away was, “These young people make bad decisions because of their awkward love triangle, and also here are some tits, guns, and blood.” The movie depicted fascism in a very superficial way: Iconography, architecture, and clothing. It didn’t show us secret police, injustice, or police-state brutality. I missed his message of “War makes fascists of us all” because this fascist society seemed more or less healthy on the surface, aside from being under attack by space aliens. Nobody in the movie seemed to question the newsreels. I didn’t see “Space Fascists”. I saw a movie that was roughly a Star Trek-ish utopia of beautiful people. Sure, everyone was basically a white American, but is that because there’s something wrong with this utopia, or is that just Hollywood being Hollywood?
Did Verhoeven mess up? Should he have made his message more obvious for dumb popcorn-munching viewers like me? I might say yes, but other people didn’t seem to have any problem seeing what he was saying. Note that we’re not even talking about a plot hole here. We’re just talking about the viewer’s perception of the world as presented. There was a breakdown of communication between the storyteller and the viewer, and the result was that I didn’t get everything the movie was saying. In fact, I missed the only thing the movie had to say. I didn’t trust the storyteller, and so I missed the message.
This trust becomes really important when the audience is presented with something that doesn’t seem to follow naturally. Maybe it’s a plot hole. Maybe not. But something jumps out at the viewer. Hey! This character isn’t acting according to their stated goals, therefore…
A: …I must have missed something earlier. Or maybe this will be explained later. Maybe this will even pay off in a later reveal.
B: …THIS STORY IS STUPID.
Here’s the thing: It’s the job of the storyteller to create and maintain that trust. Talking about how to build trust is like talking about how to build creativity or enthusiasm. It’s not really something you can force. Let us agree that it’s a lot of work to get a stranger to trust you, and even harder if you’ve already proven untrustworthy in the past.
FC Hulk brings up Spielberg and how there are little cheats and logic gaps in his movies. How did that dinosaur get there? Why didn’t E.T. use this levitation power earlier? How did Marty manage to hit the powerline at the correct moment when he started driving several seconds too late? But Spielberg gets away with these shenanigans and Michael Bay doesn’t. Hulk suggests that this is because Spielberg’s stuff works thematically and emotionally. Again, I don’t want to put words in his mouth, but I think he’s making the case that if it works emotionally then it doesn’t need to make complete sense, and if it doesn’t work emotionally then it doesn’t matter if it makes complete sense.
That’s an interesting point, and I hadn’t thought about it in those terms. It’s true that Mass Effect 3 managed to wreck my emotional connection to the game long before I reached the end. (It probably died in Mass Effect 2, to be honest.)
But I would suggest that both emotional connection, thematic cohesion, and good old fashioned continuity are all required ingredients for trust in the storyteller. If you’re doing good on the first two maybe you can fudge on the latter, but if Spielberg made a big enough continuity error then moviegoers would stop dabbing their eyes and crying about Elliot and start scowling and asking what is going on and how did that guy do that thing? Wait, what? Who is that again?
A movie might blow the audience trust in the opening scene. It might slowly erode it over the course of the story. It might not even have trust to start with. It might build trust as the story grows. It depends on the story, the storyteller, and the viewer.
I don’t claim to be some plot-logic savant. I know I nitpick a lot, but I do so because I love stories and the engineer inside me likes to tear them apart when they break and find out why they stopped working. I made it all the way through Deus Ex: Human Revolution without noticing anything seriously off*. In fact, I beat the game twice without having any major objections. Other people had to point out the problems with the story, because I’d glossed over them in my game. I’d trusted the writers and when things didn’t fit I assumed I’d missed a bit of exposition, or that the explanation would come later. Like FC Hulk playing Mass Effect 3, I was buying what the storyteller was selling. Even now, I’ve forgotten the serious plot holes while I still remember Adam, Pritchard, and Malik.
* Excepting the boss fights, which were largely divorced from the story proper but still awful.
In Spider-Man 2, there’s a scene where Doc Ock throws the car through the window at Peter Parker. It seems like the good doctor is trying to kill Peter. This doesn’t make sense because he needs Peter to tell him how to find Spider-Man. When I saw this in theaters I might have blinked at this moment. Did Doctor Octopus figure out that Peter is Spider-Man? Is he doing this as a test? Or is he becoming more irrational? But I was into the movie, I was having a good time, and so far the story had flowed naturally. It was easy to assume that this would be explained later.
And then it never was.
But it didn’t matter because I’d forgotten all about it. This might be a plot-hole by the standard definition, but by Hulk’s definition it wasn’t, because it didn’t stop the story from working properly.
If Doc Ock had decided to find Spider-Man by smashing up the city, and had just happened to pluck Mary Jane out of the crowd without knowing who she was, and held her hostage to provoke Spider-Man into showing up, then it would have been silly and implausible. It would have worked for the purpose of the story (the villain gets his damsel in distress and draws Spider-Man out either way) and it wouldn’t have been an impossible occurrence, but it would have stretched credulity to the breaking point. I would have concluded that the writer couldn’t figure out how to make the story work without cheating, and so resorted to sloppy contrivances.
The writer could have caused this scene to break my trust, after which I would have sighed, folded my arms, and watched everything else with a more suspicious eye. Instead the writer took a bit of a chance and did the car-throwing thing, which momentarily dinged my trust without breaking it. I’m sure another writer might construct this scene in such a way that it wouldn’t risk my trust at all, although it likely would have been a lot less exciting. Action moviemaking often seems to be a game of brinkmanship like this, where the storyteller needs to keep things as exciting as possible without leaving the audience confused or incredulous.
I suspect this is why Spielberg is such a master: He seems to always know where that line is, and he takes the audience right to the edge without going over.
With trust, the storyteller can get away with all kinds of plot holes. They can leave things unresolved, fudge motivations, move characters around in ways that don’t make sense, and even pull out the occasional deus ex machina. Without trust, the storyteller can’t do anything. Even things that aren’t plot holes can become plot holes in the mind of an un-trusting audience.
This is why so many arguments over plot holes take the form of:
Hey, the movie made such a big deal about how Bob Protagonist smoked his last cigarette in the previous scene! Now he’s smoking another! That’s a plot hole!
So? He might have bought more!
But this pack is already half-smoked! There wasn’t enough time to smoke that many!
Allen doesn’t trust the storyteller, and resents this mood-breaking discontinuity. Is he irritated that the movie broke its own rule about Mr. Protagonist not having any smokes, or is he annoyed that the story spent so much time on a detail that ultimately didn’t matter in the very next scene? Either way, the spell is broken and Allen is no longer enjoying the movie. Barb still trusts the storyteller, so she begins making things up to plug the gap.
You could make the case that maybe Allen shouldn’t be so picky. But maybe the problem is that the storyteller failed him. Maybe not on the cigarettes, but somewhere before that. He was paying attention, so he obviously cares. But something made him stop enjoying the movie and start worrying about little details like this.
I’ll talk more about what happens when that trust gets broken in the next post.
Shamus Young is an old-school OpenGL programmer, author, and composer. He runs this site and if anything is broken you should probably blame him.