Some years ago, I met a man whose leg had been horribly wounded while he was serving in Afghanistan. He was part of an advanced team that took real-time weather observations so the main body of troops could make their air assault safely.
After touching down, his unit was detected and took mortar fire. A shell fragment went through one leg and into the other, which it all but destroyed. Somehow the doctors had put it back together and it was sitting in a cylindrical cage, braced in his wheelchair, and held together with wires and stitches.
I ran into him more than two years later and didn’t recognize him since he was in uniform and standing upright. He’d made a full recovery and re-enlisted.
I told him of my tremendous respect for his courage, but he just laughed. “My job is to hide out and report the weather. When the enemy shows up, I try to get the hell away. The guys with real courage are the ones who kick in doors knowing there’s someone ready to kill them on other side.” He shook his head. “I don’t think I could ever do that.”
The lesson here is that even this incredibly brave man knows fear. His courage is beyond the reach of normal men, but it has its limits. We admire him precisely because he knows fear and has mastered it.
This distinction has been completely lost in Hollywood and as a result we have an array of unsympathetic and uninteresting movies, particularly those with female characters.
The Fear Is Real
Fear is something that all people have and with good reason. Fear can cloud our judgement, but it also teaches us caution. Someone without fear might appear brave, but they can also be dangerously reckless or even psychotic.
The greatest stories are ones where the heroes have fear – a fear the audience shares – and overcome it. It isn’t just good storytelling, it speaks about the human condition, which is the point of all good art. The original Star Wars was intended to be nothing more than an above-average popcorn flick but because it spoke to human condition, it became a timeless classic.
One of the reasons why The Empire Strikes Back in particular remains highly regarded is because it is permeated with fear, and we get to see the characters face it and overcome it. In the process, they become much more real to us, earning our lasting affection.
Han Solo is haunted by the price on his head. He’s on the run and in Empire this vague fear of being captured by a bounty hunter comes to pass. He’s tortured and then sealed in carbonite. The shock value of this sequence when the film originally came out is hard to describe – did a main character just get whacked? Surely there will be a last-minute escape! Not in this film.
Han’s fate mirrors the fear in Luke’s storyline. Luke fears ‘the cave’ on Dagobah but goes in anyway and the payoff (which could have been a monster) is to discover the enemy within himself. Not at all expected and very creepy.
When Luke faces Darth Vader, everyone thinks this is his big moment – the hero meets the villain in a boss fight! Finally, this movie will get turned around for the good guys, right?
Wrong. Luke gets trounced. It is one of the most one-sided hero beat-downs ever put on film. Vader toys with him. Luke never has a chance. He gets one lick in and Darth stops playing around and cuts off his weapon hand. All Luke can do now is try to get away.
His rescue isn’t a triumph, either. Lando has to be bullied into pulling it off, and finally the good guys catch a break when R2D2 fixes the hyperdrive. Their victory is successfully running away.
From reel to reel the fears of the Star Wars characters come true. The cocky arrogance of the first movie has evaporated and the audience now has 100 percent buy-in because they’ve seen these people fight and lose and keep on fighting – and do it while half-mad with fear. When we see them again in Return of the Jedi they have lost much of that bravado and have replaced it with grim determination. Jedi shows how they have conquered their fear, which is why it remains the best movie in the series.
Sigourney Weaver’s Face on a Milk Carton
I’ve pounded this topic for a while, but it’s only because young folks today seem to have a sense of film history that starts the first Marvel film. Decades ago, before either Daisey Ridley or Brie Larson were born, Sigourney Weaver played one of the most complex and strong characters ever recorded on film – Ellen Ripley.
In Alien, she plays the classic horror film survivor. The film is well done, but follows a predictable course as one by one the cast are eaten by the scary thing. Where the character of Ellen Ripley comes into her own is the sequel, Aliens.
The key difference is that in the first film, no one in the crew knows what’s going on. Events just happen. It’s a classic Unluckiest Ship in the Universe trope (see also Pitch Black, etc.).
In Aliens, they are going back to the scene of the crime. Weaver plays Ripley perfectly – the nightmares, the anger – the pure loathing of having to go back again. (I love the way she deliberately leaves the cat – the only other survivor of the first movie – behind.) As the Colonial Marines are cut down around her, she’s not confident, but horrified, but her rising panic is overcome by something stronger – her desire to save an orphan girl from a hideous fate.
This isn’t just a standard Reluctant Hero trope, either – Ripley has been wracked with grief over the death of her daughter, whom she never saw grow to adulthood. In the person of Newt, she sees a chance at redemption and so feels an overpowering need to save this child.
Just to make this absolutely clear – Ripley’s willingness to pick up guns and fight isn’t transposed masculine bravado but is entirely rooted in her maternal instincts. She’s not making a ‘girl power’ statement, because she fully expects to die in the attempt. She goes to get Newt because she could not live with herself if she didn’t. She is the mama bear waging a desperate fight for her cub.
Where’s the Adversity?
Imagine for a moment if Ellen Ripley was played like Captain Marvel or Rey or any other of the current crop of Mary Sues. She’s full of confidence and certain of herself. In her first encounter with a face-hugger she rips it off and stomps on it because is a Strong Woman. What do you get? Zero tension. Zero interest. She would be a character noteworthy only because of how flat it is.
I don’t agree with Mark Hammill on a lot of things, but he was dead right when he pointed out that Rey should have lost the lightsaber duel in The Force Awakens. After all, if you can win the boss fight in the first movie, what else is there left for you to learn? Why even bother to seek further training?
That’s another thing I noticed – heroes today come fully formed. They don’t have to train or practice, like Harry Potter they always had their power locked within them, they just needed to discover it.
How is that in any way relatable? It not only doesn’t inform of us of the human condition, it showers us with ignorance.
It’s also lazy writing, since it spares the creators the labor of building a convincing and interesting back story. We can just fast-forward to the boss fight. Bring out the lightsabers!
Fear of failure is a very real thing, and not long ago a lot of movies centered around characters struggling to recover from failure. One reason why Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan is so beloved (albeit completely inaccessible to non-Trek fans) is that like Empire Strikes Back, it also subjects its characters to setback after setback.
The original Blade Runner is packed with disappointment for the main character, who actually loses the boss fight at the end. Of course, it’s not really sci-fi film but a throwback to film noir and one of the major elements of that genre is the main character being tough but not infallible. It’s a pretty rigid requirement that the hero get badly beaten up at least once.
This isn’t just a trope, it adds tension and above all realism. No one wins every fight and how they deal with that loss tells a lot more about them than all of their victories put together.
Maybe this is a function of the current generation of writers being insulated from failure, or its consequences. Hollywood is famously nepotistic and it important to remember that noted serial creeper Joss Whedoon is a third-generation member of the entertainment industry.
Whatever the cause, the result is movies the look slick, star pretty faces and teach us nothing about courage, resilience or overcoming adversity.
As Yoda might say: that is why they fail.