I want to talk to you about something. This thing has been bothering me for a while, long before I could articulate exactly what it was. Maybe you’ve noticed it as well, or at least turned it over in your head as you absentmindedly jaw your morning scrambled eggs. Something just seems not quite right with the state of fight scenes in sci-fi/fantasy movies. It’s all a bunch of acrobatics and CGI-nonsense. After the first Matrix movie, insane martial arts became a necessary and almost sufficient condition for any sci-fi movie to have any success. And at first, it was a good change of pace. But with any inflated asset, abuse and gratuity quickly becomes the norm, and so too has it been with stylistic ennui in good-vs-evil-clashes of recent sci-fi movies.
Yes, Matrix was beyond cool- the first movie anyway. And I’m not saying that all recent sci-fi/fantasy fight scenes inherit directly from it. But there’s been an undeniable skew in the center-of-gravity of fight scenes post-Matrix. And there are a few specific abuses of the post-Matrix style that are done so regularly now that we’ve almost forgotten what life was like without them.
Abuse 1: The ‘approach’ gesture.
You totally know this scene: Matrix 1, subway fight, 2:00
When Neo gets up, he strikes a pose and makes that famous gesture to Agent Smith- ‘Come get me, asshole.’This is done in so many places I’m not going to begin to list them here. I saw it in some TV ad the other day with a grandmother fighting some dude in the produce section of a grocery store. This is 12 years after the fact, and some advertising executive still thinks it’s a fresh idea. As far as tropes go, it doesn’t get worse than this- it’s as bad as the whole ‘dorky-old-white-man-rapping-and-crossing-his-arms’ bit.
Abuse 2: Bullet-time.
Matrix 1, subway fight scene, 0:20 (same clip as above)
Neo and Agent Smith jump at each other, guns blazing, and in mid-air time slows so that the bullets are visible as they fly, hence the term ‘bullet-time’.
Here’s a subtle point that people often miss: The cool thing about bullet-time in the Matrix is that the evil machine agents and the well-dressed human rebels are basically super-powered with enhanced cognition, so bullet-time is plausibly required to truly describe what’s happening at those points in the story. Yes, I’ve also seen it in trailers for the Star Wars Force Unleashed and Old Republic games, but they feature Jedi Knights and Dark-side-of-the-force baddies, so bullet-time in those instances is also plausibly required to truly show what’s happening when the light-sabers are blazing.
Contrast this with the trailer of the new Three Musketeers movie:
At minute 1:03, a woman in a period-piece dress dodges a hail of gunfire in bullet-time. This is a regular, non-super-powered human woman in a lovely dress, and so bullet-time here is ridiculous. Instead of awed with coolness, the audience is asked to suspend disbelief. Having said that, even if the plot reveals that this woman’s character is an android from the future or some damned thing, the bullet-time effect is so overused that it should probably be avoided in all contexts. I was excited about this movie until I saw that it too, cannot avoid leaning on the bullet-time effect. Awful. Just, awful.
Abuse 3: The three-point landing.
This one really gets on my nerves. You’ve seen this, and you might have been impressed by it the first half-scad of times. Here’s how it goes: a super-bad-ass, typically flying through the air with pure ballistic purpose, lands in a kneeling position with one fist planted on the ground and head bowed. He/she then slowly looks up as though coming out of a meditative state to see the group of enemies gathered around. He/she then goes on a big ninja ass-kicking spree. I don’t know where this particular trope came from, but I sure as hell wish it would go back. This is probably my most un-favorite of them all.
The rest of this post is devoted to a brief list of the recent abuses of the aforementioned worn-out cliches. On my radar especially are three-point landings, bullet-time, and general over-done acrobatics. I will ignore the approach-gesture. (As for the approach-gesture, I will not deign to justify my claims. Anyone who encounters the phenomenon of alternating-current on an even semi-regular basis has seen that trope thousands of times, and blind people have had it described to them.) Finally, we’ll take a look at some recent instances of good sci-fi/fantasy fight scenes, as well some goldie-oldies from back when the Spielberg-Lucas-Cameroon brain trust was not clogged with grey, fridge-nuking amyloid plaque.
Clip: Flight of the Osiris
6:52 — 7:02 Three-point
Jue performs some crazy acrobatics as she plummets Yoda-knows how many stories to the ground and lands with her fist planted down, head bowed and all. The force of the landing generates a ripple in the Matrix simulation which crashes into the garbage dumpsters in the area. I think this is the first time I saw the three-point landing. I thought it was ok- a little gratuitous. Anyway, it should easily refresh your memory to see this clip. If you’re anything of a sci-fi fan, you’ll recognize this from other places when you see it.
Clip: Opening scene
Bullet-time begins. Woman standing in the rain in some big asian metropolis.
Camera starts at her feet. Pans up woman’s legs.
Bullet-time still going strong. Oh my holy ass this entire clip is in bullet-time for the most part. This is horrible. 0:00 to 2:06. The opening music is lame as well. Sounds like the laziest techno-music ever, dolorous and irritating, almost like they recorded ambient sound at a construction zone and laid it over a funeral dirge.
Clip 1: Black Widow attacks
0:38 — 0:42 Needless acrobatics.
ScarJo (Black Widow) does this awful move where she’s just spinning around this guy like they’re in some kind of ballroom dance competition, except he gets a concussion. This move makes beyond no sense.
0:45 — 0:47 Three-point.
ScarJo kicks this dude and he immediately drops like a garbage bag full of vomit, and she wheels around and assumes fist-on-the-floor stance, head bowed and all. She doesn’t look up, mercifully.
Clip 2: Tony Stark lands at convention
Iron Man lands fist down on the stage at his big technology convention. I suppose that’s practical if you’re coming out of sub-sonic flight wearing a nuclear-powered mechanical exoskeleton, but *sigh* I just wish there was some other way.
Clip 3: Sam rescues Quorra
No! Not again! Rinzler dodges Sam’s data disk. Lands with his hand down, looks up purposefully. Grrrrr!
Rinzler lands with his fist down and looks up purposefully! Stop doing that!
Some good fight scenes. After wading through the compost pile, let’s look at some actual good examples that popular sci-fi film has managed to gestate recently, as well as some awesome oldies that will. never. go. out. of. style.
Good clip: Agent Smith vs Neo
Alright- the Matrices have a bunch of great fight scenes- like the lobby scene or the hallway scene. Everyone knows about them. However, this fight is notable because it’s the best example of Neo’s super-human scope of competence within the Matrix, and it has the coolest examples of (the then-awesome) bullet-time. At 3:02, Neo pulls a galvanized steel pipe out of the concrete and channels Bruce Lee. He smacks it into a Smith to bust off all the concrete on the end, and they all wear this look of “oh, shit.” Neo then lays waste. It gets a little insane past 4:47, but this fight is still the best part of the second movie. (The second movie is really not all that bad, except for the dance orgy in the beginning which is just beyond AWFUL. God! I take that back, this movie is bullshit after all. But this fight scene STILL rises above it.)
Good clip: Gandalf vs Saruman
The action starts at 1:56. Good on Peter Jackson- two powerful wizards blasting each other with bolts of magic. In most other fight scenes from recent sci-fi movies, the good and bad guy are doing impossible shit to each other but somehow taking no damage. In this fight, you can just hear these guys crashing around like hockey players. I feel it in my spleen when Gandalf throws Saruman with an awesome back-stab motion of his staff.
Good clip: Mace Windu vs Darth Sidious
Action starts pretty much immediately. These new light-saber fights are flush with fancy choreography, and this is the most tasteful of them. Mace Windu fights like a hero, only to be betrayed by (the woefully miscast) Anakin Skywalker.
Good clip: Terminator vs T-1000
The action starts at 1:52. Everything about this is awesome. The metallic background music, these two killer robots throwing each other through through concrete walls, T-800 stepping on the spilled roses as he draws his shotgun. These guys are just beefy hard-hitting solid BAD. (Except that Arnold Schwarzenegger is good.) No gratuitous acrobatics here. Not a single fist planted on the ground, and no bullet-time.
Good clip: Ripley vs Alien queen
The alien queen has stowed aboard the ship, and Ripley, outfitted in a power-loader, gives one of the best lines in any movie- ‘Get away from her, you BITCH!’ Honestly, this line should be engraved in platinum and sent aboard the next deep-space probe. This is James Cameroon at his best. The definitive space marines movie.
Good clip: Luke vs Darth Vader
Action starts pretty much immediately. The old sounds of the light-sabers colliding are FANTASTIC! When Luke and Darth Vader are trying to out-muscle each other at 1:11, those things screech like buckling, flash-freezing iron bulkheads. Also, as cool as the fancy choreography is in the newer movies, it’s just great to see Luke and the Vade swing these sun-hot energy blades like baseball bats. It makes it seem like a broadsword fight instead of a ninja fight. Both types are cool, but man- nothing compares to 2:55 when Luke *almost* goes to the dark side to throw down Vader. Really- maybe the best fight scene in any movie, sci-fi or otherwise. And, of course, at 6:05 Anakin Skywalker, taking a full blast of force lightning, tosses Darth Sidious, screaming to his death, into the bowels of the Death Star. Beyond awesome.
Furthermore, I’ll say this: I can stomach all the apostasies of the new Star Wars movies. I’ll take Jar Jar. I’ll ignore the thin, lifeless dialogue. I’ll grit my teeth at the infamous ‘NOOOOO’. I’ll choke back bile when that stupid robot with a laser cannon for a nose appears in the battles. I’ll scotch-tape my eyes open and pour anhydrous citrus powder on a fresh paper cut to distract myself from the wet-dream of CGI-nonsense superimposed around characters who have about as much depth and pathos as a popsicle stick. Just as long as my library contains an unadulterated copy of that last fight scene with Luke and Darth Vader, I’ll be cookin’ with crisco.
So there you have it. Fight-choreographers, take note. Take those fists off the ground. Spare us the purposeful head bowing. Leave the bullet-time to the Matrices, where it belongs. Acrobatics wins gold-medals, not necessarily sci-fi fights.
Get away from her, you BITCH!