Slate on Plot Holes

Dan Kohn (
Tue, 10 Jun 1997 19:33:41 -0700

New feature from Slate:

The Lost World and Anaconda have gargantuan problems.

<Picture: By Stephen Harrigan>
(1,073 words; posted Wednesday, June 11)

(Note: This is the first in an occasional series assessing the
narrative logic of movies.)

We have recently crossed an important cultural divide: Movies now make
less sense than rock lyrics. Once it seemed that the nonsensical
blather of a song like America's "Horse With No Name" (with the
immortal lines "The heat was hot" and "In the desert/ You can't
remember your name/ 'Cause there ain't no one/ For to give you no
pain") could never be challenged by any rival in any other art form.
But that was before they released The Saint. This unfathomable spy
movie is about a master of disguise who dresses up as, among other
things, a Spanish poet and an academic doofus to trick the heroine--a
lonely but gorgeous physicist with heart disease--into surrendering
the cold-fusion formula she carries in her bra. And that's the part
that makes sense.
How do movies like this happen? It's hard to say. The Saint may
be one of those rare cases in which the inanity is deliberate. The
fact that nothing in this movie bears any relation to the basic
cause-and-effect propositions of earthly life suggests a conscious
stupidity on the part of the filmmakers that may, in fact, be a
guiding aesthetic.
<Picture><Picture: Clickable image map><Picture: W>ith the average
film, though, nothing of the sort is intended. Those of us who write
screenplays for a living are always perplexed at what leaky logic
vessels most movies turn out to be, given the endless development
process that takes place before production begins. In draft after
draft, in script meeting after script meeting, every narrative line is
examined for signs of warp, every motivation of every character is
finely adjusted, until the story is as watertight as a birch-bark
But when a movie nears production, that canoe is suddenly
launched into Niagara Falls. The dawdling precision of development
gives way to velocity and chaos. Perhaps a big star comes aboard,
declares the script a disaster for reasons of his own, and convinces
the studio to hire another writer--or five or six--so that the final
shooting script is nothing but a pastiche of scenes from a dozen
different drafts. Perhaps a director has a "vision" of a big boat
slamming into something (a feature, by the way, of at least four
recent films) and uses up so much of the budget to bring it to reality
that key scenes explaining who was on the boat and why it was out of
control are never shot. Or perhaps the scenes are shot and never used
because the first cut of the movie is an hour too long.
Then, of course, there's the simpler observation that some
movies are just badly imagined and badly written, and nobody cares
enough to do anything about it.
<Picture><Picture: Illustration by Scott Cunningham><Picture: I>n any
case, this movie season is turning out to be a festival of
incoherence. It has brought us not only The Saint but also the
brain-dead epics Anaconda, Volcano, and The Fifth Element. Measured
against this company, Steven Spielberg's The Lost World seems at first
glance to be a seamless web of logic. Nowhere in The Lost World's
bestiary is there a creature that behaves with the motivational
abandon of that snake in Anaconda: striking minor characters with
accuracy and blinding velocity in one scene, hovering and hissing and
generally dithering around in the next, so that the heroine has plenty
of time to escape. When you see this snake swallow Jon Voight and then
regurgitate him in front of Jennifer Lopez like a cat presenting a
dead bird, when you see Voight give a little ironic wink before
collapsing to the floor and dying in a puddle of digestive slime, you
are witnessing one of those classic I-Don't-Think-So moments that help
define the contemporary moviegoing experience.
The I-Don't-Think-Sos in The Lost World are not lovingly
premeditated, as they appear to be in The Saint. They're the products
of sloppy thinking. Here is a movie that has no trouble making us
believe its presiding whopper--reconstituted dinosaurs--but then
continually breaches the credibility contract on relatively minor
reality issues like torque, animal behavior, and maritime shipping.
<Picture><Picture: Clickable image map><Picture: W>hat are the odds
that an 11-year-old girl who has been cut from the school gym team
would, upon finding herself besieged by velociraptors in an abandoned
dinosaur-breeding station, happen to be standing under a pair of handy
parallel bars? Is it likely that she could, by twirling around and
around on the bars, generate enough power to kick the pouncing
velociraptor (weighing in at 300 pounds, easy) through the air and out
the window?
Here comes a tyrannosaurus rex, charging down a stream bed
after a mob of panicky humans. It growls and snaps at the air, and
though it does manage to stomp one victim (who, in a nice touch,
sticks to the bottom of its foot like a piece of gum), in general it
moves with such a lumbering gait that we might as well be back in the
'60s watching Valley of the Gwangi. Where is the lethal swiftness of
the predator? If a crocodile can outrun a human being, why can't a
OK, so then they sedate the dinosaur and put it on a ship and
send it to San Diego. In midocean, the T-Rex wakes up and somehow
breaks out of its heavily secured cargo hold, eats everybody on board,
then cleverly scurries back into hiding. So much for the cruel
stereotype of the pea-brained dinosaur.
<Picture><Picture: Clickable image map><Picture: T>he biggest logic
bloopers in The Lost World arise from the conventionality at the heart
of the movie. Neither Spielberg, nor screenwriter David Koepp, nor
Michael Crichton, on whose novel the movie is based, have shown any
interest in challenging the moralistic assumption at the heart of
almost every creature feature: That good intentions, spunkiness and,
above all, good looks are the safeguards against rampaging monsters.
In movies like The Lost World, dinosaurs are not just predators but
avengers, nibbling a prissy little rich girl here, chomping an
environmentally insensitive CEO there. The bill of fare is numbingly
standard. Villains are picked off in order of ascending
nastiness--sadistic brutes, followed by smarmy flacks, followed by
twisted visionaries in expensive suits. Among the heroes, we don't
have to worry about the principled male scientist, the dynamic female
animal behaviorist, or the stowaway children. But even among the good
guys, a marginal physiognomy or a receding hairline can spell doom.
Keep your eye on that sad-faced electronics specialist. He's bald, and
he's gonna pay.

<Picture> Links
SLATE reviews some of this season's coherence-challenged films. See
David Edelstein on The Saint, The Fifth Element, and The Lost World,
and David Plotz on Volcano. As for these movies' Web sites, here's the
one about dinosaurs, the one about snakes, and the one about the
chameleon (a k a The Saint).

Stephen Harrigan is a screenwriter, novelist, and contributing editor
to Texas Monthly.

Illustrations by Scott Cunningham.

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