Monday, August 29, 2011

Good High Concept vs. Bad High Concept

In his e-book Your Idea Machine, Bill Martell talks at length about high concept, and what makes for succesful high concept screenplays (as well as what doesn't). And with the current glut of box office disasters, it's obviously way past time that Hollywood starts to take notice and learn the difference.

A high concept idea for a movie is one where the story is the star. Just mentioning it immediately conjures up a strong image of what the movie is about, and what you can expect to see. But some high concept ideas cannot fulfill their promise. Case in point: Cowboys and Aliens.

What images does this title conjure up? I would venture either a few heroic cowboys plugging a Giger-type aliens full of holes with their six-shooters, or the same bunch of heroic cowboys in a shootout with technologically highly advanced aliens who wield rayguns.

The promise of this concept appeals to the 10-year old boy in the (largely male) demographic the movie wants to appeal to. You can create a mash-up between your favorite toys! Monsters and sheriffs and shotguns, oh my. But... what about the story?

Cowboys and Indians are largely matched in strength (in typical western movies, anyway). Cowboys and aliens - not so much. The aliens are either superhuman monsters, or technologically so advanced their science looks like magic to the Wild West gunslingers. So how do you solve the inequality between the protagonists (cowboys) and antagonists (aliens) in this conflict?

By cheating.

The hero of the piece is a man suffering from amnesia, who wears a hi-tech bracelet around his wrist. Which proves to be mighty handy when the aliens appear at the end of act 1 to attack the town.

You're already betraying your high concept idea from the start. This isn't Cowboys and Aliens, this is Supercowboy vs. Aliens. And that's not what the title promises.

But as the story progresses, more time is spent in act two on typical western obstacles (outlaws, Apaches...) than on fights with aliens. There's also the mystery woman with a Big Secret (which turns it into even less of a straight cowboys vs. aliens-affair). And the big finale goes on forever without ever being really thrilling.

One of the complaints against the movie is that it's not fun enough, it takes its ludicrous concept too seriously without providing any depth or theme. But would this concept work better if it were just 'fun'?

There's a movie out there that tried to provide exactly that: the Japanese low-budget fightfest Ninja vs. Aliens. A clan of ninjas encounter an alien in a forest, fight (and kill) it several times, it takes over a village and sends zombie-like slaves against them, and after 90 minutes of deliberate nonsense, bad comedy, weak gross-out effects and occasional good martial artistry, the alien is finally defeated. This movie does give you exactly what it promises -

And it ends up being boring as hell anyway. Because the basic concept is just too limited to sustain 90 minutes of story. Granted, the ultra-low budget and shoddy filmmaking doesn't help. But it's also pretty hard to imagine a story set in Tokugawa Japan featuring Ninja clans, shogunate politics, and an alien invasion which also has to function as a wild martial arts ride, and have it make sense and some sort of emotional impact.

Ultimately, a concept like Cowboys and Aliens turns out to be deceptive. Take the concept at face value, and you're left with a mix which doesn't make dramatic sense. Treat it seriously, and you lose the (imagined) thrills associated with the concept. Go for the thrills alone, and you run a huge risk of repetition and a story so shallow it doesn't engage the audience.

To sum up: Good high concept provides you with a visceral image to excite the imagination of the audience, but has enough dimensions to allow for emotional, thematic and narrative depth. And the crucial element, I think, is character. Die Hard's high concept (a lone cop battles a gang of international terrorists in a hi-tech building in order to save his estranged wife who has been taken hostage) puts the emphasis on the type of central character and the emotional bedrock which will anchor the action and suspense.

Bad high concept provides you with an exciting image, and nothing else. Cowboys and Aliens doesn't give you any clue about the characters involved (beyond the visual archetypes), the stakes of the conflict, or its context. And that's why it is so hard to come up with a story for it which works and will deliver an emotionally satisfying filmgoing experience.

(by the way, the movie is based on the Orci/Kurtzman/Lindelof script. The earlier version by Donelly and Oppenheimer is very different with totally different characters, tries to incorporate more western tropes into the narrative and increase the 'fun' factor, but still doesn't manage to overcome the limitations of the concept.)

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