Duality of Storytelling

hollywoodIt has often been noted that big summer movies come in thematic twos, the classic example being 1998’s Deep Impact and Armageddon asteroid catastrophe duo.

Beyond the simple coincidence of themes, however, I started to notice that these twin flicks often have a strange, yin-yang duality, with one film being more realistic (or attempting to be) and one being more iconic or even cartoonish. The question it raised in my head was this:

Why was this odd cinematic dualism happening?

Although there may be some studio-to-studio plagiarism going on, I think there’s also a case to be made for sheer zeitgeist. The classic example of this phenomenon is the flurry of “evil baby” flicks in the 70s—like The Omen, It’s Alive, Grave of the Vampire, and Rosemary’s Baby—right when the Free Love generation first started dealing with the harsh realities of diapers and feeding times. For a variety of reasons, we often just think of the same things at the same times.

The phenomenon of simultaneous invention in science is another good example. Sometimes, the time is just right for an idea. The real question is why, in film, this simultaneous invention so often seems to exhibit a sort of Apollonian-Dionysian duality, with staid realism standing side-by-side with wild hyperbole.

Also, the dynamic might not be confined to film. The same duality comes to mind when I think of the grittiness of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings compared to cartoonishness of his friend C. S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia. (If anyone dares object to me calling Narnia “cartoonish” I will be forced to bring up Santa Claus!)

What’s going on with this weird, yin-yang dualism?

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THE UNCANNY VALLEY

MoriuncannyvalleyI believe the dualism is related to roboticist Masahiro Mori’s concept of the Uncanny Valley. Mori’s basic idea is that, as the appearance and movement of a human-like image (e.g., a robot or animation) approaches that of humans, our emotional response to it becomes more positive, until a point is reached (the Valley itself) where our expectations of fully realistic human appearance and movement conflict with the not-quite-realistic look and behavior of the image, and our emotional response shifts rapidly to the negative.

The image looks human enough to trigger our expectations, but not enough to fulfill them: it looks uncanny. A good example of something falling into the Uncanny Valley is the zombie, which appears and moves almost like a living human … but not quite.

On the other side of this Uncanny Valley, as realism is more fully achieved, our response again becomes positive. (See the image on the right for a graphic representation of the phenomenon.)

Research has shown that combining iconic and realistic features can “average out” into the Uncanny Valley, as well. For example, a robot with a realistic human voice or a human being with a robotic voice are both far more creepy than a human with a human voice or a robot with a robot voice. We want our robots to move and sound like robots; we want our humans to move and sound like humans. Mixing them makes us uncomfortable.

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THE UNCANNY REPELLER

Could a similar phenomenon apply to narratives?

I believe so, but along a spectrum that compares the fictional story not to real humans but to real life. It’s okay to have a realistic story, and it’s okay to have a cartoonish story, but you can’t stand on the fence or mix elements.

But, you might object, what about a film like Who Framed Roger Rabbit? that explicitly combines— Let me just stop you right there. Sorry. That sort of “mixing elements” pushes the whole story into the cartoonish. To make my point better, let’s look at an example that screwed up where WFRR succeeded.

UncannyOne of the most panned television programs of all time involved an uncomfortable mixture of realistic and cartoonish elements. It was a notorious episode of Steven Spielberg’s Amazing Stories, called “The Mission,” in which the belly gunner in a World War II bomber is saved from being crushed against a runway when the plane’s broken landing gear are replaced—during the final seconds of an hour-long show—by Disneyesque animated wheels. Up to that point, the program had been a very realistic depiction of the air war over Europe.

The sudden injection of a cartoonish element into this realistic set-up landed the entire story smack dab in the middle of the Valley. It made people feel uncomfortable and disappointed. We want a show about wartime realism, or we want a show where the goofy and unrealistic can save the day. We do not want them both in the same program.

We do not want to watch a story stuck in the Uncanny Valley of narrative.

My theory: like a “strange repeller” in chaos theory, the Uncanny Valley of storytelling spawns dual manifestations of the same creative concept in opposite directions: one toward the realistic, the other toward the iconic/cartoonish. That way, Hollywood can get both takes on the idea without having the realistic and hyperbolic combined in an uncomfortable and disappointing way.

Take, for example, the various manifestation of Batman. There is a campy, cartoonish side represented by the classic television series and Burton’s films, and  a more gritty, realistic side we see in Nolan’s films and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. Both versions are recognizably Batman, but the two styles are utterly incompatible. There is clearly some sort of narrative Uncanny Valley at work, repelling the single creative concept into two manifestations.

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A CYCLE OF CONVERGENCE

Just one last note before we get to the movie analysis. I promise.

The yin-yang cinematic split itself isn’t the only thing I noticed. I also noticed that it seems to rear its binary heads in a cycle. It eased into the 90s and then eased back out again, reaching an apex of volcanic and asteroidal dualism in 1997/1998.

The early and late pairs are least like each other, while those at the height of the cycle are near twins. The paired films seem to gravitate toward each other over the years (and thus toward the Uncanny Valley) then swoop away again. This should become more clear as we examine the pairs, one by one.

Now, the fun part!  Let’s go through the films that fit this pattern over the past couple of decades:

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CLOSE ENCOUNTER OF THE BINARY KIND

It all starts in 1996 with Independence Day., a film about humanity’s first encounter with an alien intelligence. Slam-bang action, aliens getting punched in the face, and a yahoo pilot flying a fighter jet straight up the port of a flying saucer in a barely concealed reference to the probing for which he was seeking inter-species vengeance. It’s about as cartoonish as you can get without the stars being credited as voice actors.

So, how did this iconic film strike me as one of a pair?

Contact, based on a popular 1985 book by Carl Sagan, had been in the works for years, and anything in the works in Hollywood is also in the grapevine, and thus in the zeitgeist.  Granted, the film adaptation of Contact wouldn’t come out until a year after Independence Day, in 1997, but there are parallelisms that look as if the film dualism is pulling itself together from the chaos.

If you think Sagan’s gentle, realistic encounter and Will Smith’s violent, cartoonish conflict aren’t true doubles, let’s touch on a few points:

  • Contact (11 Jul 1997 – 63% RT Fresh) features Jodie Foster as a scientist who discovers an alien signal. The signal contains instructions, which an international effort uses to create an alien machine. The first machine fails, but a second attempt succeeds. Foster’s character reunites with her father in the form of an alien.
  • Independence Day (02 Jul 1996 – 61% RT Fresh) features Jeff Goldblum as a scientist who discovers an alien signal. The signal contains instructions for an invasion, a countdown which leads to an attack, culminating in an international effort to defeat the alien invaders. Like Foster’s character, Goldblum has daddy issues (see Judd Hirsch).

The weave seems tenuous at this early stage, but details from these films play into later pairings, making it clear that this is part of an ongoing pattern. For example, take note of the gender flip in the main characters, a female scientist vs. a male scientist. It happens again, later.

Let’s watch:

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ERUPTING INTO FULL VIEW

In 1997, the pattern hits us full force, with two films about volcanoes.

  • Dante’s Peak (07 Feb 1997 – 27% RT Fresh) featuring Pierce Brosnan as a volcanologist.
  • Volcano (25 Apr 1997 – 44% RT Fresh) featuring Anne Heche as a volcanologist.

Odd that both pairs of movies flip the gender of the scientist characters, huh?

Just like in the previous pairing, one is presented as a science-based film, the other as an action flick. The basic “volcano movie” concept divides nicely along the repellant Uncanny Valley, resulting in two similar, complementary films, one more realistic and one more exaggerated.

The over-the-top Volcano sets us up for the next double-flick by using explosions to divert deadly (molten) rock.

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EVERYTHING FALLS INTO PLACE

In 1998, with Deep Impact and Armageddon pairing up, we have two cinematic rocks hurtling toward Earth. In the more scientific Deep Impact, the impending collision is described as an Extinction Level Event, or E.L.E., misheard as “Ellie” by a reporter played by Téa Leoni.

Hey, wait. Wasn’t Jodie Foster’s character in Contact, who also discovered something coming to Earth from deep space, named Ellie? Why, yes, she was! Curiouser and curiouser.

Here’s another neat fact: just like in Contact, the technological solution in Deep Impact fails the first time. And, just like Foster in Contact, Leoni reunites with her father … albeit her real father rather than an alien surrogate. What’s with the daddy issues in these films?

But, certainly that’s the end of the coincidences between 1998’s “thing from space” movies and the pair from two years earlier, right? After all, there’s nothing from Independence Day inserted into Armageddon

Other than the fact that one of the spaceships sent to intercept the comet is named Independence. What the actual frick, right?

  • Deep Impact (08 May 1998 – 47% RT Fresh) featuring Robert Duvall as an asteroid-busting space hero who sacrifices himself at the last minute to save the world.
  • Armageddon (01 Jul 1998 – 40% RT Fresh) featuring Bruce Willis as a comet-busting space hero who sacrifices himself at the last minute to save the world.

And of course, the female-led Impact is paired with a hyper-masculine Armageddon fronted by a guy so overburdened with testosterone he’s going bald. The gender flips again!

Okay, take a deep breath. The blockbuster disaster movies are done. We’ve confronted aliens from space, liquid rock from deep in the Earth, and finally solid rock from space. We’ve run out of ways to spin this pattern, haven’t we?

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TWO FEET IN THE GRAVE

Well, it seems the dual-flick pattern does wind down a bit at this point. Instead of manifesting as adventure/sci-fi, in 1999 it pops up in two dark and subtle thrillers:

  • American Beauty (15 Sep 1999, 88% RT Fresh) The lead character is actually dead, murdered, and is narrating the story from beyond the grave.
  • Sixth Sense (02 Aug 1999, 85% RT Fresh) The lead character is actually dead, murdered, and is living the story from beyond the grave.

Hello again, Bruce! You can have the lead in a film about a dead guy mentoring a young boy. Kevin Spacey will take the lead in a film about a dead guy fantasizing about a young girl. Not quite as much of a gender flip, but it’s there.

And, Spacey’s dead guy has the decency to not be dead through the actual story, maintaining an air of realism with an impossible voice-over we can accept as an artistic device. Bruce is as dead as a doorknob (spoiler alert!) in a movie filled with quite unrealistic ghosties. Beauty falls toward the realistic, Sense falls toward the cartoonish, and the Uncanny Valley is avoided once again.

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EYES ON THE PAST

In the year 2000, the dualism pattern devolves even more. You really have to look closely to see it. Actually, you don’t have to look at all, because I already did.

You’re welcome.

The millenial O Brother Where Art Thou! and Gladiator are both highly stylized period pieces about a prisoner seeking justice for having lost his family. Even so, at first gance, I felt that it was a bit of a stretch.

Then I remembered that Brother is an adaptation of that sword-and-sandal classic, the Odyssey. , while Gladiator was the first sword-and-sandal blockbuster to hit the big screen in living memory. Coinkidink? I think not. Zeitgeist is more like. Approaching the end of the millennium (perhaps, as some feared, the end of history) had us all looking backward to the ancient past.

Another selling point for these two films being the last gasp of the dualism of the 90s? The heroes of both films rely on using a disguise while entertaining (singing or fighting) to get closer to their goals.

  • Gladiator (05 May 2000, 77% RT Fresh) A period piece about a captive seeking justice after losing his family. The hero uses a disguise while entertaining to reach his goal.
  • O Brother Where Art Thou? (22 Dec 2000, 77% RT Fresh) A period piece about a captive seeking justice after losing his family. The hero uses a disguise while entertaining to reach his goal.

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THE CYCLE WINDS DOWN

You might notice: Not only have the film pairs pulled apart in genre at the end of the cycle—as Contact and Independence Day were barely inside the same genre envelop at the beginning—but the release dates have also pulled apart again. The first two were released a year apart, and the last two nearly eight months apart, while those in the middle are nearly on top of each other. Clearly, there’s a convergence and divergence, a synchronizing and desynchronizing, driving this cultural cycle, weaving and unweaving it through the years.

And, by 2001, it has pretty much unwoven itself.

That’s when the weird Age of Sequels and Remakes began, lasting into 2011, with 2005 alone seeing The Chronicles of Narnia, War of the Worlds, King Kong, Batman Begins, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory adapted, revised, and rebooted. How many Spidermen have we seen during this period, including the musical? There was little room for simultaneous invention with all of the flashbacks and cinematic cover tunes going on.

The dualism cycle seemed to be broken, even though 2006 had Night at the Museum alongside a night at several museums, AKA The Da Vinci Code. There was no second Hancock in 2008, no other Avatar in 2009, no complement to Inception in 2010, and although 2011 saw two Golden Age of Film nostalgia flicks in The Artist and Hugo, they aren’t exactly an obvious pair.

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PAY NO ATTENTION TO THE SLAVES BEHIND THE CURTAIN

Then came 2012, which featured three slavery pics from which to pick a pair: Django Unchained, Lincoln, and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. The bio-pic Lincoln could be seen as the realistic partner to either of the other two films. And, don’t forget, AL:VH features an axe-swinging hero and parasitic villains, as does Snow White and the Huntsman.

However, the strongest archetypal pairing in 2012 is between Argo and Zero Dark Thirty:

  • Argo (12 Oct 2012, 96% RT Fresh) is based on real events involving a secret incursion into a Muslim country. The lead agent is a man.
  • Zero Dark Thirty (11 Jan 2013, 93% RT Fresh) is based on real events involving a secret incursion into a Muslim country. The lead agent is a woman.

Some might object to ZDT being labeled as the “cartoonish” of the two films, but how about we use the word “iconic” instead? It’s hard to argue that ZDT would marathon better with Armageddon and Independence Day than Argo, and that Argo is more similar in political tone with Contact and Deep Impact than ZDT is.

Even so, it could be argued that the cycle glitched, able to throw off two realistic flicks because the real-world events they depict were two decades apart. Is the cycle gearing up again?

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HERE WE GO AGAIN!

Well, according to 2013, the duality pattern is back in full swing:

  • Olympus Has Fallen (22 March 2013 – 48% RT Fresh) with Gerard Butler as a Secret Service agent.
  • White House Down (28 June 2013 – 45% RT Fresh) with Channing Tatum as a US Capitol Police officer (and Secret Service rejectee).

No gender flips this time (that I can see) but the dualism is hard to deny. Enjoy the next few years of simultaneous, dualistic blockbusters!

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6 comments

  1. Best, most scientific breakdown that I’ve seen. At first, I laughed about the The Omen and diaper correlation, but the evidence and ideas you provided are spot on. Nicely done.

  2. Oh, I meant to explain that in the text! It’s the “freshness” rating of the film at RottenTomatoes.com.

  3. Thanks 😀

    Apparently this paper (from 1970!) has been re-examined fairly recently (2005); also Mori seems to have authored a book relating Buddhism to robotics, I found.

    I wonder what would happen were the duality theory (movies) here extrapolated back over more years, and whether it would have a measured cycle, or perhaps be in some manner exponential, in accordance with other societal factors.

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