Friday, June 19, 2015

Flashing Lights, Giant Robots, and Explosions

Note: this was written before I started downloading and re-uploading the pictures I use, so some of them have gone away. Hopefully I will get around to fixing this soon.

Look me in the eye and try to tell me with a straight face that you weren’t at least a little excited when you saw this post’s title. There is something within us that starts growling, building up into a roar in response to fast motion and chaos.

If I didn't put something like this here, it would be false advertising.
Picture by Alon Chou,

Of course, I am not here to talk about metal men shooting missiles at each other simply because it lends to an adrenaline rush, but rather to examine why such content is put into stories, and what purpose it serves. More generally, I’ll be talking about anything that can be put into a story to entice the audience. There are many different possible instances of this, targeting different emotions and audiences. There is action, designed to spike an adrenaline rush, igniting a flame of battle. This is what explosions, weapons, and fighting robots are used for. The audience also will get a rush with the appearance of a beloved character or actor, as well as when presented with romance, sex, tight clothing or exposed skin, and plenty of other things.

It'd be hard to imagine a movie called The Princess
Bride without a scene like this.
All of the above can be used for the sole purpose of stimulating the audience. This is called fan service. Fan service is feeding the audience something they want and are expecting, like a car chase in an action movie, a kiss in a romance, or an actor reprising his or her role from many years ago.

I have stated before that I find value in fiction in its hypothetical exploration: how the characters respond to the unusual situations they are put into, philosophical ideas that can be explored, moral dilemmas the characters have to face, etc. In fact, I used the exploration of the hypothetical as my only defense against the social stigma against fantasy, seeing it as sufficient on its own to justify immersing oneself in fiction. From this point of view, is there any significant purpose to fan service, or is it no more than fodder for our ape-like instincts?

There is one obvious purpose for fan service: it makes for eye-catching trailers. Anything that hopes to be classified as an action movie needs to have an action-packed trailer with at least one fireball explosion. Trailers are movies’ number one attention-grabbers, and the only reason they grab our attention is because they are entirely fan service. A trailer’s sole purpose is to shout, “Hey you! Look, you’ll like this movie. It will entertain you, keep you on the edge of your seat, and fill you with thrills.”

Mad Max: Fury Road went all-out with an action-packed trailer.

Now it becomes important to clearly define the boundary of what counts as fan service: material that’s sole purpose is to entice the audience. Notice that by this definition, a huge battle or a sex scene does not count as fan service if the presentation of the story or theme is more significant than it would be without. Thus, there is a very meaningful difference between fan service and non-fan-service stimuli. As biological creatures, we humans need stimulation in order for a movie to keep our attentions for the whole two or three hours. As an example of good stimulation, take a scene from Avengers: Age of Ultron (minor spoiler alert). We could have seen Bruce Banner sitting brooding in a corner while Tony stark tells the team that Hulk has just gone rampaging through a city. Instead, the Hulk’s fury was shown onscreen, no stops pulled, and we saw Iron Man in his Hulkbuster suit trading powerful blows with the green monster. This high-intensity action sequence was not simply for the audience to see big things smashing each other and the environment, though that certainly was part of it. Rather it provided an empathetic understanding of Banner’s struggle with the monster within, as well as give us perspective on one of the overarching themes of the movie, whether the Avengers are really good for the world, or if they are ultimately harmful and destructive. (end spoilers)

Used in this manner, the flashy aspect of movies can also act as a catalyst for those who go to them for entertainment, exposing them to the themes and ideas. There is a high demand these days for entertainment; people want to be stimulated, and most want to see a movie that has action or romance. Of course, most people would also claim that they care more about the story and characters, but the entertainment factor is clearly a major priority. In light of this, we see there can be value found even in movies and shows that incorporate copious amounts of meaningless fan service (ahem Doctor Who) as a means to draw attention to the themes being explored in the work. And sometimes it is okay to make fan service allowances just because. After all, the best writers are fans of themselves too.

The takeaway here is that all these things are just a subset of unlimited tools writers can use. It is up to the writers to decide what they are trying to convey by their work, and to stay true to that point throughout. Sometimes excitement works into the story really well. Sometimes giving the fans what they want works, and so it is done. And sometimes writers will make a point by blatantly avoiding fan service, like how in Patrick Rothfuss’s The Wise Man’s Fear Kvothe glosses over his trial at Imre, which the Chronicler had been anticipating the whole time, how in Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy the main character turns out not to be the hero of ages, and how a blogger can write an entire discussion on fan service without including a picture of anime panties. It’s up to the writer to decide what his or her work is going to convey, and then use the tools at his or her disposal to make it so.

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