On The Narcissistic Film Culture of the Squishy Noble Underdog

WARNING: The following post is a collection of my opinions on an actual concrete subject. Since I’m addressing some specific things, you might not like some of what I have to say. You may particularly dislike this if you take issue with the idea of some unknown, unsuccessful upstart attacking the (/sarcasm=1) utter genius of James Cameron’s Avatar (/sarcasm=0). Please confine your return fire to well-aimed fusillades of withering logic, and not the sporadic plinking duds of incoherent Web-rage. Thank you.

James Cameron’s Avatar and AliensStar Wars. The movie Edge of Tomorrow, currently finishing out production. They’ve all got something in common, and I’m not talking about their sci-fi narratives or nice special effects. I’m actually referring to this sickly-sweet idea that runs through all of them. Aliens gets a free pass because it wasn’t a core part of the plot, and Star Wars is Star Wars– I.E., it’s had its day and may or may not get another one.

The other two have no excuse. They’re films produced in the supposedly more self-aware Sci-fi environment of the 21st century. Look, it’s great that Cameron has convinced himself it’s clever writing to make a military force in the far-ish future totally laughable, but I disagree. In fact, it’s one of the most idiotic things I’ve ever heard. By the way, the whole evil corporation thing has been bled dry.

First, competent villains are more frightening. They make for much more powerful antagonists, and people hate feeling helpless against something. Villains should be easy to hate. No matter how nasty their words are, if their every act is just incompetence piled on incompetence, they ultimately aren’t scary. They aren’t effective. They might as well be so much background scenery to be knocked over in all those nice CGI set-pieces. This doesn’t mean the bad guys have to win, but it does mean they shouldn’t lose to people who have absolutely no right to win.

Let me break this down: if someone said he intended to attack the U.S. Air Force with two hundred Pteranodons, I’d tell him he’s a moron, and I that look forward to the news report of his total failure. You may be thinking, ‘Aha, but Pteranodons wouldn’t give off a sufficiently strong heat signature to be traced by missiles!’ and you’re absolutely right, which is why the pilots would use radar-guided ones. Or, you know, we could just send out the Apaches (the AH-64 helicopters, friend) instead. They’re still faster than said extinct avians, but maneuverable enough to use a wondrous device known as the chain-gun. Imagine a weapon firing 30mm bullets at 600 rounds a minute with enough accuracy to reliably shred targets up to a mile away. The actual projectile from this thing would weigh a little over half a pound, and travel faster than the speed of sound.

You might realize this sort of hurts. And lose any silly ideas about the flying friends in question miraculously evading every one of those ten rounds per second. The odds are absolutely terrible, and even if they do, what makes you think the pilots won’t evade them? Pilots have to be able to dodge missiles, folks, even today, and some of them have gotten very good at it. You seriously think something traveling at a piddling tenth the speed of a missile is going to give them any issues? As for dogfighting, look up Erich Hartmann, and realize that’s the kind of competence you would expect on a mission to claim resources needed for the survival of mankind. 

On the note of what humans are actually capable of, where are the cyborgs in Avatar? Over a century and a half after the invention of prosthetics, Earth’s only just started running out of resources (somehow), and none of this corporation’s marines can punch the locals to death with literal fists of steel (or unobtainium)? What kind of idiotic budgeting are these guys doing?  Where are the railguns that can split any of the local wildlife in half with a single shot? WHERE’S THE GODDAMN ORBITAL FIRE SUPPORT?! Where are all the high-tech guidance systems (which by this point sure as hell wouldn’t fail in any meaningful way, not when our existing ones don’t), AI-controlled Gatling cannons, impervious armored vehicles and actually useful powered armor? This isn’t a miraculous victory, it’s a BS one preordained by the writer because he just couldn’t bear the thought of the bad guys winning, even when they had every reason to.

I don’t expect anyone to cover all the angles, that’s not fair. No author should have to account for every conceivable counter the OpFor could bring to bear. But this, oh this is just too much. This whole watering-down thing has got to stop. I know I said I’d leave Star Wars alone, but…

There were, canonically, supposed to be 50,000 star destroyers in operation at the time of the Battle of Endor, and Yoda only knows how many smaller ships. There were at least five super-star destroyers by that point, with more on the way. Any one of those ships had ample firepower to obliterate the Rebel fleet shown on screen without the support of the Death Star. And after the Emperor’s death, the Empire fell apart so quickly that the fleet had no time to retaliate in full? Bureaucracy is more stable than that.

You see what I’m saying? This dumb trope has outlived its usefulness and then some. I sincerely doubt there are all that many people still held spellbound by this so-called ‘tension’. Doesn’t mean they won’t enjoy the movie, but the screenwriters don’t deserve any points for originality. Or subtlety, for that matter.

But honestly, that’s not what bothers me the most. What drives me crazy is just how dangerous this whole idea is. You know, that the good guys always win. Just think about that for a second. ‘History is written by the…’ ‘To the …. go the spoils.’ Etc. Do you see the pattern yet? If the good guys always win, then whoever loses is automatically the bad guy. Right Makes Might is a distinction without a difference; morality is still determined by who wins and who loses. In the end, this is still just Might Makes Right. I cannot possibly overstate how damn dangerous this idea is- that the good guys will win because they deserve to, even if they have no real chance.

If we actually applied this idea in daily life, here’s what it boils down to: I take the katana from my mantle, knowing that A) it is easily sharp enough to kill, and B) that my neighbor has no practical defense against it, because he doesn’t expect me to be insane. I go to his house, break in through the window, and kill him. When the police arrive, I point out that my neighbor is dead and I am not, so obviously he had some dark secret for which I needed to kill him. I ‘won’ this pitiable encounter, therefore I must be the good guy here. The police wipe beads of fearfuls sweat from their brows, and thank me for ending this menace to society before he could follow through on his unfathomable evil.

Realize that the outlandish idea I just presented is totally possible. I do own a sharpened katana, forged with Sanmai lamination and which I know for certain is capable of cutting an arm off a man. I know I have the skill to do that, though not much else. What’s stopping me is the realization that killing my neighbor is completely evil (don’t try to philosophize evil out of the equation, either), and a slap in the face to every true martial artist on Earth. Even if Might gave me the Right, that doesn’t make it Good. You see what I’m saying?

So please, stop SPAMMING THIS IDIOCY. That’s what it is, I hope you agree with that if you’ve read this far. This is an infinite loop of a canned message with no actual merit and some horrible, horrible flaws. The fact that it seems uplifting at first makes it all the more insidious. If the good guys do win, it should be because they fought better. Simple as that.

And don’t even get me started on how you can’t be heroic if you have no actual possibility of failure. Edge of Tomorrow, I’m looking at you.

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