In Scenic Routes, Mike D’Angelo looks at key movie scenes, explaining how they work and what they mean.
Handling exposition is one of a screenwriter’s toughest jobs. Often, there’s a certain amount of information that the viewer absolutely needs in order to understand the story being told, but no easy or natural way to impart it. That’s especially true of science-fiction movies, which frequently begin by introducing an entirely new world or universe (or a future Earth). Star Wars famously solved the problem by kicking off with a slow-moving block of text, using John Williams’ rousing score and some planar theatrics to distract from the dryness. (“It is a period of civil war. Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire.”) More recently, Rian Johnson—who’s writing and directing an upcoming Star Wars sequel—opted to explain Looper’s very complicated background through extensive voice-over narration in early scenes, dropping the device as soon as its function was complete. When options like those aren’t practical, there’s nothing to be done but parcel out details over the course of the first few minutes, trying not to make the spoon-feeding seem painfully obvious.
When it is painfully obvious, though, it can be very painful indeed. One of the first movies I ever reviewed as a full-time film critic, 15 years ago this March, was Brian De Palma’s Mission To Mars. Looking back on that review today, it seems unduly harsh to me; even at the time, some friends of mine complained that I hadn’t given the film a fair shake, focusing too hard on its weaknesses while ignoring its considerable strengths. (Some will no doubt say that little has changed in 15 years.) What threw me was its terrible opening scene, which features some of the clunkiest exposition of all time. Films only get one chance to make a first impression, and my first impression of Mission To Mars was that it considered me an idiot; the implicit insult apparently lingered, influencing my opinion of everything that followed. If there are any aspiring screenwriters reading this, I beg them to watch this scene carefully—it should be taught in film schools (which in my experience tend to give students classic scripts to study, like Robert Towne’s for Chinatown, rather than provide examples of what to avoid). Here’s what not to do with backstory:
The first clear sign that my viewing habits have changed over the years was that I actually had to force myself to pay attention to the dialogue this time, because I was too busy at first observing that De Palma, unlike too many contemporary American filmmakers, knows where to put the camera. The first few minutes of this scene consist of a simple conversation among three astronauts: Jim (Gary Sinise), Woody (Tim Robbins), and Luke (Don Cheadle). They’re sitting together in Luke’s backyard, on his kids’ fort, and De Palma begins by framing them dead center, as “Dickinson, Texas” is superimposed on the screen (followed by “June 9, 2020,” which is only five and a half years away now, in case you want to feel old). The camera is already in motion, however, and it swivels slightly to Cheadle’s right in order to end up with a shot that has the three men slightly staggered, right to left. In addition to being a more dynamic and aesthetically pleasing composition, this visually diminishes Sinise’s Jim, in a subtle but effective way, while moving Woody and Luke closer to the lens. Which is apropos, since Jim, who wants nothing more than to go to Mars, has been denied that opportunity. Luke, in the foreground, is going instead.
How do we know that? Thanks to dialogue like this:
Oh, Jim, if only your wife Maggie hadn’t died a lingering and horrible death, bumming you out to such an extent that you wound up losing the command of the Mars I spacecraft to me, your best pal Luke, which is a particular tragedy since going to Mars had been a dream of yours since early childhood, if I remember correctly, which I trust that I do because we’re such good friends, Jim, and you know that I’d give anything to let you go in my place but you’ve been grounded due to emotional instability, as you know, and your wife’s name is Maggie and she’s dead as a doornail and it’s a goddamn shame and my name is Luke, by the way, I’m your best friend and I’m going to Mars tomorrow instead of you, sorry about that.
At least, that’s how it sounded to me at the time. Mission To Mars has a screenplay credited to Jim Thomas & John Thomas and Graham Yost—the ampersand reveals that the Thomases (who are brothers, and whose other credits include Predator and Wild Wild West) worked together, whereas Yost (Speed, Broken Arrow) was likely brought in to do rewrites. Or perhaps it was the other way around. In any case, there’s no way to know who’s to blame for the atrocious dialogue here, but there’s an unholy onslaught of people telling other people things that the other people in question clearly already know, strictly for the benefit of the audience. Sinise, Robbins, and Cheadle are skilled enough actors that they succeed in making some of it sound semi-plausible—they more or less get away with the first little burst of info, which provides us with Jim’s impressive resume. (“C’mon, Mr. Cover Of Time Magazine!” “Guy landed a crippled [something] II shuttle.”) After that, though, it gets ugly fast. “Okay, I made a little noise,” Jim admits, “but putting the first footprints on Mars, that’s for guys who wrote their Ph.D. thesis on how to colonize the place.” Like you, Luke! You did that! As you know. And now the viewers know, too.
There’s actually one nice bit of dialogue in the scene, in terms of establishing the world of 2020 (which was then 20 years in the future): As Woody leaves, Luke remarks that his sports car belongs in a museum, and Woody replies, “Internal combustion, boys. Accept no substitutes.” That’s effective—clearly suggesting that most cars are now electric, or at least run on a different kind of engine, without stating it directly. (It also frees De Palma from having to commission the design of a futuristic car. Nostalgia: the ultimate sci-fi budget slasher.) Unfortunately, it’s immediately followed by more expository awfulness, as Luke needlessly reminds Jim that Jim and his late wife, Maggie, spent 12 years training for tomorrow’s mission, and that Maggie subsequently got sick, and that Jim pulled himself out of the rotation in order to care for her, and would you please please please shut up (which Jim himself tells Luke to do, albeit ostensibly for a different reason). Cheadle deserved an Oscar for getting through that speech without looking as if he wished he were holding his nose. Having some random guest at Luke’s farewell party (we see that get-together briefly just prior to this scene, underneath the opening credits) hear the tragic backstory for the first time would have been pretty clumsy, too, but at least it wouldn’t have been outright nonsensical.
The saddest part of all this is that the scene concludes with a lovely example of how to convey necessary information economically, eloquently, and visually. We didn’t really need to hear Luke and Woody tell Jim how hard he’d trained for the Mars expedition and how long he’d dreamed of going. All of that comes across when Jim, alone with his thoughts, presses one shoe into the dirt of Luke’s backyard and looks at the faint impression of his footprint in the soil. That single image speaks so powerfully of a lost opportunity that it makes most of the preceding dialogue redundant. (The stuff about Maggie’s death and its role in Jim being grounded could surely have been conveyed later; it’s not crucial here.) De Palma may have invented this moment on the set, but it also may very well have been in the screenplay. If so, that’s damn good writing… but I’m not sure I even noticed the first time, due to all the bad writing. As you know.