The Five Writing Crimes of Ultraviolet

Ultraviolet is a visually beautiful but plotless little movie revolving around a disease that causes "vampirism" and Milla Jovovich kicking butt in skimpy clothing. I suspect the latter bit was the whole reason my husband rented it. But, hey, sometimes you learn more about what makes a good story from the bad stories than you do from the great stories. Great stories put it together so seamlessly it is hard to pull it apart and see why. Bad stories practically scream their flaws. So for any budding screenwriters out there, here are five major crimes you can learn from watching Ultraviolet.

1) Keeping the audience confused about what is going on and why is not ambiguity, slow reveal, or depth. It is lazy writing. Now that I have seen the film and given it some thought, I think I can piece together the plot. But at the time I was watching it, I kept wondering things like: Who is that? How is that important? What is going on?  Yes, some ambiguity can be provoking. But not that much. Yes, a slow reveal can keep an audience pinned to their seat. Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl has a wonderful slow reveal of what the situation in without ever leaving the audience confused. They do this by carefully giving the audience enough information at the right times, and taking the time to set up the situation before launching into the action. They also have several storylines (see Subplots below) started before the mystery even begins to crop up so the audience has something to hang onto. Finally, confusing an audience isn’t depth. Read classics of literature and you are never confused. Depth comes from exploration of human motivations, strivings, surrenderings, our relationships. Depth comes from having something to say, even if that something is a question. Confusion is just confusion.

2) Action does not make an audience care about the character. Lots of movies like to start with a whiz bang scene and yes, it immerses you immediately into it, but it doesn’t inform character, and character is why people bother. So start with an exciting point, but let that exciting point show something about the person. Bond movies can get away without it. We go in knowing who James Bond is and that we like him. Other movies have to concern themselves a bit more with set up. My favorite action packed beginning lately is from The Incredibles.

In the first fifteen minutes you have a car chase, a burglar caught,
flirtation with a lady, rescuing a cat, rescuing a suicide jumper,
confrontation with a villain, rescuing a child who doesn’t want to be
rescued, uncontrolled flying, an explosion, a train wreck, and a
wedding. You also have a sense of who Bob and Helen Parr are and what
they want in life. By the way, sex and bad luck–the character loses
his job, his car, and his girlfriend–don’t make the audience care
either. We love characters, and people, for who they are, not what
happens to them.

3) A character should have some sort of arc. In Ultraviolet
there is no sense of how she changes. Maybe one line about hope at the
end. I suppose one could argue she went from not caring about the boy
to caring, but she’d already demonstrated her capacity for that by the
love of her husband. Of course, not all stories really need character
arc. James Bond remains himself, beginning to end. Except in Casino Royale which has been called one of the best Bond movies. Batman is also a static main character, except in Batman Begins
which is definitely the best Batman movie. But, notice, if you are
going to have a static character, both of those characters are already
quite memorable and quirky on their own. Batman has the costume, the
money, the butler, and the toys. James Bond has a great attitude,
beautiful women, exotic places, and toys. Violet has toys. It isn’t
enough. "Watch me," isn’t as good a catch phrase as, "Shaken, not
stirred."

4) The leading characteristic of your hero should not be miserable.
Now before you point out all the great, whiny characters out there,
look again. The writer (and if it is a movie the director and the actor
have a hand in this as well) works really hard to temper that major
flaw with enough things to make that character either sympathetic or
interesting. Catherine and Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights are
never happy and never likable. But they are interesting and driven by
passion more than their misery. What about the main character in American Beauty?
He’s a sad, little sack of a man. But then he starts to change. And
they didn’t force the audience through two acts of misery either. He
starts to change in Act 1 and audience will like someone who is
actively trying to change their situation even if he does blackmail his
employer, alienate his wife and daughter, and lust after the underage
friend of his daughter.

Violet has lost her unborn child, lost her husband, been tortured
and tested upon, and hunted by her government. She will die of a
disease in 36 hours (yet can still fight for 35 of those hours). She
has plenty to be miserable about. Her other main characteristic is that
she kills things. This works for the Terminator because he’s not the
main character. It doesn’t work for her.

What happens with a character who is already miserable is they can’t
go any lower. The end of Act 2 should be the lowest point in the movie
and we don’t really feel it. The kid is dead, but he’s no longer of any
use to the government, so she kind of got what she wanted. She foiled
their plans for him. Not to mention there is all this stuff about how
she doesn’t care and she’d kill the kid herself (except it’s not
believable). She’d wanted him alive because he might cure her and then
it turns out instead he might wipe out a humanity she already wants
dead anyway. So what does this character want? How is this the lowest
point? Oh dear. She’s miserable again.

5)Subplots do more than get in the way of the main plot. Use them!
They add interest and flavor to what would otherwise be straight and
relentless story. Like long stretches of highway, even beautiful
highway, just one plot gets boring. I suppose the subplot is Violet
learning to care for someone again or regaining hope, but like I said
before, it’s unclear. For an idea of what subplot can do, Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl
the main plot is really Will and Elizabeth fall in love but cannot be
together because of class. It’s the first plot that starts the whole
movie. Subplot is Captain Jack Sparrow wants his ship back. The
complication is the captain and the crew of that ship happen to be
undead and can’t be killed until the curse is lifted by Will. So you
see what some good subplots can do. Without Captain Jack Sparrow and
some skeletons, the plot is a chick flick.

The typical subplot to thrillers and action/adventure stories is love (notice Pirates reversed that), which is why there is always a leggy love interest in every Steven Segal movie. In The Matrix the
love interest is there for more than just rescuing and subplot. She’s
got a tiny bit of her own subplot in her character arc (see how these
things are all connected). In fact, pull apart the first Matrix movie
and you see they threw in everything that makes for good storytelling
(except good dialogue, but that is forgivable in this case). You have
the love interest, internal conflict (will Neo accept his destiny?), a
main character who wants something (he wants to know what the matrix
is), insurmountable odds (the computer, machines, and the agents),
memorable side characters (who doesn’t like Mouse and Tank and Apoc?)
and more stuff keeps getting thrown in (betrayal, Morpheus captured)
and hints at stories underlying this one (Morpheus and Trinity both
have touches on their own journeys in the story). It wasn’t just bullet
time that made that movie popular.

So there it is. I have now stomped all over one defenseless movie.
But if you don’t have Milla Jovovich’s abs to carry your story, at
least you’ll have a pretty good story.