Writing Lessons from Bad Movies

In 7th grade a movie came out that had all my little middle school buddies buzzing.  It was a sci-fi flick unlike any other; battles, spaceships, funny costumes and a shower scene.  Starship Troopers was the sci-fi epic of the year and my 7th grade comrades and I had to wait to see it on VHS because it was rated R.  Middle school is rough I tell you.  Eventually my friends and I did see it on VHS and though we had no idea what happened, we knew Starship Troopers was amazing.

Any movie with two distinct camps of viewers; the “that was amazing!” group and the “that was garbage” group is probably, objectively, garbage.  Some movies are amazing strictly because they strike an emotional chord and audience members of a certain type respond to that note.  That leaves a whole bunch of people watching a movie and actually noticing poor editing, choppy blocking, horrid dialogue, bad acting, nonsense plotlines, weird shots, ex-machina overload, all the hallmarks of an honestly bad movie.

I saw Starship Troopers and immediately went out and bought the book that ‘inspired’ the movie.  The book was written by a World War 2 veteran who came up with the story while under attack.  I understood neither the book nor the movie when I first viewed them.  There’s a lot of stuff going on in this story that goes quite over the head of a 13 year old.  What I knew beyond a doubt though was that Starship Troopers was and is amazing.  I missed the satire entirely.  The movie is such wonderful satire.  Quality film though? No.

Rewatching the movie was not exactly a good move to keep a positive memory of the film.  While I love the movie, it is, objectively, quite bad.  Quite bad indeed.

Here’s what a more recent viewing of Starship Troopers taught me about writing:

Have fun with the enemy
Bugs! From space! And they have a hive mind.  And they can take down humanity’s advanced technology without any of their own technology.  Somehow these simple beasts will wage a war that creates an entire franchise (that goes downhill from here, but that’s another issue).  This story has an amazing bad guy.  No one with a mustache is working an ulterior motive.  No British accent to quickly identify the evildoer.  This is a story antagonist that exists strictly to rip the heroes apart limb by limb.  There’s no need to get into specifics about ‘why’ or ‘how’ they are the enemy, they just are.  As the headline badguy, Bugs are pretty dang awesome.  Then the movie sneaks in the human cost of war, the role of media, torture, hubris in political leadership and we’re left to question good and evil in the world and the movie switches from B-movie cult classic to legit film and all is well in the universe.  Have fun with the bad guy and the story can go in any number of directions.  Using Bugs as the enemy here the franchise got three movies, video games and a t.v. show.

Know what to cut
This B movie from the 90s is 2 hours long. That’s just a lot of movie to deal with.  Plenty of scenes could have been cut down. Space football is too long. Feuding romantic interest could have been introduced just as a pilot Densie Richards met at pilot school.  Fight with the parents before prom night is still not enough to convince anyone Beast Master is a high school student.  We all know why the shower scene exists.  Administrative punishment given by Dean Norris himself could be lost entirely (but then we lose Norris from the movie and is that a world we want to leave in?).

When putting together a story there are plenty of parts that I want to include, parts that I think make characters really neat or bits that exist strictly to set up later events.  I’ve added plenty of dumb detail and unnecessary chapters to my books and posts.  It’s a writer’s curse.  There’s so much to the background world created in the writing process that will just bore the audience to tears.  Learning how to cut the extra is painful and terrible and I don’t want to do it.  Darn you Starship Troopers for forcing this reality on me!

Characters are people
There are plenty of scenes in the movie that feel superfluous at first viewing.  Barracks scenes, school scenes, ‘would you like to know more’ ads, boring ol’ conversation in a war movie with evil bugs, doing it, cursing, inside jokes, personal motives, social politics.  The movie would be absolute garbage if any of it was left out.  The purpose of the movie is to humanize war.  It is wonderful satire that unfortunately stars Denise Richards.  Giving characters depth can only help a story.  It is super easy to just make the good looking pilot Richards leaves Beast Master for a one dimensional Top Gun, but we know his ambition, see him sacrifice himself for his friends, see him care about his job.  He’s rounded out.  Baby Busey shows ambition, fear, humor, self-awareness, a talent for the fiddle; he’s a real character.  There is a ton of time dedicated to making every character on screen matter to the audience.  Seth Gillam from The Wire shows up looking like a baby faced version of his Sgt. Ellis character ( Baltimore aged him tremendously) and though his screen time is short you know he’s seen some stuff and is tired, scarred, and aged beyond his years.  There’s enough information given about every character that the audience can fill in the back story.  Treat your characters well; make them people.

Be aware of what the story is and is not.
 The “Join Now” ads, sending teens to war, the commentary on the change from democracy to whatever system exists in this world, the crap prom night band; all put together to make a film that speaks to the audience in the worst possible ways.  I mean, it’s a bad movie.  Acting, pacing, editing, shot framing, forced interpersonal connections, set design with an obvious budget, over-the-top characters, asteroids being shot with precision beyond light speed, sentient bugs, costuming that was really hopeful the 90s would never end; on their own all of this makes for a terrible movie that would have been forgotten if NPFH did not star in parts of it, but the one thing that made it all work in such a wonderful way was the film’s self awareness.

At one point Rasczak tells the radio guy to get to higher ground and radio guy is immediately grabbed by a flying bug.  That is a classic comedy moment.  Later in the same scene, the camera zooms on Rasczak’s face as his fingers are in a skull and he says, “it sucked his brains out.”  Dead pan.  This movie knows exactly what it is about and presents itself in a perfect satirical mood.  I hope it was received as funny satire when it was released.  If I could, all of my writing would end with “brought to you by a caffeine high” because self-awareness means being nothing more and nothing less than what you are.  This movie is exactly itself and I love that.



Bonus lesson:  Klendathu is on the opposite side of the Milky Way.   If the asteroids were launched at light speed it would take them 100,000 years to hit Earth.  Primitive homo sapiens started this war.  Not cool, primitive hom sapiens.  Not cool.


Brought to you by a caffeine high!
Thanks for reading.


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