Friday, July 08, 2011

The "It's a Fantasy, you Expected Realism?" Fallacy

I recently saw Transformers 3, and I enjoyed it, but the movie can require an extreme amount of suspension of disbelief in order to do so.

The response often received to a comment like the one I just made goes something along the lines of "so when you went to see a movie about [insert fantastic premise here], were you expecting a realistic film?"

See, the answer to that is "yes". Leaving aside the fantastic premise, and all the many issues that likely feed into that premise, I expect the film to be realistic in the sense that I expect it to be internally logical and consistent. Also, I expect that any details of reality that don't feed into the fantastic premise will be left as they are in the real world, or else there will be an explanation as to why they've changed.

In the Transformers the fantastic premise is that giant alien intelligent robots that can change shape have arrived on earth. That premise is going to imply a whole bunch of implausible or impossible things, but we give all that a pass as long as it makes the premise work.

Where things become less forgivable is when the movie takes liberties with facts and history that don't feed into the fantastic premise or the genre. In the case of Transformers 3, the big issue is the setup for the plot.

Warning: possible spoilers ahead.

In reality, the US moon missions all landed on different locations on the bright side of the moon. None of them landed anywhere near the dark side of the moon, let alone all of them. Yet, in the movie every single mission was supposed to be to a crash site on the dark side of the moon. Now, we could have had some explanations of this. It could have been revealed that the moon landing conspiracists have been partly right all along: we did indeed go to the moon, but not to the locations that NASA said we did. That would have been enough extra detail to allow all but the most detail oriented space history buffs to suspend disbelief, but they didn't do that.

So why is this important for what is, admittedly, a summer action movie? Because, the core audience of this particular movie wants to believe that there's some small possibility that it could all happen. We want to believe that some morning we could be getting ready to make the morning drive to work only to have our car transform into a giant robot and tell us it needs our help to save the world. Anything in the movie that screams "this isn't your world," like blatantly incorrect things about history, limits our ability to deceive ourselves that way, thus limiting our enjoyment of the movie.

Now, while I use Transformers 3 as an example, I don't really have a big problem with the movie. I didn't even think of any of these things while actually watching it. Only later did I stop to go "wait a minute..."

I also don't think it will have much effect on my desire to re-watch the movie once it is out on DVD. I use it as an example because I know there are people for whom these issues did affect their enjoyment of watching the movie the first time, and who will be unlikely to watch it again as a result, and that some of those people would otherwise take great enjoyment from watching a movie about giant transforming robots.

I think those people have valid concerns, and dismissing them by pointing out that the very premise is fantastic does them a disservice. We should expect better of our fantasy.


Anonymous said...

I agree that internal consistency is crucial in a fictional setting.

However, my question would be "You went to see a Transformers movie and you expected there to be anything other than explosions and special effects?"


Fulminata said...

I chose Transformers as my example because the entire rant was inspired by a blog post I read that was complaining about people complaining about Transformers 3.

librarian said...

Whoo boy, things like a huge planet appears in our orbit and it doesn't wreak havoc with a) our solar orbit and b) the moon's lunar orbit and c) tides and d) satellites don't crash into it?

Things like why did those paradroppers or whatever they were (basejumping wingsuit guys) get killed while they were flying through the air, but not a single one died once they pulled their chutes? I would have though intelligent robots would have realized picking them off in the air would have been a darn good strategy.

I'm with you Fulm, I can suspend my disbelief, but TF3 took it too far. That said, I wasn't expecting much, and the action sequences and Transformer fight scenes were better than I expected, so I enjoyed it.

Fulminata said...

Everything you mention bugged me (accept the basejumping guys, possibly because I stepped out of the theater for a few minutes during that sequence).

I didn't mention any of it because I'm stronger on history than on physics, so the history stuff bugged me more.

I will say that action movies get a bit of a pass on some physics issues, just because they are action movies. That's something I didn't mention in the post: genre can let a movie get away with a few additional things beyond what the core premise allows.

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