Originality is dead
“Eh…it was predictable.”
I can’t tell you how many times i’ve seen this phrase accompany a review of a film, television show, book, or any other medium of entertainment. Along with it being sort of a humble brag in many cases (this individual was soooo insightful that they saw the twist coming from half a mile away and around six corners, too), it’s also one of the worst, most basic, most surface, and ironically least insightful comments someone can make about a movie. And it’s everywhere.
Missing the point
Don’t believe me? Look no further than season 6 of Game of Thrones. Here we have what is one of the best seasons of one of the best, most successful television shows of all time, and all I hear across the internet, in my local coffee shop, and from the shores of Braavos to Westeros, is how predictable it was. How there wasn’t enough shocking moments. How disappointing it was that the good guys won.
I’m going to follow up this article why anyone who thinks that is an idiot, insofar as storytelling goes, but that’s an article for another day. The point is, the primary gripe I heard was that people, for once in Game of Thrones, could envision some of the events that took place.
What about the great characterization and growth that took place during the course of the season? The return of some fan favorites? Huge transformations by some of the major players as the end game starts to take shape? Great dialogue and high emotional stakes by these individuals that we’ve spent seasons getting to know? Nope. Predictable.
And the same goes for a myriad of movies I’ve seen recently. Kubo, Civil War, and Batman v. Superman were all films that I’ve heard friends call out as being too predictable, which hurt their enjoyment of the product. In two of these cases, they’ve let it impair their perspective on truly awesome films. On the other, they missed the point – Batman V. Superman was horseshit, but not because it was predictable. Mostly because it was horseshit.
First of all, in Civil War’s case, it didn’t matter that we knew no one was going to die. The deaths weren’t what was anted here. The threat in this film were the relationships between characters. Would Stark forgive Cap? How much of a rift would their fight create, and how irreparable the damage? And what would it mean as a larger threat looms nearer? This was the true core of the film, and yet people moaned that they never felt tension because the threat of death was never apparent.
In Kubo’s case, they argued that they saw the twist coming ahead of time, and perhaps it would have been a better film if they played it straightforward. So you saw the twist coming…who cares? If anything, the filmmakers were aware the majority of the audience was going to see behind the veil on this one, and the film, in my opinion, handles the storytelling with this in mind. Certain character interactions are emphasized, more poignant, and possess more depth because the audience knows–or think they know–what the characters themselves don’t yet. In no way did this twist, or this predictability, harm the story. In fact, if you pay close enough attention, and you’re along for the ride of the film’s message, you actually get more out of it.
You can always see it coming
The truth is, all of it is predictable. There are no more unique plots left, anywhere. How could there be? We’ve been telling stories for as long as we’ve been able to communicate. So maybe the plot changes – maybe the “monster in the house” is the alien in the spaceship, the crazy stepmom, an oppressive music coach, or a shark in the water. They are all still “monsters in the house,” and their plots play out surprisingly similarly, when you get down to the nuts and bolts. Surprisingly so.
Even the mechanics of storytelling are incredible similar between nearly all successful stories. The call to action, the darkest night, the resurrection and climax – these are elements that nearly every story shares, with few exceptions. Perhaps we are predisposed genetically to want this structure, or maybe we’ve seen this structure so much that it’s what we know and crave. Regardless, if a story is successful, the overwhelming odds are you can boil it down to this structure, shared by thousands upon thousands of other stories. When you get right down to it, even the way we tell the stories – the very foundation upon which we insert characters and events — is as predictable as it can get.
Why it matters
I only care about all of this in the first place because the criticism of predictability is a pointless observation that is distracting from the core elements that people should be caring about. Is the story being told in an emotionally satisfying way, with reversals of power, character vulnerabilities, and emotional developments peppered along the way? Are we invested in the plight of these fictional entities? Do they resonate with us on some level? If they do, then who cares if it was predictable or not?
And the opposite is true. Game of Thrones could end with Sansa giving birth to a Ramsey clone who ages rapidly and sends his dogs to ride Dani’s dragons as they kill every major character in one fell swoop and leave the world ripe for the White Walkers. Upon seeing that everyone is already dead, the White Walkers shrug their shoulders, call off winter, and the last shot is Ned Stark sharing a horn of beer with the Three Eyed Raven while they exchange jokes. Would this be unpredictable. I would think so. Would it be good? Nope. Well, actually…no, don’t be crazy. It would be horrible.
If predictability is something you pay attention to, then I have bad news–Hollywood doesn’t have much left to show you. If you still enjoy watching stories that most of us are hardwired to crave, that help us escape from our world, or help us figure out mysteries that we ponder, then for the sake of all of us, take “predictability” out of of our your review vocabulary.