Tag Archives: Zombieland

Zombieland: A Treatise on Life in a Post-Consumer Society

I mentioned it as a joke last week, but this week we’re going for it.

I’m so sorry.

Zombies have long been used as a means to comment on the perils of consumerism. Mindless hordes doing things without thinking for the few capable of independent thought to stand up against. Zombieland takes the conceit one step further, within the film self actualization is only possible in a world free of the shackles of traditional consumerism.

Much of the conflict in Zombieland takes place in the ruins of grocery stores, downtown areas, and, climatically, a theme park. The main characters too exist outside of the established economy; Columbus and Tallahassee loot and rob cars in the post-apocalyptic wasteland (the titular Zombieland) and before the outbreak Wichita and Little Rock were con artists, stealing rather than working jobs. But it’s now that they’re no longer part of a consumerist society that they are able to really come in to their own.

When Columbus and Tallahassee meet up with Wichita and Little Rock there is a great deal of distrust. Distrust that is primarily due to them fighting over guns and a car, of which there are not too many. Their strife is born of competition over limited resources — the backbone of a consumerist society. It’s because they’re holding on to one of the principle tenants of a pre-Zombieland world that they fight; as long as they live by the rules of consumerism they won’t be able to truly develop a friendship.

If one of the central themes of Zombieland is that people need other people — it is after all a movie where survivors come to realize they’re stronger together than separate — then that true friendship is only possible when they no longer subscribe to traditional views of consumerist culture. This is made clear when they finally do become friends. It’s not when they’re fighting a horde of zombies together, this is far from a battle-forged friendship. Rather, they only truly bond when they utterly destroy a gift shop together. Unlike many of the other locations visited by the survivors, this gift shop is in immaculate condition. All the gaudy trinkets and shiny rocks are still on the shelves, nothing’s out of place, even after Tallahassee dispatches of the lone zombie in the shop.

It’s in this place that Columbus first stands up to Tallahassee, a significant character moment as it shows him beginning to come into his own. Immediately after that character moment, however, he knocks something over by accident. Then another deliberately. The others join in and a montage of them destroying the stores contents ensues. It’s a blithely irreverent destruction of private property and also a rejection of the need for silly tchotchkes that have worth just because they’re supposed to. The act of destruction unites them and marks a shift for the characters bonding and sets them on the path to self-actualization.

According to Zombieland, it is in this post-consumer landscape that real relationships can thrive. Where before Columbus only knew his neighbor by her apartment number, now he has people he trusts — and he learns Wichita’s real name too. Wichita and Little Rock put aside their grifting ways and Tallahassee finds space in his vengeful anti-zombie agenda to care for other people. All they needed was to be free of the consumerism.

Writer’s Note:

There! Did it! It’s a little half-baked and there are some ideas that could be explored more (in the climax Wichita and Little Rock are stranded in an amusement park ride, trapped by their want for the vestige of consumerism that is Pacific Playland; Tallahassee wants a Twinkie which he only gets after he’s learned to be content with other people and not need something mass-produced), but, hey, this was more for fun/to prove a point than anything.

Also I’m so sick of the word ‘consumer.’ 

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For Want of a Glass of Water

Kurt Vonnegut once said, “every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.” This piece of advice functions as a very simple and straightforward way to ensure a character has some semblance of depth.

What’s important about a goal? A goal gives a character purpose and gives an audience a reason to invest. In Star Wars, Luke wants to leave Tatooine. In How I Met Your Mother, Ted wanted to meet the mother (or at least we thought he did). In Pirates of the Caribbean, Jack Sparrow wants his ship back. As viewers, we want characters to want something. It’s dull if a character just exists with no want (i.e. Ted for many of the later seasons of Mother). Chuck begins with a very complacent Chuck who’s just floating through life. Receiving the Intersect gives him a purpose too.

Characters then have to do something about it. Solid Snake crawls trough a microwave chamber in Metal Gear Solid 4 to stop the Patriots. Katniss famously volunteers as tribute. Taking a proactive role about their goals is what separates Katniss from Bella Swan. The former may want Edward and/or Jacob, but she just sits around; Katniss actively fights for not only her life, but for those of her friends. It’s not enough for a character to have a goal, they have to do something about it. Jack Sparrow spending two hours talking about how much he wants the Black Pearl would be a terribly boring movie.

Those are the fundamentals of having a potentially interesting character. Following that we need conflict. There has to be something stopping the character from getting what they want. Harry wants to be a wizard with the sense of family and acceptance it entails, Voldemort wants him dead. That conflict of interest fills seven books. This so called ‘external conflict’ as your High School English teacher called it can be far more subtle. In The Last of Us, Joel’s goal becomes to protect Ellie whereas her goal is to make her life count. For the most part the goals don’t interfere, but when they do we get some magnificent, quiet drama.

Additionally, having the protagonist conflicted makes them that much more interesting as we get to watch them change or resist it. Columbus in Zombieland already has the zombies interfering with his goal of staying alive. His emergent want to win Wichita’s heart, though, also screws with his sense of self-preservation. Suddenly, Columbus has to make a choice: what does he value more, his life or Wichita? A conflict like this forces the character to change. Columbus has always been a wimp, someone who’d rather cower than take action. His interactions with Wichita force him to nut up and grow.

But what if she doesn’t get the water? Sometimes the most interesting thing to happen in a story is for the character to not achieve their goal. Tom’s goal in (500) Days of Summer is to win Summer’s heart, then to stay with Summer, and then to win her back. It’s his proverbial glass of water and what the film centers on. Tom, however, doesn’t end up with Summer. The complete destruction of his goal forces him to reassess everything and, eventually, gets him back on track to doing what he wants in life. Losing the goal he thinks he wanted reveals what he really wanted. Like a conflicted desire, it gives added layers to his character.

Conversely, achieving a goal may crush the character. Zero Dark Thirty ends with Bin Laden dead and Maya Lambert successful. She’s achieved her goal, but her goal was all consuming. The film leaves her suddenly aimless and without purpose, adding a sense of somber hollowness to it all. Just as giving a desultory character a goal yields interest, so does robbing a purposeful character of hers.

Wants and goals fuel stories. Look at Game of Thrones, everyone wants something, almost always at the expense of someone else. These goals breed conflict and add depth to characters. Just make it more than a glass of water.

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Humanity, Hubris, and Canceling The Apocalypse

Did you ever read The Day of the Triffids? It’s by John Wyndam and was probably the first piece of proper post-apocalyptic fiction I read ten years ago. It’s typical of the genre. We’ve got the world impairing event, the monsters that begin wiping out humanity, and of course the few survivors who band together to try and find a way to continue civilization. It’s a classic.

Now, like I’ve said before, science fiction provides a great way to examine reality and the issues therein. As such, it’ll heavily reflect the world in which it was written. So let’s see what The Day of the Triffids says about culture then. It was written in 1951, six years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Post-apocalyptic fiction began to flourish then, reflecting the horrific visions of what humanity could do and how we kept looking for more ways to destroy the world. This is what happens in Triffids; nukes in space blind most of the population and genetically engineered killer plants set about, well, killing people. Humanity brought this on themselves, their hubris caused the apocalypse.

We see this in more recent (post)-apocalyptic fiction too. In The Terminator we created Skynet with our computers; in The Matrix our drive to technology created The Machines and enslaved us. Within this and, yes, Day of the Triffids and countless zombie movies too, lies the implicit fear that as society delves into technology we’ll destroy ourselves. The solutions vary. InThe Terminator our heroes destroy the evil technology. The heroes of The Matrix and The Day of the Triffids find a way to overcome their creations to create a new civilization. It could be argued that it reflects some of the sentiment we find today; the world’s so screwed up the only solution is to start over.

Yet the trend in recent fiction has been to focus less on the how of the apocalypse and more on the what now. We never find out what caused the fungal outbreak in The Last of Us, but we do see Joel and Ellie develop twenty years later. In Zombieland, Columbus mentions that no one knows where the zombies come from. No longer are we watching us destroy ourselves, now we’re figuring out what we’re doing in the aftermath. We see the relationships form, we see the recreation of a family. Fiction like The Last of Us and Zombieland presents a world where the protagonists are handed a lousy hand and make the most of it. Starting over may be rough, but there remains that glimmer of hope.

If anything, Pacific Rim takes that conceit and fires it at other apocalyptic fiction. Suddenly, the technology classically feared is not the root of our problems but instead a savior. As protagonist Raleigh puts it early on: “You see a hurricane coming, you get out of the way. But when you’re in a Jaeger, you can finally fight the hurricane. You can win.” Today’s culture is reflected in Pacific Rim in that technology isn’t something to be feared, but something to be used. How? To fight back against what we cannot control and to become closer to one another.

Pacific Rim introduces drifting, two people sharing a mind to control a Jaeger. The closer the pilots’ bond, the better they’ll fight. We love to deride the Internet and all as the death of true relationships, but Pacific Rim accepts this sort of digital connection and physicalizes it. With that, the film acknowledges the growing global identity facilitated by these connections. The heroes in Pacific Rim aren’t just all-Americans; we have an international coalition of Americans, Japanese, Australians, Russians, British, Chinese, and Idris Elba saving the world together.

It all culminates with where Pacific Rim goes with its story. It doesn’t matter who you are; if you’re a self-perceived failure, an egotistical jerk with daddy issues, a haunter young woman, or a research scientist you can hardly walk properly: you can save the world, you can be a rockstar. It is paramount that Pacific Rim takes place before the world ends: the protagonists refuse to accept it. When the authorities opt to cancel the resistance and to hide behind a wall instead, the heroes choose to fight on. In the traditional pre-final mission heroic speech, Stacker Pentecost declares that they will “face the monsters that are at our door and take the fight to them!”, they will stand up the end of the world because they refuse to accept that the world they’re given. We don’t need to start over from scratch, we can make a better world with what we have. Or as he says a moment later: “Today we are canceling the apocalypse!” It’s no longer important who caused the end of the world: we’re stopping it.

Jon Foreman wrote a piece for the HuffingtonPost a few years ago reflecting this dream of a better world. As he says: “Against all odds, against all that we know about this world, we could choose to hope for a better one — to hope for love, for peace, for a form of contentment and solace that we have never fully realized.” Pacific Rim is saying the same thing: no matter how bleak the world may seem, we can hope to save it, to fix it. It isn’t so much that we’re no longer blaming ourselves for the world gone wrong; it’s that we know we can make it better, with or without giant robots.

Though giant robots would be nice.

Credit where credit is due: This sort of ‘close reading’ of Pacific Rim grew out of this Tumblr post. Jon Foreman’s column can be found here.

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Earn Your Ending

Did you see Warm Bodies? Because you really should. It’s a great movie (and has zombies). And I mean a really great movie. We’re talking that sucker gets added to my BluRay collection the day it comes out.

Of course, the comparisons to Zombieland are inevitable and rightly so: both have the same ‘genre’ and tone: zombie films with a level of comedy and romance. It’s their themes, however, that set them apart. Warm Bodies is overflowing with heart. See, Warm Bodies decides to set aside the dark and somber mood oft considered a prerequisite for a zombie film and instead gives it a blast of life and hope.

Warm Bodies has a legitimately happy ending. Not like I Am Legend or Zombieland but a real happy ending. Even though things got dark, even though sometimes it looked almost hopeless and the world was coming down, they still got their happy ending. A real happy ending, not the “the world’s gone to hell but they have each other” ending, a proper happy ending.

It’s the same sort of ending you find in Paperman or The Princess Bride or Star Wars. That sense that there’s good in the world, that it can be found no matter what. But more than that it’s the sense that what’s wrong can be set right, that happy endings exist.

Sometimes the idealistic happy ending doesn’t work. I love Serenity, but that movie’s ending is more bittersweet than happy. It’s not bad: good stories don’t need happy endings. Sam said it best in the film adaption of The Two Towers when he tells Frodo about the stories that really mattered. They’ve got darkness and fear, but they’ve got heroes too, the ones who keep going even when things look bleak. But good wins and there’s hope. The Lord of the Rings embodies this so well. Aragorn and the rest are fighting a hopeless battle against the forces of Mordor, Frodo and Sam are struggling to get to Mount Doom. But the Ring gets destroyed and good wins.

What’s important is that the characters earn their ending. They can’t have it just given to them like in fairytales, they have to fight for it! The guy in Paperman could have given up and gone back to his life, Westley could have not rescued Buttercup. Mal could have aimed to behave. But they didn’t and we get the story, we get the ending that leaves us hopeful. We see them prevail, we seem them fight for it.

In order for an ending to provide the appropriate catharsis there needs to be a a something at stake. It doesn’t have to be life threatening: look at Paperman. If we hadn’t seen the guy’s dull job and his boredom with normalcy we wouldn’t have cared about him trying to win the girl. Knowing that he’s tired of life as is, knowing that he wants this break. Furthermore, if we hadn’t seen him fail and fail again we wouldn’t have wanted him to succeed as much. All this makes the happy ending worth it.

I first read Life of Pi seven years ago and now I’m reading it again for school. At the end of Part One, right as the family gets set to sail to America, author Yann Martel takes a break from Pi’s story to return to the metanarrative of Martel listening to Pi tell his story. Martel recounts him running into Pi’s son and shortly after seeing Pi holding his daughter with all the love a father can muster. At this point in the story we don’t know what happened to Pi, just that it was something terrible that haunts him to the present. But we get this glimpse of him with his young daughter and it’s here that Martel writes one of the most important lines in book:

“This story has a happy ending.”

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And I Feel Fine

I live in New York City. Also, last week New York City and much of the US’ East Coast was hit by a hurricane. Power went out, plumbing failed in the higher floors of NYU’s dorms (that is: mine), and classes were cancelled.

Of course, I find this all terribly exciting: this sort of event is what pop-culture has been training me for for years!

See, we love post-apocalyptic scenarios. What could be cooler than banding together with a group of friends and fighting your way through zombies/nature/killer tomatoes/zombies/triffids/aliens? It’s become the new unspoken American dream. Never mind that chances are you’d be one of the zombies/unnamed dead, you want to do this.

Understand the specifics here. I’m referring to movies that take place after the end, not during. So movies like 2012, or Cloverfield, or The Day After Tomorrow, or heck, most any Roland Emmerich movie need not apply. Neither am I talking about the really tragic/serious post-apocalyptic movie. This isn’t The Book of Eli or The Matrix. Or ones where civilization has come back (The Chrysladids or The Hunger Games). This is where the world has ended and, well, people are surviving.

One thing eerily familiar about an emptyish NYC was those images from I Am Legend (which actually is a really tragic/serious post-apocalyptic movie…I know, hush). Granted, there was significantly more life in my NYC than in Robert Neville’s, but the idea of emptiness remains. Neville’s Manhattan is empty and deserted and he, as the survivor, has full run of the place. And really, who wouldn’t want to hunt (deer) in Times Square or play golf off of the Intrepid? Solitude and vampiric zombies aside, it’s a fun life. Well, maybe fun is a bit of a strong word, but it certainly has a few perks

Unless you’re Tallahassee in Zombieland, in which case the whole dang apocalypse is a  gleeful rush. After the zombie outbreak, Tallahassee found his true calling: zombie killing. And really, in this world where many of our pastimes include shooting stuff (virtually, anyway), it would be fun to be able to do that in real life too, no? This isn’t psychotic (necessarily), it’s just another hobby you can pursue after the end of the world.

The skittish Columbus gets in on it too. By the end of Zombieland he’s developed into something more of a hero. Why/how? The end of the world (and potential fun and games and adventure within) gave him the opportunity. Sure, it mayn’t have been his precise dream, but it’s something that would never have happened ordinarily.

So what am I getting at? Post-apocalyptic scenarios are wish fulfillment. There’s a reason zombie movies are so popular: it’s that chance to be a hero and fight your way out of something! The dull structure of normalcy has crumbled and you can finally use your wits to survive until help comes (if it does, anyway). You can jaywalk down main streets and go speeding around suburbs; it’s anarchy and you and your ragtag band of survivors are the only ones who aren’t shambling around looking for brains.

Like a lot of people, I love a good post-apocalyptic story. John Wyndham was one of my favorite authors growing up, Zombieland was one of the first movies I added to my nascent BluRay collection. Because hey, it’s a pleasant little fantasy. Sure, it’s naive to think that you’ll be the survivor, but in that slim chance that you are, it’ll be fun. Besides the whole trying-not-to-die-and-just-wanting-a-darn-shower thing.

The power’s been restored to most of Manhattan now. Classes start again on Monday and life returns to normal. Traffic lights work again and all that. The momentary post-apocalyptic scenario’s over. It was fun. But until the end of the world as we know it where zombies/nature/killer tomatoes/zombies/triffids/aliens walk the earth (if at all), I guess we’ll have to keep these daydreams to books, movies, and tv.

 

Also: buy my book In Transit!

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Storytelling Lessons from Jesus

Doesn’t matter what you think of Jesus, gotta admit the guy could tell a story. Or the people who recorded them spiffed them up. Either way, Jesus often communicated (religious and otherwise) points through stories in ways that were not heavy handed yet still managed to tell a good story.

See, Jesus knew his audience. He knew that some people were inherently opposed to him and knew that there were occasions where he wasn’t gonna win anyone over if he started getting preachy (I’m looking at you, October Baby). So rather than constantly preachifying, he told good stories. His truth was in his stories (and messages can be found in arguably any story), he didn’t have to spell it out every time (October Baby, you again).

For an example let’s look at the Good Samaritan. Most everyone knows how this one goes, so let’s make like the movie industry and update it. Israeli’s walking through an alley. Bunch of guys jump him and beat the crap outta him; they steal everything he has and leaves the man bleeding against the bricks.

A man walks past, just another ordinary man. He ignores the pleas for help. A teacher of religion walks by and, hearing the man’s cries for help, turns around and finds a different route.

The bleeding man’s almost passed out when another man comes down the alley. This Palestinian sees the dying man and instantly stops to help him. He drags the man to his car and brings him to a hospital, paying for all the fees. Then they become best friends and fight crime [not actually in the Bible].

The point of the story is simple: help can come from unlikely places (and love others as you want to be loved). But there’s no beating anyone over the head with the point.

So Jesus did it. Who else?

Joss Whedon in Firefly! In the episode “The Train Job” Mal and his crew pull of a heist on a train. But when they find that it’s medicine a nearby town desperately needs, they eventually come to the decision to return it at cost to themselves. Understand, some of the crew are fugitives, some of them are very amoral, and most of them are not above thievery. Yet they choose to do the right thing anyway. What’s the message? Help the other one in need, do the right thing, don’t screw over those who are already screwed over. It’s understated, but it’s there and it works. Granted, Mal does later kick an uncooperative goon into Serenity’s portside turbine, but hey, he aims to misbehave.

Within the grand adventure of Thor is a simple lesson of humility. It’s his hubris that gets him thrown down to earth and it’s his learning to care for others that gets him back on his feet. Does Kenneth Branagh and his writers make it overt by someone saying “behold what your humility hath netted you!”? Nope. It’s there. Thor arrives on earth haughty and proud, but slowly comes to realize there’s more to life than glory and honor as he interacts with Jane and friends. We see the change in Thor’s actions and later in his conversations with his brother. It’s shown through a person and his journey, not having it told to us through some speech!

So let’s take another swig of this. A big one. In one of the finale episodes of Avatar, Zuko is reunited with his uncle. Understand that Iroh has been trying his best to lead Zuko to be a man of honor (unlike his family) but Zuko betrayed him at the end of the second season. Suddenly the prince has his honor back and everything he wanted, but he’s haunted by turning his back on his uncle.

When they finally meet again Zuko feels that he is not even fit to wake the old man from his sleep. It’s only when Iroh wakes up in the morning that Zuko begins apologizing, but his uncle cuts him off with a powerful embrace and says he was never angry with his nephew, but rather was so proud of him for getting this far.

There’s so much there! Forgiveness, love, and so on! It’s the parable of the Prodigal Son only with more firebending and world domination. The message isn’t obstrusive; it’s heartfelt and a longtime coming.

 

Look, I love a good story. And it’s awesome when stories have a point. The Lord of the Rings displays that no matter how little we are we can have an effect, Up tells us not to dwell on what’s lost and to find adventure everywhere, Tangled’s about having dreams, Zombieland reminds us of the importance of having a ‘family’. Yes, Zombieland. But the reason we don’t gag on it is because it’s done softly, gently. Like Jesus and his parables, good stories don’t try and force a point down your throat over and over again until you’re tired of it.

Granted, sometimes some things need to be made obvious, but if you’re breaking up the narrative (October Baby!) for the moral, you’re just not doing it right. When Jesus told his stories, the point evolved with the narrative. The message and story should be woven together seamlessly. Otherwise you’re just preachifying, and, as Phineas of Phineas and Ferb put it: “I think we all learned a valuable lesson today, but we all know what it is so why waste our time restating it?”

Also: buy my book In Transit! Just because!.

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In Between

Most stories are about going somewhere. The quest in The Lord Of The Rings is to get to Mordor and destroy the ring. In any Indiana Jones movie he’s trying to get whichever artifact it is he’s after this time. A New Hope is about getting the princess and defeating the Empire.

But sometimes a story’s point isn’t actually the destination or the goal or whatever. The MacGuffin is negligible to the point of being unimportant. The characters’ goal is either arbitrary or nonexistent. In these stories the characters are in between.

“You don’t seem to be lookin’ at the destinations,” says Kaylee to a wandering preacher in the pilot for Firefly, “what you care about is the ships. And mine’s the nicest.” In actual fact, the destination doesn’t matter much to any of Serenity’s crew, because none of them have a destination.

They’re lost, more or less depending on the character. After the Unification War, Malcolm Reynolds doesn’t know where he belongs, just that this ship is his home. The Tam siblings are on the run, but they don’t know where to. They’re just running, getting away. Like the rest of the crew, they have no actual, tangible destination.

The idea of people traveling but going nowhere isn’t limited to Firefly, though. Zombieland, a 2009 zombie/comedy was about a group of survivors who meet up on the journey of, well, survival. The four protagonists; Columbus, Tallahassee, Wichita, and Little Rock, are all just wandering the zombiefied United States. Yes, Wichita and Little Rock are trying to get to an amusement park in California, but that’s not their destination. They’re lost, drifters, people who are neither here nor there.

Like the crew of Firefly, they’re people in transit trying to find something. And, like Firefly, they find a sort of home and family in each other, making the drifting that much easier to bear.

Lost in Translation is probably one of the purest examples of this sort of plot. Unlike Firefly and Zombieland, this isn’t just a factor in the plot, this is the plot. We’re introduced to Bob and Charlotte, two people visiting Tokyo. They don’t know each other at first and neither of them have any actual want to be where they are. They’re there because they have to be.

They’re both lost, trying to find some purpose in their visit to this country. Eventually they meet and connect. Bob and Charlotte and still drifting through their time in Japan, but now they’re drifting together. Their connection grows and becomes the focus of the film. It’s these two wanderers who found another one.

But the story remains in limbo. There’s no sense of finality to it all. It’s about a brief moment in time when these two meet and then return to their lives. It’s not about closure or finality: it’s a slice of these two lives. In all the quiet you’re asked to just empathize with them.

I’m writing this a few hours before my train leaves. I’m moving – again. This subject is something I’m more than a little familiar with; long layovers in airports and days spent packing. Maybe I can blame the late publication and poorer-than-usual quality of this particular essay on that. Go read last week’s again for quality.

And now we reach the point where the hastily written essay reveals its true motive: a friend and I published a book this week. The short story collection, entitled In Transit, is about people, well, in transit.

We’ve been working on it for almost a year now, editing it, fixing it, finishing it, and polishing it to the ebook you can now buy on Amazon.

So support a couple aspiring writers and buy our book, I promise you it’s better than this week’s essay.

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