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Red Pill

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Nov 17 2012 · 519 views

Essays, Not Rants! 035: Red Pill

So y’know how there’ll be this story but there’s this one break from reality? The one thing that makes this world just a little different from the normal one? It’s pretty much the foundation of the story; the one pill that the audience has to swallow to make the whole story digestible.

If we can believe that ‘reality’ is really just a virtual construct and the real real world is a dystopian post-apocalyptic wasteland ruled by machines, The Matrix makes perfect sense. Since the world is virtual, running on walls and dodging bullets seems natural. Like Neo, we’ve gotta swallow that red pill and enter this world.

Or Harry Potter where there’s a secret society of wizards and witches and other magical people living right under our Muggle noses. If we can believe that, then the Ministry of Magic, Centaurs, and all the rest fit right in.

An audience’s willing suspension of disbelief is vital to a story. If they don’t buy it, they won’t invest. A lack of investment means they won’t care about it. And that’s terrible.

So how do audiences swallow this pill?

Well, a little bit of grounding helps a lot. Iron Man establishes Tony Stark as being a genius within the first fifteen-odd minutes of the film. With that in mind, it’s not hard to believe that he could build an Arc Reactor and a suit of powered armor in a cave with a box of scraps. It’s been established that he’s outrageously intelligent, so we buy it. When we see his garage/workshop we see that he has a couple of robot assistants with a limited amount of AI. Though this (and Jarvis, and his holographic workspace) is well beyond 2008 technology, we accept it because not only of how intelligent Tony is, but with the lack of focus he gives it. It’s simply there, it’s part of his world. Since it’s normal for him, it’s normal for us.

There is a limit, of course. In Iron Man 2 they filmed a scene where the Tony and Pepper’s jet flew in the upper atmosphere, where gravity no longer affected them. It’s no big deal for them. Ultimately, Jon Favreau and crew chose to cut the scene as it wound up being just too much. Introducing the idea of a jet essentially going into space would have been one piece of tech too much in a movie with AI and powered armor. It would have shattered the suspension of disbelief. There’s a limit to how much you can give the audience.

The Mass Effect games’ fantastic technology is all explained by the titular mass effect. It’s a fairly basic concept (currents applied to the mysterious Element Zero will either increase or decrease an object’s mass) that allows for faster than light travel, artificial gravity, and all that. Add some mysterious ancient technology and bam! Humanity joins the galactic community and gets caught up to speed with the other races.

It’s not another world (like Star Wars) or flung way in the future (Halo, Firefly, or Star Trek), but it’s believable because of the simple technological conceit they present. Furthermore, the idea of mass effects is not only exhaustively fleshed out in the game’s databank (encyclopedia) but is internally consistent. It has its limits: mass effect fields can do a lot but they aren’t magic. All this keeps it believable.

So we have movies with basic conceits: cursed treasure exists in Pirates of the Caribbean, the zombie apocalypse finally happened in Zombieland, Back to the Future asks you to believe that if you hit 88 miles per hour you will see some serious …stuff, in Up we believe a house can fly. It’s that doorway into the world.

Of course, like all things, it’s not set in stone. Sometimes you can just say the Earth was demolished for a hyperspace bypass and if you make it fun enough we’ll play along. Because sometimes the only rules you really need is the rule of of fun; so you can have Scott Pilgrim do battle with the psychic-powered vegan or Westley and Buttercup fight a Rodent of Unusual Size. These movies are fun, serious logic need not apply.

Unless, y'know, you break one of the rules you’ve already set up in your world. Then bam goes our suspension of disbelief.

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The funny thing I find about suspension of disbelief is that the bigger lies are often easier to shallow. Take two examples from your rant essay for instance; Harry Potter and Iron Man 2. In Harry Potter you have a secret society of wizards, magic is everywhere, and we don't know it. It's completely crazy, but we accept it because it's a story, we're willing to suspend disbelief.

Then take Iron Man 2's cut scene of the jet flying into the upper atmosphere. The science behind that isn't quite right (to explain briefly, 'zero gravity' in space is infact not zero gravity but rather falling so fast that you outrace the curvature of the earth), but speaking from a technological point of view it is quite possible for that to happen. Admittedly, space planes aren't quite in style yet, and the design of the Stark Jet is an unlikely one for upper atmosphere travel, but ignoring the schematics it could work. Even as we speak private space companies are working on designs that could allow us to fly into space (or the upper atmosphere; space and the upper atmosphere kinda blend together. Long science-y explanation can be wiki'd) within the next five years.

Now, what's the difference between a scene that, while admittedly gets some details wrong but can be explained away with some tweaking, and a plot that involves wizards? Wizards are fanastic and not of this world; the Stark Jet could be something we might have, to some degree, in the next five years. As you already stated, the world of Iron Man has many advanced technologies; free clean energy produced from a generator the size of a small dinner plate capable of powering a suit of powered armor. Or maybe the intelligent AI, capable of sorting through vast amounts of information quickly and still making a few quips while doing so. These things are impressive, quite possible inventions of the future, and we accept them.

I suppose I just defeated my own point and raised a new one; why some big lies and some small lies? Wizards and sentient AI are big and small respective, yet a space plane, a small lie, or perhaps... hmm, I can't think of many big lies that fell flat in fiction. It'll come to me in an hour.

So I ask, why does the rule of fun work sometimes and not others? Why is wizards and flying powered armor acceptable, but a plane with some questionable science is not?
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Nov 17 2012 07:15 PM
I believe the quote goes something along the lines of: "You can ask an audience to believe the impossible, but not the improbable."

But to the rule of fun: you've got me. I think when the science gets just too hard we start to lose the thread. The tone of the story also comes into play (Hot Rod is fun enough that we accept Rod surviving an overly long fall down a mountainside, but it wouldn't fly in Zombieland).

Think of the Helicarrier in The Avengers. We wouldn't believe it if it weren't for the giant rotors, yeah? If it was just those jets on the aft we'd call bull. With the rotors, impossible as it is, our response is "Oh yeah, that makes enough sense, I guess".
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Jean Valjean
Nov 17 2012 07:17 PM
:kaukau: And in Superman you could believe that a man could fly. You missed the mot important one.

Well, I suppose that you could call the basic pitch of this "suspension of disbelief helped by establishing things important to the high concept pitch early on".

Not mutch to add here, since explaining the concept is pretty simple and you certainly used a lot of examples (although in the future I hope you use some older films instead of just the current crazes, but I accept where your interests lie).


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