East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

The rule of cool is not enough


I did not want to write this post.
No, really!
I have better things to do and barely the energy to do them, why then…?
Let me get this from the start…

I have watched Army of the Dead.
It’s currently on Netflix, and the whole world and their sister watched it – Zack Snyder’s own take on the zombie apocalypse, featuring David Bautista, and poised to become the start of a new cinematic universe.
An action-adventure movie, more than a horror – that’s what I was expecting, and I was cool with that.
I like action-adventure movies.
And believe me, my expectations were really low.

It was a joyless experience, as somebody already said.
One that made me re-evaluate a lot of other movies – compared to this, the silly fluff of Monster Hunter feels like John Milius working on a script from Karl Edward Wagner.

And I am sure you’ve read the reviews – both those that praise Snyder as god’s gift to the filmic arts, and those that say this is a load of rubbish wrapped in an out-of-focus aesthetic and spiked with dubious morality.
And I stand firmly in the second camp, and yet…

OK, I hate wasting time.
I am not getting any younger, and two hours and a half wasted is a lot of time.
So I wondered, can I take away something positive from this trainwreck?
Can I learn something that will make me, if not a better human being, at least a better storyteller?

Let’s see… let me start with a quote:

“The Cool Stuff Theory of Literature is as follows: All literature consists of whatever the writer thinks is cool. The reader will like the book to the degree that he agrees with the writer about what’s cool. And that works all the way from the external trappings to the level of metaphor, subtext, and the way one uses words. In other words, I happen not to think that full-plate armor and great big honking greatswords are cool. I don’t like ’em. I like cloaks and rapiers. So I write stories with a lot of cloaks and rapiers in ’em, ’cause that’s cool. Guys who like military hardware, who think advanced military hardware is cool, are not gonna jump all over my books, because they have other ideas about what’s cool.
The novel should be understood as a structure built to accommodate the greatest possible amount of cool stuff.”

Steven Brust

I like this quote, it’s one of the many “rules” I like to apply to my writing.
And Army of the Dead is a handbook-perfect example of the dangers and the limits of Steven Brust’s wonderful rule.

Fact is, the cool stuff is not enough.

There is no doubt Army of the Dead includes a lot of stuff that Zack Snyder considers cool – an opinion shared by million viewers, and by myself too. Really!

  • Las Vegas? Cool.
  • Zombies? Cool.
  • Heavy ordnance? Cool.
  • Atomic clock ticking? Cool.
  • Double crosses? Cool.
  • A band of adventurers? Cool.
  • Helicopters? Cool.
  • Tig Notaro? Way cool!

But you see, with the sole possible exception of Tig Notaro, none of the elements listed above is inherently cool, of and by itself.
Zombies, big guns, choppers and double-dealing weasels are only as cool as we can make them telling the story.
And placing a done-a-million-times song in the background is not enough to make them cool.

What Army of the Dead teaches me is that there is a need for what I will call a “narrative intelligence” to make cool stuff up.
To be cool, the zombies have to do something cool, the weapons have to be used in a cool way, and da choppa
Throwing them in and that’s it is not enough.
You need to be intelligent, as a storyteller.

Now, being intelligent is dangerous, story-wise.
You run the risk of being too clever, and you end up putting your characters in situations they will have a very hard time getting out of. You might paint yourself in a corner.

On the other hand, getting out of a cleverly designed dangerous situation is what makes for good story … it makes the commonplace cool.
At this point, as a storyteller I will have the tools to apply Brust’s Cool Stuff Rule – by taking what I consider cool, and making it so.

The problem with Army of the Dead … one of the problems, at least, is that the writer (who also happens to be the director, producer and cinematographer) thinks some things are cool in and by themselves: a cool zombie tiger, a cool zombie Conan-wannabe riding a zombie horse, a cool underground vault…
It needs work.
It needs intelligence.

The intelligence bit also applies to the characters and their actions, and again we face a danger: our characters could be so smart and clever, that putting them in a difficult situation becomes hard.
But here’s the thing: hard is good, because hard means good storytelling, original ideas, quirky choices.
Hard means cooler.

Going off to a tangent, I think of Superman.
The general wisdom, among many of my contacts, is that the classic Superman, being too perfect a character, is hard to write, because no challenge is big enough for him, and therefore he is destined to oblivion or to a harsh revision.
I beg top differ.
The classic, “big Boy Scout from Kansas” version of Superman is absolutely viable, and you can write excellent stories about him, if you just are intelligent enough. If your characters are intelligent enough.
Sure, you won’t be able to use Standard Plot #7 for the next issue, because that breaks down and dies when applied to Kal El, but if you work hard you can do something good, and new, and original.
Not a Standard Plot.
Something cool.
The cool character is not enough if you can’t make them do something clever.

It’s the same with music – “three chords and the truth” sounds cool as an attitude, but it’s not a sound songwriting strategy: a few more chords, and chord changes, and clever playing, odd time signatures, quirky arrangements and intelligence make for better songs.
Sure, some people will like your three chords song.
But after a few three-chords songs, they’ll get bored.

So, back to the movie: in general, my impression Army of the Dead can be summarized with

a bunch of cool stuff without any intelligence sparking life in it

And I do not consider certain things cool if there is not some cleverness, some intelligence to it.
I get bored. My attention wanders.
I start asking myself questions about the unintelligent decisions the characters make, the unintelligent challenges they have to face, the general lack of intelligence in the whole set-up, the lack of due-diligence in researching the background.

Why don’t they have a sniper clearing the ground for them?
Why are they not taking along a medic?
Why the whole false flag operation?

My problems with the movie are narrative, not technical – it is not the picture going out of focus that bugs me, but the story lacking focus, and cleverness. The characters lack focus – their motives, their emotions.
They are mind-bogginly stupid, yes, but that would be OK, were they alive.

So my take-away is, don’t be afraid to take the hard way, don’t be afraid of painting yourself in a corner by being smart, don’t be afraid your characters will be more intelligent than you, and outwit you at every twist. They are supposed to – but you can reciprocate making them work hard to get where they need to be.

Is this enough to justify one hundred and fifty minutes wasted?

Another thing the movie taught me in a very harsh way is the importance of truth.
Your plot, your character motivations, and your character feelings must be true.
That, too, makes your story cool, and what’s equally important, alive.
And indeed, there is not a grain of truth in this movie when it comes to its denizens – their emotions are stilted, their reactions artificial, their hearts nowhere to be found.

Once again, being true when depicting emotions requires us to go in somewhat uncomfortable places.
We need to poke our own emotions, our own soul, to endow our characters with souls and emotions.
Army of the Dead lacks emotion, is missing truth, and is a soul-less film, devoid of life and intelligence.

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

2 thoughts on “The rule of cool is not enough

  1. This movie is born old. And the biggest problem in the script. After Train to Busan, see a zombie movie like that is a big step back.


    • I agree, but also, it is stupid … I mean, an old-fashioned zombie movie might still be an entertaining way to spend 90 minutes (NOT 150!) if it’s smart enough to keep my attention.
      This one is not, and as soon as one starts asking questions, the whole thing collapses into ridiculousness.


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