The Art of Character

Many fine books offer to help writers hone their craft by teaching fundamentals like character development, narrative structure, grammar, and the importance of rewriting. Story by Robert McKee is a great example of a broad, intelligent, and intelligible approach to storytelling that covers many of the bases.

While many books like Syd Field’s Screenplay or Blake Snyder’s Save The Cat offer good guidelines for plotting your story and making sure the beats are in the right place, they often fail to acknowledge that, as McKee points out, “character is plot, and vice versa. That discovery, fully assimilated, proves itself true again and again as you watch stories with a more critical eye.

A series of unwilled “happenings” does not make for a dramatic or interesting story; characters make stories compelling, and it is these characters’ conscious and unconscious decisions and reactions that drive any worthwhile plot forward. Underdeveloped characters often lead to predictable or unrealistic plots.

The Art Of CharacterRecently I received The Art of Character by David Corbett as a gift. As a writer who has at least a toehold on scene structure, this gift couldn’t have been better timed, as I have come to realize that character is the core aspect of storytelling. This 380-page book will uncover and clarify what, if anything, make our characters unique, and it offers a thorough set of tools to flesh out our creations and give them a life of their own.

Corbett cuts straight to the point, elucidating the fundamentals of character and how to use personal experience to summon more honest and interesting players for our stories. Part conscious deliberation and part intuitive discovery, Corbett offers simple and specific techniques that let us dig for the emotional truths that we often overlook in everyday life, and how to conjure characters that feel like real people.

Full of excellent contemporary examples and a plethora of exercises, The Art of Character is concisely written and beautifully honest. From the very opening, Corbett has the reader thinking not of detailed character histories or laundry lists of characteristics, but of scenes in which our creations can live and breathe and experiment.

The exercises guide us step by step to discover more about our characters. By applying new questions to our imagined scenes, we can gradually shine a light on what drives our characters, why they act the way they act, and how the story should unfold naturally from the conflict between their wants, their dispositions, and their circumstances.

David Corbett’s book is for anyone interested in moving beyond the fundamentals of narrative structure, sentence structure, world building, etc., etc. It illuminates the most essential element of great storytelling: unique and memorable characters who can captivate an audience for at least the length of the story.

My favorite aspect of this book is that it talks the reader into an observant, introspective mode, and the exercises develop our characters while clarifying our own motivations and observations. Do the work, and there is a good chance you’ll learn something about yourself. The Art of Character is a thoughtful and thought-provoking tool that shows that with stories, as with writers themselves, it always comes back to character.

NXNE

I have the bad habit of missing major events in Toronto like TIFF or NXNE. This year I did slightly better by taking a short walk down to Yonge and Dundas Square Thursday where Danny Brown played a free concert. A large crowd emitting herbaceous vapours packed the square. I had to miss part of his set, and truthfully broad daylight and no booze aren’t the most favorable conditions, but he was delivering nicely.

Danny Brown – Monopoly (Official Video) WARNING: EXTREMELY EXPLICIT LYRICS

Swans drew a good crowd Friday, blasting out continual noise through most of the downtown core. They fired up the crowd nicely, and when St. Vincent went on shortly after, the sun dropped and she did her thing very well.

St. Vincent – Digital Witness

But the highlight for me was Spiritualized at Massey Hall, who packed their hour-long set with a blend of loud and quiet, electric and tender, new and old material. It was great. My only regret is missing Spoon at the Horseshoe later that night.

Spiritualized at Massey Hall

Spiritualized – Come Together

For The Love Of The Craft

They say part of writing well is reading well. I try to broaden my scope and cover the classics, but are always important authors who slip through the cracks. My writing focus has been speculative fiction, yet until recently I’ve committed the sin of failing to read the short horror of H. P. Lovecraft.

Lovecraft was a major influence of many successful writers, including modern giants Stephen King and Neil Gaiman, and it didn’t take me long to figure out why Lovecraft’s influence has persisted. His prose is like a great fireside ghost story and the strange demons and apparitions are so beautifully developed I can’t help but drink in the weirdness. And while many of the stories fit together—dealing with madness, ancient cults and black magic—each is unique and memorable on its own.

A new writer aping Lovecraft’s style would probably not get published. His prose is fairly ornate, and most of the stories chronicle similar journeys of skeptical men to horrified believers. The characters don’t get much of a chance to live and breathe, and sometimes seem only to pilot the reader through dark places and bizarre situations. What little dialogue there is can seem ridiculous, and the descriptions and exposition border on ‘overdone’, but the flow of his thoughts is prodigal, well considered, and right up my alley.

One of his strongest assets is his ability to describe settings we can feel, and that we remember as though we’ve been there. The house in “The Color Out Of Space” and the strange events that occur within are so crisp in my mind it’s as though I spent an entire novel there, or a weekend. Few writers lend so much personality to a building, and like The Overlook Hotel in The Shining, the places in Lovecraft’s work are at least as central as the characters.

Most of the stories I’ve read so far are quite similar in tone, but rather than feeling redundant, I get the sense that I’m reading an author who has found and truly mastered his voice. And with the strength of that voice, his legacy is likely to last for a long time still. As a writer still honing his own voice, I was glad to see the trickle-down influence of his work in some of my own short stories.

He’s a must-read for anyone who wants to write speculative fiction, and I welcome recommendations of other less popular but seminal authors I might have missed.

Ontario Beer “Facts”

Ontario Beer Facts PamphletHave you seen these pamphlets yet? Apparently, somebody thought about privatizing alcohol sales, and then there was a murder. It opens into a tryptich display of a woman being robbed at gunpoint. They say that safety comes before profits, eluding that good, clean, wholesome people should be very afraid of privatization (but disregard public safety when it comes to cigarettes sold at convenience stores). Then the pamphlet directs us to www.ontariobeerfacts.ca to learn more. It tells us to get the facts.

For a pamphlet from a group that call themselves Ontario Beer Facts, surprisingly, this pamphlet contains no facts. Not one. I assume if privatization led directly to crime, there would be piles of statistics, figures, anything. But there isn’t. So, on to their website.

The website claims Ontarians pay some of the lowest prices in Canada for beer after adjusting for tax rate differences. Vague fact, maybe, but we’re getting close. They then claim that the average price per case of bottles is $32.08. So if you’re an Ontarian who regularly shells out between $36 and $45 dollars for a case of beer, realize that you’re actually paying less than that through the magic of tax adjustment!

They urgently claim that prices will rise with privatization, as they did in Alberta when the province privatized, failing to mention that prices rose in Ontario as well during the same time period. There is a tedious study that first claims how valuable it (the study itself) is, then goes on for dozens of pages but fails to realize that everything sold at convenience stores is marked up because we pay for convenience. Happily.

What about selection? The Beer Store sells 420 brands of beer. But sadly, they follow up that stone cold fact with the line, “space-constrained convenience stores and gas stations would have little space for local and craft brands.” This is not a fact, nor is it even an intelligent opinion. When Alberta privatized alcohol sales the selection of brands blossomed many times over.

My favorite fact from the website is at the very bottom, in significantly finer print than anything else on the page. It reads: “Ontario Beer Facts is brought to you by Canada’s National Brewers (CNB), a national trade association representing Labatt Brewing Company Ltd., Molson Coors Canada and Sleeman Breweries Ltd.”

Now look back at the pamphlet. Doesn’t it strike you as the sort of symbolic scare tactic you’d see coming from the mob boss of a huge drug cartel? “Eh, <sniff> I really hope nuthin’ terrible happens to your family this weekend if you even think of privatizing.” In fact, considering the direct appeal to fear, and the complete lack of information, I’d say a scare tactic is all it is.

Digging Tunnels

Philosopher, writer, humorist, scholar and mystic Robert Anton Wilson used to say that we all see reality through our own “neurological reality tunnels.” What he meant was that we don’t see reality itself. All our perceptions are filtered through a very personal channel of assumptions, beliefs, and mental models. Compounding this problem is the fact that it’s so easy to mistake the model for the thing it represents. This, he claims, is the reason we misunderstand each other so profoundly.

Pay attention to the world and you’ll see people misunderstanding each other. Even when they understand each other, people have a hard time coming together to make decisions. Communicating with language (conversing or writing) seems like the most straightforward method of communication, but in many ways it’s an inferior mode of expression.

The medium of language is full of assumptions and abstractions that are easily confused. Language uses only one input—auditory for speech or visual for the written word—and it leaves many of our senses un-stimulated. Even when watching someone speak, the visual input may or may not be a part of the message.

This is why art will always win. Film, for example, uses light, colour, sound, music, action, and so forth and is a much more full-brained form of communication. If you disagree, try to describe a David Lynch film to someone and see if your words do the movie justice. Meanwhile, language is perfectly at home inside of film.

But sometimes a writer gets it so right, it’s like he or she comes and joins you in your own neurological reality tunnel. I had this experience recently while re-reading “Sonny’s Blues”, a short story by James Baldwin.

The main character, a Harlem schoolteacher, spends much of the story trying to understand his heroin-using, jazz-piano-playing brother. He simply cannot understand why anyone would throw his life away with heroin, and he just doesn’t “get” jazz. He and his brother are stuck, not quite connecting through their reality tunnels, until the story’s climax where he sees Sonny play.

“All I know about music is that not many people ever really hear it. And even then, on the rare occasions when something opens within, and the music enters, what we mainly hear, or hear corroborated, are personal private, vanishing evocations. But the man who creates the music is hearing something else, is dealing with the roar rising from the void and imposing order on it as it hits the air. What is evoked in him, then, is of another order, more terrible because it has no words, and triumphant, too, for that same reason. And his triumph, when he triumphs, is ours.”

For me this is a great encapsulation of what makes music (or any art form) magical. When art connects, it connects more deeply than language alone. It can open the audience to unmapped territories, force them out of their preconceived notions and comfort zones. This form of communication cannot be translated into language; it has to be experienced. That terrible act of creativity might reshape your own reality tunnel. Then, maybe, you get a sense of someone else’s reality and approach understanding.

3 Reason to See The Birder at Carlton Cinema

TheBirder-Poster

Watch A Funny Movie With Heart

The Birder is a comedy that will leave you feeling good, not jaded. While most blockbuster comedies try to clobber you over the head with gags and vulgarity, this movie, like its central character Ron Spencer, is looking to dig out a little corner for itself in a world that rewards flare and loud slogans instead of genuine content. Feel free to take a break from all the cynicism for 90 minutes and check out this film.

If you go to comedies because you want loud, drunken montages that remind you of beer commercials, The Birder might not be for you. But if you’re a fan of character-driven movies, or Wes Anderson films like Bottle Rocket and Rushmore, Bezaire’s comedies might float your boat (see Things To Do as well). Dry wit and deadpan delivery make The Birder quietly amusing throughout.

Because movies can be funny without envelope-pushing sight gags, you won’t see a droopy naked ass like The Hangover, Snoop Lion will not make a guest appearance, and there will be no explosive projectile vomiting. What you will see is a thoughtful buddy comedy with a catchy indie soundtrack.

Support Canadian Film (and friends of mine)

Making films in Canada is a tough racket to break into. A surprisingly small number of Canadian films ever make money, including the larger budget Telefilm-funded movies with stars attached (Paul Gross’s Passchendaele, the largest Canadian-funded production in our history at $20M, was also one of our biggest box office losers).

A large part of this problem is that many Canadian moviegoers don’t care to see Canadian films. Many of our homegrown movies feel Canadian, and this can be awkward, like inviting someone you want to impress to your parent’s house. You notice every flaw and tick and bad habit like a cynical outsider and it makes you self-conscious.

But The Birder is a polished film. It looks and sounds professional, it’s entertaining, it has some solid talent behind it, and it was pulled off on a tiny budget thanks to years of perseverance by many friends of mine, including Gerry Lattmann of The Dot Film Company, Theodore Bezaire, and Mike Stasko.

Support Carlton Cinema

I was surprised to learn that Carlton Theater now serves alcohol. This shouldn’t be a big deal, because all theaters everywhere should have always served alcohol. Audiences will enjoy a movie more if they can casually drink a nice beer while watching. You don’t need social science to figure out that this is true. It feels nice to be treated like an adult. And beer is good.

Carlton serves some of the standard lager selections, as well as selections from local craft big shots Mill Street. They also serve wine and liquor. Don’t let a lack of alcohol make you skip a movie ever again. Reward the theater’s decision and reward yourself, and do it this week. The Birder pairs well with Mill St. Tank House Ale.

The movie plays at Carlton until Friday, and if it does well, it will play longer. The Carlton is willing to occupy one of their screens with a Canadian indie movie instead of a sure sell like Neighbors or any other very-well-funded Hollywood movie in no need of support. If you want theaters to continue to take their chances with indie movies, go see those movies in those theaters.

The Art of Belief

How does a man like Orson Scott Card, who writes Ender Wiggin so honestly and tenderly in Ender’s Game, speak out so vociferously against homosexuality? It seems strange that a smart, contemporary artist could be so opposed to the freedom of people to love whoever they love. I tend to think of artists as open-minded and liberal, favoring freedom of expression (in all its forms), and I tend to think of bigots as ignorant. It’s disarming to think that those traits can coexist within one person.

It’s hard to accept, but some people we want to despise have admirable talents. On the other hand, many people we respect probably have horrible beliefs or habits we choose to ignore. And while people with one set of priorities and beliefs might respect and admire Joey Artist, another group of people with differing beliefs and priorities will almost surely despise him.

Beliefs are very strange this way; a person can be seemingly rational and open-minded but hold an isolated belief makes them completely irrational in certain scenarios. If a fully conscious person takes on an ignorant belief system, we have a hard time separating them from those beliefs. But when a person is indoctrinated early, that judgment gets a little stickier.

Is it strange that an anti-Semite like Wagner can compose some heart wrenching operas and a passionate actor like Marlon Brando or Klaus Kinski can turn out to be an asshole in real life? Well, we do live in a world where a college-educated man can make himself into a bomb to kill people because they interpret a book differently. Take out one or two bad traits from any of these people and our opinions change radically. Beliefs are contagious like viruses and we sometimes don’t know how susceptible a person is until it’s too late.

The arts are especially strange in this way because fearful or hateful or awful people can leave behind great and beautiful works of art. We might hate the person and everything they stand for, but the work remains. There is no anti-gay message in Ender’s Game, yet people organized boycotts of the film because of Card’s beliefs. If we could surgically remove his offensive beliefs, the movie probably wouldn’t change but the public reaction to it would.

I somehow find it easy to love artists that I hate. Uncompromising auteurs that don’t care about being nice people are compelling. Sometimes I share so little emotional ground with an artist like that I find him repulsive, yet I need to see his art. Being creative, he tries to give us a piece of himself, something he values so much he devotes his life to its expression. This may or may not have anything to do with the one particular belief or habit we find so terrible.

And it might give us a glimpse into that person’s internal conflicts and enable us to empathize. There is a reasonable argument to be made that it’s more important for us to regard art made by people with beliefs other than our own. What better way to try to understand those beliefs? It probably doesn’t work very often, to be fair, but you see my point.

A genius might become hateful if his subscribed beliefs tell him to be hateful. It’s hard to imagine that Orson Scott Card has analyzed his own bigotry in any rational, ethical light. More likely he was taken in by certain congenial beliefs within a larger framework, a belief structure, and then he allowed the rest of that belief structure to warp some of his views of reality. What makes someone susceptible to these distortions is the whole je ne sais quoi of human psychology.

Beliefs shouldn’t come sold as a package deal (as in religion); they should be purchased individually by experience and good evidence. Any ready-made belief system can tell us what to think for better or for worse. Without the belief system, we’re free to have no opinion. This is truly a good thing because it means that in theory we can look at new evidence impartially.

I want an artist to create for art’s sake. I don’t want a polemic disguised as art. If the artist creates a work of depth and originality, I will appreciate that work for what it is, regardless of who created it. On the other hand, I might buy a nice guy a beer, but I won’t lie about liking his crappy art. My opinions about a person don’t come as a package deal either. I may have several opinions about one person, each based on some kind of evidence. For example, Orson Scott Card is a great writer, but a terrible human rights advocate. Also, there is a chance he’s the second most talented “Orson” in history.

Game of Thrones Season 4: Fleeting Departures

Of all the great television series I watch, Game of Thrones is the easiest to look forward to. The sets, costumes, performances, and the scope of the story are like nothing I’ve ever seen on television, and this is to the credit of both George R. R. Martin for writing such and amazing series, and to the producers who execute the show to HBO standards (the highest standards on television).

The first three seasons have basically been jaw-dropping, and 90% of the content has been pulled from the source materials, the first book of which was released in 1996. But as the seasons fly by, the show has been creating more and more material not found in the original novels, presumably in accordance with Martin’s wishes, as he is an executive producer.

Season four, however, seems full of new material. The need for this is obvious; the show is on track to overtake Martin’s novels before A Song of Ice and Fire is finished. Without new material the show would overtake the novels, throwing both into the air. Basically no matter what they do, I’ll continue to watch because Game of Thrones is an event; it’s a world so rich and immersive it’s like a vacation once a week.

But a trend this year has somewhat dulled my anticipation. Some of the new storylines seem hesitant, afraid to commit to any bold new directions that stray from the source material. The audience has already accepted that the show is different from the books, but it seems the producers don’t want to alienate fans of the books by making it too different. The following contains SPOILERS.

Last season the show elaborated the torture of Theon Greyjoy by the bastard Ramsay Snow. This wasn’t in the books explicitly, and it’s only in the fifth novel A Dance With Dragons that we learn what happened to Theon. Since Ramsay is a compelling character and torture is cinematic and edgy, it made sense to continue this story in the show’s third season.

In the most recent episode, Theon’s sister (Yara in the show, Asha in the books) storms Ramsay’s keep with a group of men. But when she meets with Theon, he’s apparently been broken for good. He fights against her, obviously so programmed to fear Ramsay that the thought of leaving is too much.

Somehow, a savage battle inside a small kennel leaves both Yara and Ramsay alive, and Yara flees without Theon. Her real brother is dead, she decides. She had never treated him like a brother before, but decided, maybe for familial honour, to travel dangerous seas to get him back and when she is faced with difficulty, she gives up, returning us safely to the canon of the books (in which no storyline like this takes place). It’s a lot of work on her part to just give up and move on.

The mutineer crows north of the Wall are an ad hoc story creation and their brutal treatment of Craster’s daughters agitated many viewers. Jon decides to take a party to the keep and dispatch with them so Mance Rayder can’t learn the truth about how few crows occupy Castle Black.

This departure from the books was again a welcome storyline, one that could be told to completion without disturbing the events of the books. But when Bran and company are captured by the mutineers, I couldn’t quite get on board. Considering how callously the mutineers treated their former leader and current captives, the fact that they left Bran, Jojen, Meera and Hodor virtually untouched seemed an unlikely allowance to keep the audience from outrage.

Of course nothing will happen to these characters; we know from the novels they get much further north than Craster’s Keep. But because there seemed like a chance that Bran might be reunited with Jon, even for a moment, it was compelling. And once again, at the moment when these two brothers could have met, Bran decides it isn’t worth it; the chance Jon will refuse to let him go north is too much to risk, so Bran leaves to find the three-eyed raven and the mystical tree, bringing us back to the books once more.

Ramsay’s spy Locke was so perfectly cast and well written that I wasn’t sure where his true motivations were. His appearance at Castle Black was noted by Jon, and his fighting skills demonstrated he could be of value on the mutineer mission. And just as we learn something about him (by his attempted kidnapping of Bran), Bran warg-brain’s Hodor into pulling Locke’s head off. Once again, a curious addition to the novels’ storyline is quickly attenuated, bringing us back to safe ground.

I haven’t felt like much of a snob with regards to the liberties the show has taken. In fact, I could do with more. The additional focus on Margaery Tyrell, the change of Robb’s wife, the amplification of homosexual content, and Theon’s torture all felt like interesting cinematic angles to take from the books, and if not warranted, at least not too gratuitous. But this season has taken many strong departures only to collapse them, returning us abruptly back to the books. (That White Walker scene was great though, wasn’t it?)

Game of Thrones might be the first series of it’s kind; I’ve never heard of a television adaptation of a work in progress. It’s interesting to watch it unfold, but part of me wishes that the show was bold enough to truly depart, to be it’s own creation. Martin works on the show and should be able to keep the major points aligned with his vision. But with so many pieces in play, significant changes might be impossible.

The somewhat tepid departures from the books and their quick, convenient resolutions in season four have left me feeling that I’ve been watching a diluted product. And while Game of Thrones remains one of the best shows on television, my anticipation leading up to Sunday nights has recently been lukewarm.

Fortunately, the trial of Tyrion has ignited the fuse on more than one of ASoIaF’s great showdowns, and the final few episodes of the season should prove to be satisfying and adequately gut wrenching. They might not be Red-Wedding-level gut wrenching, but who would want to go through that emotional garburator more than once?

My Favorite Characters Hate Themselves

Recently I did a little writing exercise. I thought about my favorite characters from movies and television and drafted up a few paragraphs on each. I focused on their strengths, weaknesses, and the various inner conflicts that give them depth. Now it seems like the most obvious thing in the world, but once I had it all on the page, I realized that all my favorite characters are highly self-destructive.

Okay, so maybe they don’t hate themselves, but they all have internal compulsions that drive them in conflicting directions. They do things they know they shouldn’t; a dark side compels them, and they seem to have little or no control over that darkness. Even as they do their best to be good, they are subconsciously their own worst enemy.

Don Draper is a perfect example of a great, three-dimensional character. He is a brilliant ad man because he quickly knows what people want, what drives them to act, and he plays on their primal urges. But when it comes to Don’s own urges and wants, he seems oblivious, and so he treads upon himself with profligate sex and alcoholism, trying to fill a gulf of want, but wearing himself down until he can’t find his talent.

One of my favorite movie characters is Dignan from Bottle Rocket. Owen Wilson’s wannabe career criminal has an infectious enthusiasm that is so innocent and childlike he draws otherwise upstanding people into poorly considered criminal schemes. He’s a terrible criminal and realistically has no hope of fulfilling his dreams, but his wide-eyed charisma makes it hard for people to say no, or to be honest with him about his ridiculous plans. Dignan doesn’t hate himself, but if he ever faces the reality of his decisions, he might.

Conflict is necessary; without it, there cannot be a story. But most characters lack that subconscious self-loathing that dominates my list of favorites. (I’m not sure what that says about me.) Generally the more divided a character is, the more rich their internal struggle. It’s easy to say that The Dude from The Big Lebowski is self destructive since he’s so generally sloppy, but he is just too easygoing to hate himself, and his character isn’t as rich or compelling as Dignan in the same measure that Lebowski is less tragic.

Think about Breaking Bad’s Walter White, True Detective’s Rust Cohle, Bill Murray from Groundhog Day or Ghostbusters or Scrooged or Lost In Translation, Eddy from Hurlyburly, Gene Hackman’s Harry Caul from The Conversation or “Popeye” Doyle from The French Connection, Jake LaMotta from Raging Bull, Humbert Humbert from Lolita, Romeo, Hamlet, Dracula.

These characters are some of my favorites. Their internal tensions drive the respective plots forward with an sharp edge. The problems generated by these inner conflicts give me a thrill because I sense that I’m not just watching an external narrative advance step by step; I’m seeing an existential crisis in action. I get the sense these characters sometimes wonder, “How can I be this way?”

Even when the plot doesn’t have to move forward, great inner conflicts lead to memorable characters. Sam Malone from Cheers is a recovering alcoholic, a washed up baseball player who, since he knows nothing else, buys a bar and works his days away with his ex-coach, nailing as many ladies as possible. Diane Chambers, a self-styled intellectual and scholar, takes a job as a barmaid and cannot resist Sam’s charm. To my mind, this is one of the best premises ever for a sitcom.

I resonate with these characters. I feel quickly and deeply invested. I want these characters to struggle with themselves and I usually want to see their better natures win in the end. We all have inner conflicts, and we generally see ourselves as the heroes of our own stories. A well-crafted character should gradually invite us to project our conflicts, to see ourselves in the character’s skin (to some extent) and reciprocally, to share in their emotions.

And the best characters aren’t necessarily revealed right away. Sometimes it can take multiple viewings or readings to tease apart the antipodal motivations, to really get inside a character’s head and start to understand those primal urges that drive him or her. A great character should be rich enough with content that they can surprise us, but once we get inside their heads, it should all make perfect sense.

My favorite character ever might be the darkest of all: Laura Palmer. Her death at the beginning of Twin Peaks marks the beginning of our discovery. In 30 episodes we never properly meet her, but we learn so much of her inner conflicts we can infer depths to her that most characters cannot touch. And when we finally meet her in the movie Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, we get a touching and disturbing portrait of struggle between light and darkness. Laura is a heroine who still resonates with culture today, echoing all over the media landscape in shows like The Killing.

Truly great characters live forever.

Dry Sci-Fi

These past few weeks I’ve been frustrated with science fiction movies. There is no shortage of new ones, but almost none grab my attention. Why would I go to the theater for Transcendence when I didn’t even go see The Matrix? Neither trailer grabbed me. Integrating consciousness with a machine isn’t new, and I’m guessing that’s what Transcendence is about. When I saw The Matrix eventually, I was satisfied that it was basically Star Wars meets Lawnmower Man meets Tron meets church, and I saw all that when I was young.

Science fiction may seem the ripest genre for the film industry, as special effects now allow for so much that would have previously been impossible. But far out gadgets and alien planets have never been the pull for me; they are eye candy, the stuff of trailers. What draws me into science fiction are ideas that excite me because I’ve never thought of them before.

These ideas should form a world that I can recognize, though it is different from the world I occupy. That world should give rise to characters I can relate to, but who are different from the people I know. And these characters should guide me through that world and show me something meaningful. I should come away from a great science fiction story questioning the established models of my own world. In short, my mind should be blown.

Great sci-fi is tough because a lot of great ideas have already been taken. 2001: A Space Odyssey came out in 1968 and remains the all-time champion. The absorbing world of Bladerunner was created in 1982, and in 2009 new 3D technology and a $250M budget didn’t bring Avatar even close. Alien and Terminator were solid, but didn’t blow my mind.

Are we running out of good ideas? No. There are more ideas out there than ever, and new ideas come from novel combinations of previous ideas. Inspiration shows us ideas from a new angle. Primer, Children of Men, Moon and Upstream Color are all great modern sci-fi movies that got me excited about the genre again despite the fatuous Hollywood remake of Solaris. Looper was pretty decent too.

But no matter how enthused I get about sci-fi, there’s still something that turns me off from going to the theater for blockbusters like District 9 (which I eventually saw and did not enjoy) or Gravity or Oblivion or Transcendence. Maybe it’s the trailers that turn me off, or the word of mouth, or maybe it’s the audacity of studios putting hundreds of millions of dollars into old, mediocre ideas, but I have no desire to encourage them by seeing their movies at the theater.

I must be missing some gems, so if anybody out there wants to enlighten me, leave me a list of your favorites in the comments.