Life of the Mind

The Premise of It All

Before I can invest in any story, I need to buy into the premise. If I can’t buy into the premise, I’ll struggle to believe the story that unfolds. My brain will be on alert for realism, credibility and probability issues. I don’t want it to be. That’s just the way my brain works.

You know? It thinks.

Now this doesn’t mean the only stories I like are ones grounded in contemporary society or and/or issues. I love anything that tells a good story, no matter how fantastical. Just sell the premise to me and I’m in.

An eccentric inventor builds a time machine into a DeLorean? No problem! Immortals running around who can only die when you decapitate them? Fine! A cyborg is sent back into the past to kill a woman whose unborn baby will one day lead a revolt against the machine-governed world? Great!

The list goes on.

What these – and other stories like them – have in common is they sell me their premise. They don’t need reams of explanation. In fact, in each of those three examples – in case you didn’t recognise them, they are Back to the Future, Highlander, and The Terminator – the set-ups are simple. You can believe they’ve occurred. You’re given everything you need to understand why these universes exist as they do, and how they operate.

But nowadays – and this is happening increasingly – premises are often hodge-podge, and audiences are required to turn their brains in at the door.

Let’s look at Jurassic World: here, people have gotten so tired of the one dinosaur zoo in the world, that the zoo’s proprietors have decided they need to genetically engineer a mega-dinosaur as a new attraction.

Excuse me?

Normal zoos have been around for almost one-hundred-and-fifty years. Is anybody getting bored of them? There’s always new kids coming along who want to see the animals. I’ve been to zoos about five times in my life – I’ve never been bored, even if seeing the same sorts of animals. How can you not be impressed by a lion or an elephant? I imagine most people would be the same. So how the hell does anybody get bored of a dinosaur zoo?

They could’ve qualified this – pushed it as a smokescreen for genetic research into weaponizing dinosaurs for military applications. That would’ve made it believable. But then they put the genetically engineered dinosaur – who has the ability to camouflage (not sure that works as a tourist attraction) – in a pen that’s closed by a single wall and protected by a fat security guard. Never mind that there’s been three dinosaur public relations disasters. The fat and not-too-smart guy will do. That’s our level of security.

How can you buy into this?

Star Wars: The Force Awakens fares similarly. So only a few years after the Rebellion’s victory in Return of the Jedi, some supreme, Force-wielding leader we’ve never, ever heard of rallies the remnants of the Empire, organises them back into a fearful military force, builds a Starkiller weapon, and turns Luke Skywalker’s students against him. This new threat, the First Order, also kidnap children and brainwash them into becoming Stormtroopers – given the size and age of their armies, the First Order would’ve had to be doing this for over twenty years.

And no alarm bells ring over any of this. Nobody notices any of this happening. I can understand complacency settling in after an extended period, but so shortly after the Empire’s fall? Surely, this generation would be paranoid. And, logically, they would’ve pursued the remnants of the Empire to eliminate them as a threat – an exercise that would’ve alerted them to any of this going on. But, nope. You’ve lived in a tyranny for twenty or so years. Why would you worry it might re-arise?

To top it all off, Luke Skywalker gave up and left, like Cartman from South Park.

As far as that universe goes, the protagonist, Rey, believes all the events of the Original Trilogy are just legend. This is the brainchild of director JJ Abrams. He wanted the main characters to have ceded into legend in the Star Wars universe, the way King Arthur, Excalibur, and Camelot have faded into legend in our universe, even though King Arthur’s had over fourteen-hundred years to do so, and the Star Wars universe has had about … ten? Ten whole years. Compared to fourteen-hundred. Yep, that’s enough time for something to become legend.

There’s some serious ignorance going on in the new Star Wars universe. And it tries to build and maintain the stupidest premise in the history of Star Wars – it makes the Star Wars Holiday Special look like Citizen Kane.

What would’ve been interesting would be to see the rise of the First Order while the original characters tried to head it off, only to fail and pass the torch to the new characters to continue the battle. That could’ve been a compelling story, and could’ve addressed lots of the probability issues. As it is, it’s like somebody threw out some circumstances, and nobody bothered to work out if they were probable or realistic within the parameters of that universe. They wanted it to be pretty. To be daunting. To be absolute. But there’s history and, as far as I’m concerned, the history doesn’t support this universe’s construction.

That’s a big problem in storytelling today: you’re handed a premise on page 1 and not expected to question it. Don’t examine it for probability. Don’t work out if it’s realistic within that universe’s framework. Don’t question if it could’ve come into being.

Don’t think.

We do have heads, though. And brains. And while we might watch movies or read books for escapism, that doesn’t mean we should ever stop questioning.

Or accept the unrealistic and improbable.