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Endings Matter (Part 2 of 2)

April 6, 2009 at 8:54 pm

In my previous post, I talked at length about the series finale to the American version of Life on Mars. (It's spoileriffic, so you might want to give it a miss if you don't want the series spoiled for you.)  I was pleasantly surprised by the finale.  The next night I went to see Knowing, which has an ending that is decidedly less effective.  (And, well, just plain bad.)  So all of this has prompted me to think about why some endings work and why some endings don't.

It wasn't until later that I realized could have added the series finale of Battlestar Galactica to this discussion, but that's been discussed and slagged and defended all over the place.

Oddly enough, I discovered just this morning that GRRM himself has put up a blog post about the endings of Life on Mars, Knowing, and Battlestar Galactica.  (Great minds?  Heh.)  In this second part to my discussion of endings, I'll explain why I agree with George about Battlestar Galactica and Knowing, and why I think he's mistaken about Life on Mars.  Because sometimes you gotta speak truth to power, right?

Spoilers for Knowing, and lots of rambling thoughts about what makes for good and bad writing, follow below the cut.

The premise of Knowing, in a nutshell, is that somebody finds a  prophecy that has accurately predicted the date, location, and death toll of every large disaster for the past 50 years.  Our hero decodes the prophecy, and realizes it predicts 3 more disasters in coming days (conveniently).  The first he witnesses first-hand (a horrific plane crash, with lovingly rendered people-doused-in-burning-jet-fuel effects); the second he tries and fails to prevent (a horrific subway accident, with lovingly rendered  people-splattered-by-derailed-subway-car effects); the third predicts OMG THE END OF THE WORLD!!!1!11!!eleven!!! wherein everyone is going to snuff it. 

The first maybe half of the movie isn't so bad.  It's an interesting premise, even if the direction goes a little over the top in its obsession with making everything as spooky as possible.  (Note to educators: if you're ever looking for a child who is hiding in your school after dark, it's totally OK to turn on the lights.  Seriously.  Nobody will fault you for that.  Honest.)  But the interesting premise is also a huge challenge.  It's pretty difficult to come up with a satisfying ending when the Great Big Problem the protagonist has to solve is the SUN SWALLOWING THE EARTH. 

There's just no fixing that. 
Hell, there's no way to make a dent in that.  In fact, Nicholas Cage's character could have stayed home playing Xbox games in his underwear for all the difference it would have made.  And that's the problem.

Imagine devising the outline for a movie like this:

Act I:  Prophecy discovered and decoded.  Everything is creepy.

Act I act-out:  Plane crash.

So far, so good.  It's atmospheric, with lots of potential, and it has a strong act-out.

Act II:  Protagonist fails to thwart prophecy.  Tries to learn more about its origins. 

Okay, still good.  Our protagonist is taking matters into his own hands. Failure at this stage is actually good; it increases the tension.  And he's resourceful, attacking the problem from another direction.

Act II act-out:  Final prophecy revealed.  Everyone is going to die next Tuesday when the sun swallows the Earth.

Ummmm, okay...  That's a huge act-out, no question.  Really huge.  Like size-of-the-Earth huge.  My screenwriting partner, Melinda, would call this the second-stage rocket.  And it's a doozy.  This is a Saturn-V on top of a Saturn-V that shoots other Saturn-Vs out of itself. But where do you go from there?  How do you continue the thread of  story (any thread of story) from Acts I & II?  Where do you go after this?

Act III:  um...  uh...  Protagonist stocks up on sunscreen?

Yeah.  It's not like Nick Cage can save this by calling the FBI.  Even if they did listen to him this time around.  At this point, absolutely nothing the protagonist does matters to the big picture.  But worse than that is the fact that nothing he has done up to this point matters either. 

So what do you do?  This is grasping at straws, but maybe one approach would have been to make Act II the third act, and end with that final revelation.  Granted that would be one spectacular downer of a movie, and horribly unsatisfying.  Or maybe you let the movie take a jarring left turn at the top of Act III, and it becomes a gritty story of survival in a dying world as Nicholas Cage fights to become the last man standing, the last bastion of decency as the world descends into chaos.   Yeah, that would suck even worse, and yeah, I am kidding.  (Slightly.)   But that's my point.  I can't fault the writers from wanting to avoid  these scenarios, but this is a difficult structural problem to crack.

(It seems to me that "protagonist faces the end of the world" could actually work as the third act of a movie.  Just not this movie.  Not with these first two acts.  That finale is the finale of a totally different kind of movie.  Not a creepy, mysterious, action-adventure, people-doused-in-jet-fuel movie.)

Okay.  So.  Nobody on earth can save themselves.  So what do you do?  Apparently that's when you call in the aliens.

You know, the good aliens who also happen to be angels.  From the  Bible.  The same aliens that sent the prophecy 50 years ago to warn people that they were all doomed and powerless to do anything about it.   Why they bothered I can't begin to guess (at no point does the prophecy actually mention the angels themselves).  I also can't fathom why they sent the prophecy to a single 10-year-old girl and let her go batshit crazy because of  it.  And why they have to be as creepy as possible all the time is another thing I can't unravel.  Constantly scaring the shit out of people is decidedly un-cool.  Sure, Old Testament angels are supposed to be real badasses.  If you're going to insist on being badass, then go all-out with the flaming sword or something.  Don't tromp around in the foggy woods in the middle of the night in your black-as-midnight longshoreman's cloak. 

And so that the movie ends on a positive note, the aliens take a couple of kids (a boy and a girl with Biblical names), hand them a pair of rabbits (real subtle, guys), and take them to a new planet that is lush and, um, garden-y.  Edenic, even.

Unfortunately this isn't satisfying, either, because it's one of the oldest cliches in science fiction.  The curse isn't avoided just  because nobody actually said, "And I shall call you... Eve."   In fact, the venerable Turkey City Lexicon has a specific sub-category for exactly this story.  The appropriately-named "Adam and Eve" story is a subset of the "Shaggy God" story.  (In trying to find a different solution to the third act, as I was doing above with tongue firmly in cheek, there's also the danger of veering into what's known as a "cozy catastrophe".) 

It's very difficult to make a satisfying ending out of a cliche.  It can be done, if the story really knows what it's doing and is somehow putting a truly original take on things.  Knowing, alas, did not do this. 

I don't know much about much.  But I have learned there are no inviolate rules of writing, except one:  you can do anything as long as it works.  (The trick is in figuring out if something works or not.)  Everything else is a rule of thumb.  And that's where I draw the distinction between Knowing and Life on Mars.

The difference between this ending and the ending to Life on Mars is that Jason O'Mara's character is changed by his experiences in 1973, and he makes  a choice (which stems from a hard-won personal revelation) that effects his return to "reality".  He chooses to stay in 1973 with Annie; that fails, because he wakes up in 2035, but it's not meaningless because in making that choice he realizes she's the love of his life.  And this is capped when Sam Tyler says to himself on Mars, "I think this mission just got more complicated." Nicholas Cage's character, on the other hand, has no effect on the story  whatsoever.  His choices were meaningless because the aliens would have taken his kid anyway.  Was he changed by the experience?  Well, he visited his estranged parents just before the earth blew up, so maybe.  But at that point the Earth blows up so it doesn't matter one jot.  (And if you think I'm being facetious when I saw the Earth blows up, I'm not.)

Furthermore, the ending to Life on Mars shines a new light on the rest of the series.  Many things suddenly make sense, and other things suddenly take on entirely new and unexpected meanings.  But for me, the end of Knowing  provided no insights, no emotional catharsis, nothing transformative. 

George R. R. Martin dismisses the Life on Mars finale as another tired old cliche, namely the accursed "it was all a dream" approach.  I respectfully disagree.  Here's why.

I agree that "it was all a dream" is, most of the time, a really terrible way to go.  Like the Adam and Eve story, it's seen way too frequently.  (That's why these things are cliches, after all.)  The thing that gives "it was all a dream" a bad name is that it's used as an excuse to let anything happen without any meaning or consequence.  The result is a trite story where the character journeys aren't really character journeys because the characters aren't changed by their experiences.  And it's usually a very good idea to avoid something like that.  This ending  is also sometimes used when the writer has written her- or himself into a  corner with no viable path forward.  Worst of all, it's a cop-out.  (Other cliches can rear their ugly heads when the writer gets cornered.  Like, say, in Knowing.)

(You'll notice that I said "often" and "usually" up there.  Because like I said earlier, the only hard-and-fast rule of writing is that one can do something if it works.   Everything else is a rule of thumb.)

Where I disagree is in categorizing the Life on Mars ending as the canonical "it was all a dream" ending.  Yes, it's a literal dream ending (well, okay, neurostimulation, but whatever), but it's not actually the ending that has (correctly) given the trope such a bad reputation.  It avoids that stigma for at least two reasons.

The dream isn't without consequences.  It has consequences back in waking reality. Sam Tyler is a different person at the end of the series than he was in the beginning.  (This is my personal interpretation, of course, and I'm sure many will disagree with me.)

It's not a cop-out ending.  Quite the opposite, in fact.  Rather than revealing that everything that preceded it was meaningless, it reveals that everything that preceded it was deeply meaningful

The cliched version of the "it was all a dream" ending is infuriating because it's so meaningless and arbitrary.  The Life on Mars ending isn't arbitrary at all-- it's the final puzzle piece clicking into place.  It's not a perfect ending by any means, but I feel it deserves more credit than to be dismissed as a mere cliche.  If nothing else, it tried damn hard to put a new spin on things.

I'll go even farther out on this precariously-creaking limb.  I humbly submit that there's an even simpler way to diagnose the endings for Battlestar Galactica, Knowing, and Life on Mars.  This is mostly a guess on my part, but I'd wager that in the first two cases, the writers didn't have a clear end in sight as they went along.  They didn't know where the story was going, and the result was something deeply unsatisfying.  But in the third case (I'm guessing) the writers did have a sense of where the show was going, and the result was a meaningful conclusion.


Victor Milán April 6, 2009 at 10:08 pm
From the way you describe Life on Mars it's apparent (hell, even from the title) that the ending was conceived and planned for from the very outset - that the series was built around it. Like it or not is one thing; it doesn't seem to have much in common with the "oh crap, we've written ourselves into a corner" last-minute save syndrome. It may be a bad approach but I don't see it as implicitly bad writing. As for Knowing ... Greg Bear novel, huh? Except with high-fructose corn suck added. And angels ex machina.
Ian April 6, 2009 at 11:14 pm

(I'm now reminded of an old Far Side cartoon.)

Can I borrow the phrase "high-fructose corn suck"? Where by "borrow" I mean, of course, "steal."

But, yeah. I managed to restrain myself from going off about all the other rant-worthy stuff in Knowing. Like the fact that the love interest (daughter of the woman who wrote the prophecy) tells Our Hero that one of the future disaster dates (which is like 3 days away) is the date on which her mother had predicted she would die. And then what does Love Interest do? She immediately gets in the car with Nicholas Cage (who, btw, comes off pretty strange the first time they meet) and drives to her dead mother's creepy-as-hell, deserted shack in the middle of creepiest woods since Deliverance in the middle of the goddamn night. I half-expected to see the three people from The Blair Witch Project to come tromping through in the background. Or to find out that her mother had predicted Love Interest would die at the hands of cannibal hillbillies.

Tengland April 7, 2009 at 12:27 am
Now, now, Ian, the Earth didn't blow up. It was fried, but it didn't blow up. I went to see this movie knowing (ha!ha!ha! get it?) you'd be writing about it. It'd gotten such bad reviews I was put off, but then I thought well, if Ian could stand it so could I. Thanks for nothing. Well, actually, no, not that bad. There were a few cool things in the film. The Earth getting scoured was pretty neat ("Goodbye, Empire State Building"). The aliens' ship was cool ("wheels within wheels" as Ezekiel says) and the plane crash was horrific (a single take, from what I've read). You're spot on with most of your comments. The aliens forced that little girl to write down the prophecy, and then -- and it was her idea, too, remember? -- it's sealed away for 50 years. Yeah, thanks for the advance warning, guys. And there's a lot of little nits to pick on, like how the Cage character could drive all the way through a New York where the citizens are going berserk without being even stopped, much less lose his truck. And the aliens were awful -- in behavior, but also in looks when they cast off their human bodies and got naked with see-through skin so we could see their innards. What right-minded father would let his kid go with that? ("You keep your damn hands off my kid, you perverts!")(Unless he was drunk.) And I thought the bunny imagery was hilarious ("Kids, in order to repopulate the new planet, you will have to breed like ...") There was a suggestion that the two kids at the forefront of the story weren't the only ones chosen. As the ship pulls away from Earth, I thought I saw others, too. They're being diverse, thinks I -- couple of kids from Africa, couple from Asia, couple from Europe, couple of Native Americans, couple of Indians, couple of polynesians, couple of Jews. Except when they got to the Eden planet, only the two central kids were seen. One of the big arguments about the film was its theme of determinism versus random events. Aside from Cage's character's religious conversion (mandatory in these films), it seems to come down for determinism. But as film critic Roger Ebert argues, if the aliens chose to save a couple of humans, that's free will, so the argument falters. All well and good, except Ebert is missing the point you so discuss so well: The central character can do nothing to change the outcome and so he is not changed either. The worst thing about this movie, IMHO, is seeing a hoary old SF cliche become a big-budget movie. If you're at all intersted in Ebert's views, you can see his review and his surprise at all the negative reviews at, or his long dissertation on the film at
Richard April 7, 2009 at 8:25 am
Wouldn't that just be suckrose? I am totally behind your point vis a vis meaningful vs meaningless dream endings. My big problem is the ex machina ones like The Stand, where it's clear from the start that God is orchestrating a battle, which (SPOILER ALERT) he himself wins, by himself, with his own giant blazing finger. Why bother orchestrating a battle, God? Just finger-blaze the bad guys to begin with because YOU'RE GOD. Unless S. King is being awesomely subtle in his repudiation of modern Christian Theodicy, in which case I have a new-found respect for Mr. King. This is also the case with Battlestar Galactica.
S.C. Butler April 17, 2009 at 12:20 pm
"They didn't know where the story was going, and the result was something deeply unsatisfying" Bingo.
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