04 April 2012

Movies That Are Really Two Movies

There are a handful of films out there that offer a two-for-one deal when you buy the ticket. These are certain films that take a left turn around the middle essentially offer two high concept premises. Sometimes these are two distinct ideas and sometimes they are variations on a single premise. Mostly these are films that either shift locales or characters, or sometimes big plot revelations. Essentially these are all films with very late or multiple inciting incidents. Now, none of these films are films-within-a-film like Bowfinger (1999) or something. Yes, Bowfinger is the first example that comes to mind. These are contiguous films that have radically different front and back halves. Some are weaker than others, thus in that order we follow: As we're talking about whole film structure here there are certainly some spoilers that follow of any film mentioned, so beware.

Weak: Sports and Training Films

This includes about every sports film ever made, from Space Jam (1996) to The Longest Yard (2005). Yes, again, those were the first two that popped in my head (what is wrong with me). Essentially these films are about a group of people getting together and training, and then the big game. Some films like Beerfest (2006) have very distinct halves, the first gathering a team and witnessing their reactions to their own local, controlled locations. The second half, the eponymous Beerfest, isolates them in a foreign land under a limited period of time, characters, and location.

The Invincible Iron Man faces down Tom Morello
Superhero films also follow this narrative. The modern superhero film, or at least the first installment, follows two major beats - the Origin and then the Adventure. The most clear example of this is Iron Man (2008), which is at first about one white man's escape from Evil Brown People, his training, and then victorious return. The latter half though, becomes a white man vs. white man struggle that is between competing intra-corporate entities as it is among physical rivals.

Less Weak: Two Will Smith Movies

Both I Am Legend (2007) and Hancock (2008) fit into this mold. It's odd that both of these recent Will Smith vehicles have excellent first halves and atrocious second halves. I Am Legend is about the life of the last man on earth...until he meets a useless chick and her son to replace his dead dog (somehow a more interesting character) halfway through. Suddenly the meaning of his work is altered dramatically and while this alternate ending comes close to saving it (staying true to the source material, the title, and giving more meaning to Will's earlier struggles), the ending as it stands makes it a very different film. Instead of adhering to the core premise that he struggles to understand throughout the first half (Will remaining the last man on earth and a "Legend" to the new species that calls it home dealing with his acceptance of that fact), the introduction of human characters and the self-sacrifice of Will makes him a "Legend" to a human race that has little to hope for and in fact moves the story out from a Last Man on Earth-thing to a whatever-living-in-Vermont-thing. It sucks.

This is where the rape scene went.
Hancock is similar. The high concept of a homeless, alcoholic superhero is really interesting. As it stood originally, Tonight He Comes sounds like a fantastic premise, although far too dark for a big budget flick for mainstream audience. Instead, we're taken on this fair ride through PR, a prison sentence, and the socialization of Hancock for the first half of the film. For the second half though, he fights Charlize Theron who he's actually in love with but forgot and she also has superpowers. None of it really makes sense and there's really two films in one here. My personal judgment is always apparent but you can decide which one was more suited for the big screen.

Purposeful Meta Splitting

The Charlie Kaufman-penned film Adaptation. (2002) is an interesting case. This may be one of the most Meta films ever made. Kaufman wrote the film, which is about a character named Charlie Kaufman (played by The Cage) trying to adapt the book The Orchid Thief into a screenplay, as a way to deal with his own inability to adapt The Orchid Thief into a screenplay. When his fictional (in real-life, not in the film), hack brother Donald Kaufman takes over though, the latter half of the film also shifts to accompany his writing style.

What turns into a personal tale of ruminating writer's block and self-pity becomes a suspenseful action thriller. This was done as revelations to characters in the movie create wrinkles in the screenplay of the film itself. Adaptation. in its way offers two films in one - the Charlie and Donald versions of adapting the same work, or one could say the process of adapting the same work.

The Plot Shift in Excellent Movies

There are three more films here that simply have very late or multiple inciting incidents that cause the characters to go on to do something radically different for the latter halves of the film. For those uninitiated to screenwriting terminology, an inciting incident is whatever spurs the protagonist to action. It's Luke finding Princess Leia's distress message, or the government guys recruiting Indiana Jones.

The first and most obvious is Rocky (1976). Rocky takes a surprisingly long time to get going. It's certainly one of those Sports Films that is divided between training for the Big Fight and then the Big Fight itself, but before even all the training Stallone has the most awkward courtship ever with Talia Shire and does nothing for almost forty minutes before he's recruited to fight Apollo. You get a sports movie, but also a great moronic love drama all in one.

This may be unexpected, but Stripes (1981) also fits this mold. Everything anyone remembers from Stripes happens in its first half. Bill Murray and Harold Ramis join the army and proceed with training far goofier than Full Metal Jacket (1987). Once Bill gives one of his greatest inspirational speeches, and then the best graduation march ever it's as if writer, Ramis suddenly remembered he had another thirty-minutes of screen time to fill. So they go to Czechoslovakia and have a minor international incident. It's kind of a bizarre segue, I suppose they figured they needed some kind of action in order to justify their training, although I hate to say that Police Academy (1984) worked the action into a coherent high concept with more skill. Did I just really admit that? Fuck.

Let me guess - "Mother!" (high-pitched cackle laugh)
The final film that is really two films we have for the day is JAWS (1975). The first half of the film centers on the effect of a Shark's attack on a small sleepy summer town. The public reacts, government and law enforcement react, and even science and technology react to the intrusion of the underwater menace. All of these reactions boil down to three men leaving the island with intent to kill the leviathan. Thus, while the first half can be seen as "A Shark's effect on a town," the latter half is "A Team quests to kill a Shark." It's notable that after Quint, Brody, and Hooper leave the dock, land is not seen again, and all interaction flows between the three (four, including the Shark) characters. It takes them out of their element and provides a much different movie.

Out of all the examples listed here, JAWS handles the split-film idea with the most precision. One movie flows into the other, despite all reluctance of some characters like Brody to the contrary. After introducing us to plenty of supporting characters the second half lets us know that these four are the most important and lets them grow off each other in new ways (particularly the Indianapolis scene, which is notable not only for Quint's monologue, offers character growth for both Hooper [increased masculinity, giving his character depth], and Brody [the awkward isolation that Brody feels and his inability to contribute to the dialogue affirms his "fish out of water" {had to use it} status and makes his final valiant stand against the Shark all the more important]). The film splits itself with confidence and wholly separates its two necessary high concepts.

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