Rant of the Day: “It was all a dream” (or Outlandish Film Interpretations)

Isaac Asimov is a master storyteller. One of the first books I ever read by him was a collection of short stories called Robot Visions. What I love about Asimov is that he makes rules for the universes that he is writing for and then slavishly sticks to them. For his robot stories, he created the Three Laws of Robotics:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey any orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

One of my favorite stories from the collection is called “Runaround” (which is also the first story where Asimov’s three laws were explicitly laid out). The story deals with a robot that needs to get a rare element on Mercury’s surface in order to repair the life support system for a mining base where two scientists are. However, rather than harvesting the element as it was asked, the robot is found to be running around the pool in a massive circle. The scientists realize that the rare element is dangerous to the robot, which conflicts with the Third Law (self-preservation). Generally, this would be trumped by the Second Law (obey human orders), but in this case, one of the scientists casually issued the order without a sense of urgency. The whole story thus revolves around a dilemma within Asimov’s rules: if the robot harvests the element, it conflicts with the Third Law, but if it doesn’t harvest the element, that conflicts with the Second Law. The ambiguity within the rules Asimov has laid out becomes the basis for the entire story, rather than the story being haphazardly adapted to arbitrary rules.

What does this have to do with movies? IMDb message boards, or more specifically, Outlandish Film Interpretations.

A lot of films have ambiguous elements within them. These elements are then discussed on message boards across the world with various voices explaining what they mean. Sometimes the interpretations are credible, and help reveal a subtle theme from the film that you didn’t realize. Other times (well, most of the time) these interpretations are outlandish and ridiculous. I remember reading an interpretation about Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige where someone argued that Christian Bale’s character was just a figment of Hugh Jackman’s character’s imagination. What?

The problem with these Outlandish Film Interpretations is that they don’t follow the rules that the film has set out for them. In The Prestige, the two characters compete with one another to become the greatest magician in the world. They both have romantic love interests, and the characters put on magic shows that generate large audiences. Where can you explain that Christian Bale’s character is imaginary within the confines of the film? The short answer is: you can’t. You have to go outside the boundaries (and rules) of the film to make this argument credible – i.e. the “It was all a dream” explanation and therefore the rules of the film are not legitimate. This explanation can work in some cases (David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive…still one of my least favorite film experiences). But why not interpret a film based on the rules within it?

Asimov’s short stories outline the numerous ways a few simple rules can be interpreted and creatively reworked for an almost limitless supply of explanations (or discussions). So why throw out the rule book when you can work with it? Here’s the rule to avoid an Outlandish Film Interpretation: Everything you see onscreen is not a lie, unless explicitly indicated otherwise. This avoids the confusion of labeling the Lord of the Rings character Gimli a metaphor for labour rising up against the technological aggression of the industrial revolution (Sauron’s forces). He’s not. Gimli is a dwarf, Sauron’s forces are evil gremlins, goblins, and other creatures that go bump in the night. This first rule also helps with a film like The Usual Suspects, which does explicitly indicate that some of what we see onscreen is a lie – this can be interpreted within the world of the film (i.e. how much is bullshit and how much of the story has truth to it). Follow this, and the discussions based around the film seem much more interesting, rather than outlandish.

This rant was written because I’m tired of seeing people arguing that characters only exist as figments of other characters imaginations. The damning legacy of Fight Club continues to haunt our viewings of films (though it did explicitly state that a character was imaginary, and therefore adheres to the rule of a Decent Film Interpretation).


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