Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Action Adventure and Narrative Structure

Action Adventure films – conventions of narrative structure

Narrative – important factor in the universal appeal of the genre.

Recognisable structure, following Todorov’s theory:

· Equilibrium – a sense of normality – the calm before the storm, if you like

· Disruption – something/someone is introduced and the story changes

· Restoration – normality (or some version of it – it may be a new sense of equilibrium rather than a return to the first) is restored.

Look at Superman Returns (2006):

· Equilibrium – an introduction to Superman growing up; he saves people (though Lois Lane on a plane could be seen as a mini disruption)

· Disruption – Lex Luthor plans to take over the world; he meets Superman and it looks like he will triumph

· Restoration – Superman wins; Luthor is destroyed; Lois is safe; the little boy turns out to be Lois and Clark’s baby.

It doesn’t always have to be as straightforward as this; sometimes, to grab your attention, the story might start with action.

For example, the opening of The Mummy (1999) starts with an equilibrium of sorts but finishes with disruption that will set up the main storyline:

· Equilibrium: In Egypt, circa 1290 BC, high priest Imhotep engages in an affair with Anck-su-Namun, the mistress of Pharaoh Seti I—other men are forbidden to touch her.

· Disruption: When the Pharaoh discovers their tryst, Imhotep and Anck-su-Namun murder the monarch. Anck-su-Namun then kills herself, intending for Imhotep to resurrect her. He breaks into her crypt and steals her corpse and flees to Hamunaptra, the city of the dead, where they begin the resurrection ceremony. However, they are caught by Seti's guards and Anck-su-Namun's soul is sent back to the Underworld. Imhotep has his tongue is cut out, and he is buried alive with a swarm of flesh-eating scarabs. The ritual grants eternal life, forcing him to endure the agony of his wounds for all time. He is buried in a sarcophagus and kept under strict surveillance by the Medjai, descendants of Seti's palace guards. If Imhotep were ever to be released, the powers that made him immortal would allow him to unleash a wave of destruction and death upon the Earth.

Notice - no return to equilibrium yet!

· Equilibrium and almost immediate disruption: In 1923, Cairo librarian and aspiring Egyptologist Evelyn Carnahan is presented with an intricate box and map by her bumbling brother Jonathan, who says he found it in Thebes. After the pair discover the map leads to Hamunaptra, Jonathan reveals he actually stole it from an American named Rick O'Connell, who is currently in prison. Rick tells them that he knows the location of the city because his unit of the French Foreign Legion reached the fabled city, only to be overrun by hostile Beduins. He makes a deal with Evelyn to reveal the location of Hamunaptra, in exchange for Evelyn saving Rick from being hanged.
· A new equilibrium followed by more disruption: Rick leads Evelyn and Jonathan's small expedition to the city, where the group encounters a band of American treasure hunters led by the famed Egyptologist Dr. Allen Chamberlain and guided by Beni Gabor, a cowardly former Legion soldier and former comrade of Rick, who had hidden himself in Hamunaptra during the Beduines' attack. Shortly after reaching Hamunaptra, both groups are attacked by the Medjai, led by a warrior named Ardeth Bay. Bay warns them of the evil buried in the city, but rather than heed his warning, the two expeditions continue to excavate in separate portions of the city. Evelyn is looking for the Book of Amun-Ra, a solid gold book supposedly capable of taking life away, but unexpectedly comes across the remains of Imhotep instead. The team of Americans, meanwhile, discover a box containing the black Book of the Dead, accompanied by canopic jars carrying Anck-su-Namun's preserved organs; each of the Americans takes a jar as loot. At night, Evelyn takes the Book of the Dead from the Americans' tent and reads a page aloud, accidentally awakening Imhotep. Although both groups return to Cairo, the mummy hunts down the Americans who opened the box, slowly regenerating with each person he kills. Beni survives a meeting with Imhotep by pledging allegiance to him and helps him track down the Americans and the canopic jars in Cairo. Evelyn hypothesises that if the Book of the Dead brought Imhotep back to life, the Book of Amun-Ra can kill the high priest once again.
· Further disruption and restoation: Imhotep captures Evelyn, intending to sacrifice her to resurrect Anck-su-Namun, and returns to Hamunaptra, pursued by Rick and Jonathan. Evelyn is rescued after an intense battle with Imhotep's mummies, and she reads from the Book of Amun-Ra. Imhotep becomes mortal, and Rick stabs him. Rapidly decaying, Imhotep leaves the world of the living, vowing revenge. Beni accidentally sets off an ancient booby trap and is trapped by a swarm of flesh-eating scarabs as Hamunaptra begins to collapse into the sand. The heroes escape and ride off into the sunset on a pair of camels laden with treasure.

Furthermore, if we consider the scene we studied, it contains

· Equilibrium – Rick, Jonathan and Bey meet Winston and have tea in the desert.
· Disruption – Imhotep tries to stop them by conjuring up a sandstorm.
· Equilibrium (of sorts) – Evelyn kisses Imhotep and saves the lives of the others, except for Winston, who is buried with his plane in the quicksand – and now they have to start their recue attempt again.

This creation of minor disruption and equilibrium and so on is quite common within the whole narrative of the film and helpsd build suspence through a series of cliffhangers, as the main character is put in danger.

Look at the beginning of Terminator 2 (1990), for example.

· Equilibrium: It’s night time outside a diner
· Disruption: T1000 (Schwarzenegger) arrives on earth and is attacked by several bikers when he asks for clothes and a bike
· Restoration: Equipped with clothing, bike, gun and – to show he’s cool – sunglasses – he rides off

But of course, this is only the start, but it establishes the character is not a killer, has a sense of humour and is strong enough to overcome seemingly impossible odds.

The next disruption occurs with the arrival of the new terminator, the T2, who can turn to liquid metal and seems indestructible.

As a final example, think of the opening of another film we studied, Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981).

· Equilibrium: Indiana Jones and two assistants are searching for a Peruvian idol in the jungles of South America.

· Disruption: One of his men betrays him and leaves him and Indy gets caught in a booby-trapped temple.

· Restoration: He shows his resourcefulness, athleticism, skill with a whip and courage, but he has to surrender the idol to the Nazi before escaping on board an awaiting seaplane – which, of course, is the new equilibrium that sets up the rest of the story.

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