A story’s atmosphere is its general feel, and when the atmosphere gets muddled, it can seem like you’re suddenly reading or watching an entirely different story. While a lot of factors contribute to atmosphere, two of the most important are theme and tone. When a story has clashing themes, it might have one type of magic for each of the four elements and then a fifth type based on time-traveling future tech. When tone is inconsistent, it might mean a surprise gore explosion in your light and fluffy children’s story.
Conflicted atmosphere can ruin a great story and also ruin your kid’s movie night as they ask you what the heck just happened to Mr. Fluffykins. Unfortunately, a lot of stories end up with this problem, either through production goofs or because the writer just couldn’t help themself. Let’s look at a few of the most egregious examples!
In this dramatic space opera cartoon, our brave heroes must stand up to an evil empire. Most of the battles take place either in space or in the air, and the bad guys have exactly the kind of equipment you’d expect: powerful capital ships and agile fighters. They’re very pointy, as befits an evil spaceship, and for some reason they’re fond of the color purple. They’ve got lasers and missiles and shields, oh my. In other words, as close as you can get to a “standard” space opera ship.
Which is why it’s so weird that the good guys fly color-coded lions. More specifically, they fly spaceships which just happen to look like lions. Outside of occasional ground engagements, these vehicles seem to operate just like conventional spacecraft, which looks very awkward. Most space opera craft vaguely resemble planes or rockets, so it’s easy to watch them perform high-energy combat maneuvers, even if those maneuvers don’t really match up with the laws of physics. But watching a giant lion do a loop de loop just looks silly. It wasn’t designed for that!
More importantly, the lions look so different from every vessel they encounter that it’s distracting, like Star Wars having a crossover with Zoids. If animal shapes were an effective design for spacecraft, it seems like more people would do it. Granted, part of Voltron’s premise is that the lions were built a really long time ago, so maybe everyone built animal ships back then? That doesn’t hold up though; if technology has changed in the last several centuries, then the lions should be hopelessly outclassed by the bad guy’s modern weaponry. The premise only works if we assume this is one of those space opera settings where technology never advances, no matter how long you wait.
For an additional wrinkle, the five lions can also link up and form a single, humanoid spacecraft, the titular Voltron. This is already pretty questionable, as it’s not clear what advantage this gives them. Voltron’s sword is pretty strong, but is it strong enough to outweigh having five independent ships in the fight? And if it is, why isn’t forming Voltron their default? These questions are a lot harder to ignore when no one else in the setting uses similar technology. The closest we get is when the bad guys send out some Voltron-sized monsters. Incidentally, those also tend to be the best fights.
Of course, the real reason that our heroes fly color-coded lion ships that link together into a giant humanoid robot/spaceship is that’s what they did in the original Voltron property. An adaptation can’t change the core premise even if it wants to. However, if the villains had ships with similar theming, the atmosphere would be more consistent and the inherently unrealistic conceits would be a lot easier to accept.
2. The Hobbit
It’s pretty well accepted by now that the Hobbit films are a poor follow-up to Lord of the Rings, and there are a lot of reasons why. The most commonly cited issue is all the padding: scene after scene that has nothing to do with our heroes’ quest for the Lonely Mountain, but is necessary to stretch the story into three films. To quote a wise hobbit, it’s like butter scraped over too much bread.
But what if I told you that a contradictory tone was also largely responsible for these films’ less-than-stellar performance? The Hobbit book is a lighthearted children’s story, with many scenes that are either humorous or outright silly. That’s why it has so many interchangeable dwarves with funny names like Oin and Gloin. It’s why we accept that Bilbo, a hobbit with no useful skills, is going on an adventure to the Lonely Mountain. Gandalf said he should, and the general atmosphere is light enough for that to be acceptable.
The Lord of the Rings films are not like that, not even a little. Everything is very serious, which makes sense, as the very fate of the world is at stake. So the Hobbit films had an obvious choice before them, right? Keep the book’s light tone, or follow the previous films example and make it serious. Or, and hear me out: What if they tried to do both?
That’s apparently what happened because these films can’t decide if they’re supposed to be funny. Most of the dwarves are impossible to tell apart, and essentially serve as interchangeable comic relief. The only exceptions are Thorin, who looks like Aragorn, and Kili, who’s a hot love triangle dwarf. The dwarves are introduced as they make a total mess of Bilbo’s house, something that only works if you read it as humorous. Not too long afterward, we have Thorin epicly charging at his orc nemesis while the Ring Wraith music plays in the background.
This clashing dynamic continues across all three films. In some scenes, Thorin will brood about the serious nature of their quest, while in others, the dwarves bounce around in barrels like they’re made of rubber. The Battle of Five Armies is a somber and serious affair, but not long before, our heroes were trying to defeat Smaug by running around the mountain like “Yakety Sax” was playing in the background.
The lack of a consistent tone even contributes to how uninteresting most of the dwarves are. These are serious movies, so a number of side characters like Thranduil and Tauriel get significant deep and emotional moments. But they’re also comedy movies, so it’s okay that Ori, Dori, and Nori have nothing to do other than share similar names.
A while back, I wrote about the clashing messages of Tim Burton’s 2010 Alice in Wonderland film. I’m still not sure how they thought it would be empowering for Alice to spend her entire trip through Wonderland doing what everyone else tells her to do, but there we are. And as luck would have it, the messages aren’t the only thing that clashes in this movie.
Lewis Carroll’s two Wonderland novels, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, are surrealist kaleidoscopes with very little in the way of plot or character development. Strange things just happen, often at random, or possibly in a way that you need 1860s context to understand. Sometimes it’s all based on a weird pun or Carroll wanting to vent his frustration about political caucuses.
As you can imagine, it’s difficult to create a functioning plot while keeping the chaotic strangeness of Wonderland. With proper care and attention it’s probably possible, but this film didn’t get proper care and attention. That’s because it was released in a post–Lord of the Rings world, when anything remotely fantasy-ish had to look as much like Peter Jackson’s trilogy as possible.
This is similar to what happened in the Hobbit films, only way worse. Lord of the Rings is an epic tale of adventure and consistent lore, where rational people do rational things for rational reasons. None of this fits with Wonderland even a little. At least The Hobbit was also an adventure story.
About the best outcome we could hope for from such a mismatch is a Lord of the Rings story where everything has Wonderland-inspired names, but no, the film tries to do both at the same time. In some scenes, we encounter wacky strangeness like three weirdos having tea in the middle of nowhere, armies lining up on a giant chess board, and a White Queen who acts like she’s gotten ahold of the good drugs.
In other scenes, we have serious high fantasy business. Alice rides a cat-monster across a blasted landscape while epic music plays in the background. The final battle is a high-octane sword fight against an evil dragon. There’s even an overly specific prophecy that lays out exactly what’s going to happen, which feels especially out of place in a land as unpredictable as Wonderland. Also, everyone has high fantasy names like Bayard, Tarrant Hightopp, and Iracebeth of Crims. Places have names like Marmoreal. If I went somewhere with a name like that and didn’t meet a troop of elves, I’d be very disappointed.
The opposing aesthetics make the film hard to enjoy. The serious scenes feel trivial and unimportant, whereas the surreal scenes are obnoxious and keep us from getting to the parts that are supposed to matter. We can’t care about anything, but neither can we enjoy the weirdness because it keeps getting interrupted by an epic quest.
Netflix’s Shadow and Bone series is, at least in theory, an adaptation of Leigh Bardugo’s Shadow and Bone novel trilogy. I qualified that statement because it also appears to be an adaptation of Six of Crows, another of Bardugo’s novels that takes place in the same setting but is a completely different story. That’s not too surprising, considering that while Shadow and Bone may have come first, Six of Crows has exploded in popularity and is probably a big part of why this show got made in the first place. Unfortunately, this dual adaptation comes with a few problems.
Most immediately, the show simply doesn’t have time for both. Each book gives us its own set of characters, and they have very little to do with each other. From Shadow and Bone, we get a plot about Alina Starkov discovering she has a special type of sun magic that’s essential for defeating a great evil. From Six of Crows, we get Kaz Brekker and his elite team of super criminals who are hired to kidnap Alina. That might sound like two groups involved in the same story, but the first five episodes have them completely split. Alina goes through her journey of trying to fit in at magic school, while Kaz and crew have various side adventures on their way to reach her.*
The lack of time really shows in Alina’s storyline. Everything about her stay in magic school is rushed. She has no time to make friends, so two random NPCs attach themselves to her and declare they’re her friends now. There’s no time to learn about the world organically, so a creepy Rasputin look-alike shows up to exposit about it instead. There isn’t even time for learning magic, so most of that takes place either offscreen or in a single montage.
That’s certainly bad, but perhaps worse is the genre clash. Alina’s story is a fairly standard fantasy adventure, with characters who sport at least semi-plausible levels of skill and often struggle to overcome challenges. Six of Crows, on the other hand, is a heist story along the lines of Ocean’s Eleven. Every character is a god at their chosen skill, and they accomplish every task with ease. Even in their own book, Kaz and his team have too much candy, but it’s thrown into stark relief when they share space with Alina and her more grounded secondary characters.
For example, Alina’s main skill is being pretty good at drawing maps. After discovering her power, it takes several episodes before she can do anything useful with it. Her friend Mal struggles to defeat a single enemy soldier, and his main skill is tracking deer. In the show’s other half, Kaz is so smart he can deduce entire plans from the tiniest observation. One of his crew is so good with guns that he effortlessly fights off a swarm of demons that we’d previously seen tear through a crew of trained soldiers. The team’s resident ninja is so stealthy that when a security guard arrives, she avoids detection by constantly shifting position so she’s behind his back, no matter where he looks. Hey, Six of Crows, the Looney Tunes called and they want their move back.
It’s already difficult to invest in two completely separate storylines, and the tonal clash makes it worse. Kaz and his crew are so bizarrely skilled that it’s difficult to have any sympathy for them. Why should we care if these godlike powergamers succeed at their goal or not? It’s obvious the only thing that can stop them is authorial intervention. Indeed, that’s just what happens! When the Six of Crows characters finally meet up with Alina’s storyline, their skills are suddenly much closer to the realm of plausible human ability. It’s even, dare I say it, exciting to watch them outwit a group of more powerful foes. Amazing!
Until now, we’ve looked at stories that were pulled in two different directions, but the fourth Alien film is special: it’s pulled in three different directions. First, we have the Alien franchise itself, which has clearly established aesthetics by this point. These films are gritty and grounded. While not exactly realistic, the action sequences have serious weight to them, tricking your brain into thinking this is something that could really happen. Characters in these films are either disposable extras or have a small number of memorable traits. That way, we can get to know them quickly, before an alien eats their face.
Immediately clashing with the franchise’s defining tone is the style of the director, Jean-Pierre Jeunet. I’m not familiar with Jeunet’s later work, but at that point in his career, he was largely known for films that, while dark, are also highly surreal. Before Resurrection, he directed a black comedy about postapocalyptic cannibalism and then a cyberpunk film with such intense symbolism it borders on absurdist. After Resurrection, he directed a whimsical romantic comedy where the protagonist has more in common with the mythical Sidhe than her (supposedly) fellow humans.
The third source of atmosphere is the script, written by Joss Whedon, which feels like an alpha test for Firefly. It features a crew of quirky space criminals who fly their ship from job to job, barely scraping by, of course. The biggest difference between these folks and Serenity’s crew is that the former is way more evil, starting the story by delivering a shipment of kidnapped people to a shady military station. Yikes. Despite that, the film still spends a lot of time developing these characters and their interpersonal relationships. That takes up about the first 30 minutes or so while we wait for the xenomorphs to break containment.
When these three aesthetics come together, it leads to a truly bizarre film that feels like it shouldn’t have been made. At first, it’s all in the background. In an otherwise ominous shot of a sealed station door, the two guards on either side are both chewing gum in a nearly synchronized pattern. Later, when two characters are having a serious conversation about ethics, the volume of their chewing is boosted. These small directorial choices make it harder to invest in the spooky Alien part of the film. Later on, Jeunet’s choices get a lot more obvious. We spend a surprisingly long time watching a scientist try to match a xenomorph’s facial expressions through glass, and when the action finally starts, a soldier slides his grenade down a long hallway and into a narrow hatch like he was scoring a strike at bowling night.
It’s easy to see how the wacky direction clashes with the Alien franchise’s traditional diet of gritty action, but the script’s problems are more subtle. Unlike previous films in the series, Resurrection wants its characters to have depth. Some of them are dating, while others have long-running personality clashes. You could explore all that in a TV series,* but a single film struggles for time with such a large cast. Even though each space criminal has a unique look, they’re much harder to remember than the marines from Aliens who all wore matching uniforms. It doesn’t feel like we really know any of these characters, even though the film spends a surprisingly long time focused on their personal lives.
By the time you reach the fourth film in a series, it’s understandable that you’d want to try something new. I’m guessing that’s what happened with Resurrection, both with the unusual script and bringing on a director whose previous work was clearly not in Alien’s aesthetics. Unfortunately, the result is a film at war with itself on three sides.
In a story with a robust atmosphere, every element fits together to create a whole that is more than the sum of its parts. Muddled atmosphere doesn’t do that, and if the clashing is bad enough, you can easily get a story that is less than the sum of its parts. Not only is that disappointing for the audience, but it’s a waste of all the hard work that went into creating the story in the first place. Don’t let that happen to you; always keep your atmosphere consistent!
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