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Science Fiction & Fantasy Farscape, Babylon 5, Star Wars, Firefly, vampires, genre books and film.

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Old March 29 2013, 05:57 PM   #1
Flying Spaghetti Monster
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Reading (or exposition dumping) in science fiction films

I was wondering what you all thought of this trend, used in a lot of non-superhero or space opera science fiction films. It's not new at all.

The trend I refer to is when right when the film opens the filmmakers dump the necessary exposition on us, and we don't learn these important bits organically. Sometimes the stuff is written on the screen and sometimes, a brief narration is given.

In general I'm against it. I'm a writer and I like ti when we can learn about a new world organically. There are always exceptions.

First I don't think Star Wars counts. It was very much like a serial rather an an exposition dump.. we learn what happened to set up a current episode but we are not given exposition that would explain to the viewer what makes this world different from our own, but we still come in at the at the beginning of the story to be told rather than in media res as in Star Wars. Star Wars actually has the assumption that we already know the world, even the first film in 1977, and that was a very effective way of drawing us into the universe.


I'm talking about the opening texts of films like Hunger Games or the Last Airbender, where they just tell us exactly what the world is from a "premise" perspective. I always thought In Time was underrated in sci fi circles, but the one problem I had was that the first minute was an exposition dump of how time is money. I think that a good screen writer can explain this kind fo thing organically.

I don't mind it when an exposition dump seems more like a bit tactical background information, as in Escape from New York, but I still don't think it was wholly necessary. I do like it in I, Robot, because they really give any story or setting exposition in the exposition cars, they simply tell us what the Three Laws of Robotics are, but we still are looking at the scenes themselves for the context of how they would fit in the story (plus the laws are discussed verbally later in the film's first act).

Fellowship's narrated prologue works amazingly well, to show us that, not only does this complex story that we're about to watch fir into an even larger mosaic, but it was oh, so poetically done. The narration about Erebor in the Hobbit, on the other hand, was the worst thing about that film.

Thoughts?

Why is that films that have intriguing science fiction or fantasy need to ge their intriguing premises away right off the bat?

The first two X-Men films had a bit of narration to set us up, but they are effective because they are so spare, so if you are going to do an exposition dump in a modern-style sci film, that's not a bad approach. What makes X2's exposition dump work is that it almost is a tease, a criticism, and an insult at the same time ("sharing the world has never been humanity's defining attribute.")
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Old March 29 2013, 09:30 PM   #2
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Re: Reading (or exposition dumping) in science fiction films

Like you said, this is not a new thing, or even exclusive to sf films. Watch almost any old costume drama or swashbuckler, like Captain Blood or The Sea Hawk or whatever, and you'll probably end up a reading a bit of onscreen text setting the historical scene . . . .

"1202 A.D. While Richard the Lion-Hearted fights a Crusade for the Holy Land, England suffers under the oppressive rule of the evil Prince John," etc.

Done right, it spares the screenwriter from having to stick a chunk of exposition into the dialogue:

"Blast it all! Ever since good King Richard left to wage war in the Holy Lands, England has suffered under the reign of that bastard, Prince John!"

It can be a judgment call on which is the more graceful and/or quick-and-dirty way to get the exposition across.

Look at Captain Kirk and his "log entries," which serve much the same purpose!
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Old March 29 2013, 10:36 PM   #3
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Re: Reading (or exposition dumping) in science fiction films

I've always had a soft spot for the Irulan intro to Lynch's Dune. Yes, it's clunky and I know people who haven't read the books who were still their scratching heads after. But I find it quite evocative and sets tone nicely. It's a good thing Lynch cut it down though as the original extended version just goes on and on
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Old March 29 2013, 10:56 PM   #4
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Re: Reading (or exposition dumping) in science fiction films

You guys bring up good points. I think captains logs are fine. though I never much liked them in the films, but for an episode that has a more limited time as well as scope it was just fine.

I guess what I am referring to is when there is something both inherent and specific to a story that makes that story unique and would constitute the reason we are paying to see it.. and we a have to read about it or hear it at the beginning?

Like the Hunger Games where the tournament, where the tribute idea is set up so specifically, right down to the ages, though it wouldn't have taken us long to figure it out if the screenwriting had been up to the challenge. Or in In Time where they tell us how the "clock economy" works.

That's a bit different than a Captain's Log or even a general history lesson, as in LOTR or Dune.
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Old March 29 2013, 11:16 PM   #5
Greg Cox
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Re: Reading (or exposition dumping) in science fiction films

Oh, I agree that it can be done badly. Probably the worst example is Dark City, where somebody thought it was a good idea to dispel any mystery and explain the entire secret of the city in the opening narration. Almost as bad is the clunky voiceover narration in the original theatrical cut of Blade Runner.

In both cases, somebody seems to have had a failure of nerve and worried that the audience would find the film too confusing, instead of trusting them to figure things out on their own.

Like I said, it's a judgement call. I suspect a lot depends on the intent. If the idea is just to get to the good stuff quickly, without a lot of clunky expository dialogue, you can make a case for a quick-and-dirty expository lump at the beginning of the movie. Sometimes brute force is the just the best way to get the job done.

But if it's done in fear that the movie is too "confusing" for the average moviegoer, than it's likely to be heavy-handed and unnecessary.
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