Part of the joy of playing Mortal Kombat over other fighting games is knowing that I don’t just beat a character, I KILL HIM. It’s kind of silly to have all sorts of supernatural powers in fighters when my opponent merely falls over at the end of a match, instead of dying horribly as some offscreen voice calls out FATALITY! But hey, it’s even worse in horror movies. I’ve watched a number of flicks the last few weeks where the main characters are proud graduates of the Wile E. Coyote School of Protagonists.
WORLD WAR Z got me started on this train of thought months ago. I remember starting it up on Netflix, saying to myself, “There’s no way Gerry is going to die, because he’s played by Brad Pitt.” And I was right. Because of this, the movie plays on rails, from one city to the next from the time Gerry and his family are separated until they reunite just in time for end credits. It’s what Gerry survives in the film that, upon further reflection, eventually caused this article. Finding the keys to an RV with a clear path out of the city was only the beginning to this ridiculousness. A car crash here, outrunning lightning-fast zombies there, climbing a ladder to board a plane that stops mid-takeoff to pick him up. Not just unlikely or improbable that he’d survive all this, but utterly, insanely preposterous.
But the worst wasn’t over for Gerry. After he and the other passengers fight an onboard zombie attack that’s more reminiscent of FLIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD than Max Brooks’ novel, the plane crashes and a piece of steel impales Gerry through the gut. Either one of these should have killed Gerry. Both certainly would have sent him to the grave. But not in this flick. Because this is a big money summer release, where audiences would hoot and holler on message boards if the handsome, family man/ scientist hero didn’t get safely back to his family. And yeah, he’s played by Brad Pitt.
Three years ago, I wrote a You Suck! piece named “The Cheap Life Cheapens Death Edition.” In it, I discussed how too many horror flicks don’t develop their characters beyond the depth of tissue paper. Because their lives have cheap meaning, so do their deaths. The Wile E. Coyote School is a sin from the opposite side of the same coin. Characters such as Gerry have elastic lives. You can stretch them right to, and often well beyond, the point where their bodies should snap and their souls fly free, but somehow they always revert to a safe state and survive. This negates any thrills for me, because I know that no peril to the character is peril at all. Part of the joy in watching a horror flick is having an unbalance world in which anybody can die. But when you light a stick of TNT in Wile. E’s hands and drop him off a cliff, and he comes back from every abuse you can ever pile on him, is there ever any suspense?
Of course WORLD WAR Z isn’t the only flick with leads who are from the Coyote School. I can name countless others. We only need look as far as JURASSIC PARK to see just how far Steven Spielberg has swayed toward characters educated there.
A long time ago, on an ocean far, far away, Spielberg made JAWS, the film that put him on the map. In JAWS, nobody is safe and one of the main characters doesn’t make it out alive til the end credits. That’s a product of his own doing, but we’ve invested in him by this point, and so this is a daring move. Flash forward 18 years to JURASSIC PARK, in which the dinosaurs only eat tertiary characters. While a T-Rex knocks over Dr. Ian Malcolm, he’s on the safe list because he’s played by Jeff Goldblum. But the lawyer, whose only offense is being a lawyer (okay, insert joke here) gets eaten in the bathroom, thus suffering only death and disgrace reserved for a character actor. A trained hunter with a huge rifle becomes food for raptors whose behavior he’s studied, but two little kids outsmart the raptors with their own reflections and survive. Even John Hammond, who is directly responsible for all these deaths, ends up unscathed as the credits roll. Whereas his death by dino would have been a comeuppance for all the havoc he’s caused, he’s played by a knighted Sir Richard Attenborough, who once played Santa Claus.
The two flicks that really raised my ire and inspired this post, though, were the remakes of KING KONG and GODZILLA. Ann Darrow gets swung around so violently as Kong carries her and eventually fights for her that she’s definitely dying from a broken back and a broken neck. Jack Driscoll is never surviving a character who shoots a machine gun at all the giant bugs attacking him, picking off all the bugs but never scratching Jack. Carl Denham is getting flattened during a brontosaur stampede. And no, there is no way in hottest Hell that 1930s starving vaudeville actress Ann is outrunning an apex predator that’s 25 feet tall.
Nor, by the way, is that kid from KICK-ASS literally going face-to-face with a MUTO and Godzilla and living on. Giant monsters don’t get their snouts within three feet of a human and then move along, except if they’re in the top three billing apparently. People outrun tidal waves, survive monster battle royales that destroy entire cities, and get the bus off a gridlocked Golden Gate Bridge, because a bunch of first graders were on it. Hollywood might say, “But you can’t kill first graders in a blockbuster!” To which I reply, “Then don’t put them on a bridge within fire breathing distance of freaking Godzilla!”
There used to be a day when no character was safe in monster flicks and horror films. Just ask Marion Crane from PSYCHO, or Ben from NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. But Hollywood is a lot less daring now. Whereas the KICKASS kid should have known his character was safe in GODZILLA because it was a Warner Bros. film, the Wile E. Coyote School of Protagonists spans all studios. So until Elmer Fudd pulls the trigger and, instead of his beak just spinning around, Daffy Duck’s head blows off in a spray of blood and black feathers, IT’S OFFICIAL! YOU SUCK!