When Harry missed Sally
Today I want a movie that changes every time I watch it. Not a limitless chaos of changes — I could just watch a different movie every time — but a movie with, I don’t know, an embedded decision tree at key points in the plot. Do we have the technology to do that?
[I’ve no idea. Maybe filmed with real actors who switch with convincing CGI deepfakes of themselves whenever there’s an AI-generated plot twist? Don’t ask me how to do it; I’m just the writer here.]
A movie that stays with the characters and the logic of their world, obviously. Not too different either; I am watching the movie again because I like it. But what if Darth’s big spaceship fails to catch up with Leia’s little spaceship next time you watch A New Hope? That would get your attention. There’s enough in the Star Wars universe for the story to kick off in other ways after that, surely?
Or, let’s say, the “meet-cute” goes so well next time you watch your favourite rom-com — that the couple cut straight to the final kiss. And we’re still only five minutes into the movie. You’d want to know where that was going? [Thank you. Yes. Where the relationship was going, I meant.]
First time you watch it — standard rom-com. Second time — love at first sight and two comfy hours of eating popcorn and watching them live happily ever after. Third time, they get married but start to have affairs; fourth, one of them turns out to be an international assassin with amnesia; fifth, you’re back to the rom-com but the quantum blah-blah AI thingummy is really having fun now so they both meet other potential partners half-way through the don’t-like-each-other bit.
Could we do that?
Once or twice too often now, I’ve watched a movie that sets up an attractive world, adds some atmospheric music, introduces a couple of interesting characters — and then walks them through a plot so predictable that only a celluloid cut-out would do any of that willingly. It’s very dark and creepy in here; let’s split up and walk slowly down separate creaky hallways towards half-open cellar doors from which growly noises are coming.
Maybe I’m watching the wrong rom-coms. But in any film that starts well, I want to watch these interesting characters who live in this interesting world really get to grips with their interesting issues — not suffer the textbook this-happens-next of some indifferent, half-engaged committee of nine-to-five screenwriters all working from the same standard template for what worked last time. [Breathe, breathe…]
Yes, I know about story arcs. Yes, I’ve read that book. And that one, actually. [And I’ve seen Sliding Doors, thanks.] I went from Netflix to Twitch — which is described in PC Mag’s review as “a vastly entertaining alternative to traditional streaming services like Netflix”. And yeah, okay. But that isn’t quite what I mean, either.
I want unpredictability back. I want the Hero to accept the Journey without hesitation, immediately. I want the couple to like each other from the start and then fumble through a real relationship — maybe moving into a clapped-out, cheap old fixer-upper that for once doesn’t have a demonic presence lurking in the basement.
I want not to know what’s coming. I want whatever combination of VR, AI, deep-fakery, quantum mechanics, creativity, ingenuity, et cetera, will give me a movie that I can watch more than once without fast-forwarding through the boring bits. I mean, I envy people who haven’t seen Star Wars (the first/fourth one) or The Matrix. But more than that, I want to know what happens if Neo chooses the blue pill. Does the story really end? I choose to think not — not with the Wachowskis on the case.
If the technology for this exists already, kindly bring it to a cinema near me. I also miss popcorn.
William Essex is author of Escape Mutation — A Journal of the Plague Years, in which the next mutation/variant turns out very badly, and Ten Steps to a Bedtime Story, which is subtitled How to get a lively toddler to sleep before the supper goes cold. Both are published by Climbing Tree Books; find them wherever you look for books.