This Slate review of a 2005 book on screenwriting is revealing and cleverly constructed. Peter Suderman uses the review to illuminate the way this book has infected movie plots in the last few years:
If you’ve gone to the movies recently, you may have felt a strangely familiar feeling: You’ve seen this movie before. Not this exact movie, but some of these exact story beats: the hero dressed down by his mentor in the first 15 minutes (Star Trek Into Darkness, Battleship); the villain who gets caught on purpose (The Dark Knight, The Avengers, Skyfall, Star Trek Into Darkness); the moment of hopelessness and disarray a half-hour before the movie ends (Olympus Has Fallen, Oblivion, 21 Jump Street, Fast & Furious 6).
Blake Snyder’s book Save the Cat goes beyond Robert McKee’s Story and other guides to creating screenplays. Instead of discussing general structural principles of good movies, he provides a beat-by-beat list of all the basic plot elements that must be hit, giving them names like Catalyst, Debate, Bad Guys Close In, and Dark Night of the Soul.
Even better, Suderman uses Snyder’s formula to write his article, even providing a nicely annotated version showing where the seams are. I know the next time I watch a formulaic movie (maybe I’ll catch Iron Man 3 again), I’ll be playing Spot the Formula Moment.
Yet once you know the formula, the seams begin to show. Movies all start to seem the same, and many scenes start to feel forced and arbitrary, like screenplay Mad Libs. Why does Kirk get dressed down for irresponsibility by Admiral Pike early in Star Trek Into Darkness? Because someone had to deliver the theme to the main character. Why does Gina Carano’s sidekick character defect to the villain’s team for no reason whatsoever almost exactly three-quarters of the way through Fast & Furious 6? Because it’s the all-is-lost moment, so everything needs to be in shambles for the heroes. Why does Gerard Butler’s character in Olympus Has Fallen suddenly call his wife after a climactic failed White House assault three-quarters of the way through? Because the second act always ends with a quiet moment of reflection—the dark night of the soul.