Have you ever heard the expression that some things are better left to the imagination? I was watching Chinatown today. If you haven't seen it, it's a movie about water rights in 1930's L.A. that's way more interesting than it has any right to be. One scene in particular caught my interest. Jake, the P.I. who is the main protagonist of the story, is talking about why he is no longer a police officer. He says there was an incident where he tried everything he could to protect someone, and instead ended up getting them killed. This is a bit of foreshadowing for the movie, but also a scene that I think makes Jake much more interesting.
Now I know there were many people who saw this and thought the movie should have given more details about what happened. But the thing is, the scene as played probably stuck with them more than if the whole incident had been given a blow by blow description. There is something about being teased with just a little information, with the implication that there is a lot more to the story just under the surface.
Movies these days tend to give as much back story as possible. There are prequels to tell how the characters in your favorite movies got to be who they are. Everything is spelled out for you. The thing is, most of the time the explanations given by the movies are not as good as what you imagined when you had to fill in the blanks yourself. How could they be? Your story that you fashioned is tailor made to suit your tastes. After all, you made it. Anything a writer comes up with will be unsatisfying after that.
A good example of this is Star Wars. Obi Wan's offhand mention of the Clone Wars, as though it was such a major event that everyone was familiar with the details, set off the imaginations of every kid in my generation. We all speculated what these Clone Wars were about. Were the Jedi fighting a horde of malicious clones? Where did they come from? What was being fought over? Then the prequels came along and decided to answer all our questions, some we weren't even asking. And I think I am safe in saying that the majority of fans were let down by the answers. The lame, barely comprehensible story we got did not come close to matching the mysterious grandeur we had built up in our minds. Look at the picture below and ask yourself if it's as cool as what you pictured in your head when you watched Star Wars.
Rob Zombie's Halloween remake is another example. He gave an extensive back story to Michael Myers explaining what made him go crazy and start killing people. It all made sense now. Unfortunately, the unintended side effect is that it made Michael Myers less scary. In the new movie you know exactly why he does what he does. In the original he appeared to be an average kid from an average family, and there was no reason given for what he did. It was the idea that evil could sprout up anywhere, for no reason at all and with no warning, that made that version of Michael Myers scary. There was no way to predict or prevent his spree. It was just a spontaneous outbreak of murderous violence.
One movie that gets this right is Robert Rodriguez's Planet Terror. It also does so in a really cool, playful way. The movie is filmed as an old drive in exploitation flick. There is a moment where it appears the films burns, and when it resumes it is obvious that we have missed a significant part of the movie. The characters make reference to a discovery they have made about the male lead. They never quite explain what this revelation is. The sheriff who mistrusted him says "If I had known". It allows you to speculate about who this man is and what he has done to inspire such admiration. The movie also has Rose Mcgowan sporting a machine gun leg. Seriously, if you haven't seen it go watch it now. I'll wait for you.
Quentin Tarantino knew this and one time, then seemingly forgot it. Pulp Fiction featured a briefcase with glowing contents. Everyone wanted this case. When one character was allowed to glimpse the contents, he could only gasp about how beautiful it was. So many fan theories were born about what was in that case. It was never explained. Any explanation would have been a letdown. As it stands everyone who sees the movie remembers that case and discusses what they think may be in it.
Then Tarantino released Kill Bill Vol 1. The main character is referred to as "The Bride". Whenever someone says her name it is bleeped out. You are wondering what it is about her name that needs to be kept such a secret. You wonder who she is. Then in Vol. 2 her name is revealed. It is Beatrix Kiddo. Nothing spectacular about it. Kind of a dumb name really. It is obvious that he was again building a fake mystery with the name, but this time he gave the answer with the result being that viewers were a little let down by it.
There is an episode of Justice League Unlimited that shows this principle I am talking about. The Flash and Lex Luthor have exchanged bodies. There are a lot of funny moments with the Flash pretending to be an evil supervillain. But the best moment by far is when Lex realizes that he can now see the Flash's secret identity. He goes into the rest room and looks in the mirror as he removes his mask. Then his face falls as he says "I have no idea who this is". The buildup was better than the reveal. Again, if you haven't watched Justice League Unlimited, it's on Netflix and you should watch it now.
Now obviously I am not talking about the major plot points of the movies. You have to explain what is happening in your main storyline. What I am speaking to are the little moments, the back stories, the small mysteries that add more depth by virtue of not being explained. So when Marvel fans talk about how they want to see a movie about what happened in Budapest that Hawkeye and Black Widow refer to in The Avengers, I think they would actually be happier if that movie never gets made. Of course it probably will someday. We just can't seem to let a good mystery stay.