Death to Overly Expository Opening Voiceover Narration

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by Matt Singer
June 4, 2013 9:41 AM
9 Comments
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"Oblivion."
Film criticism isn't about telling directors how to do their job; it's about telling audiences how directors did their job. Generally, critics are here to provide analysis, not advice. But once in a while, a film critic gets so fed up by a trope that is so obviously wrong -- not just for one movie, or a couple movies, but for all movies -- that it just drives them crazy until they write a piece like this one. 

And so I say today, loudly unto the entire Internet: death to overly expository opening voiceover narration. 

The execution is scheduled now because of two movies in current wide release: "Oblivion" and "After Earth." These post-apocalyptic sci-fi tales about small groups of people stranded on abandoned, destroyed earths are, in spite of their premises, fairly different films. "Oblivion," from Joseph Kosinski, is a plot-heavy mind-bender with lots of shocks and twists and reversals, and a real showpiece for some very impressive and very beautiful images of an Earth that has been destroyed by a war with an invading alien race. "After Earth," from M. Night Shyamalan, is a much more intimate character study of a young man (Jaden Smith) who is forced into action to save himself and his father after their spaceship crashes on an Earth that has evolved into a more hostile, more dangerous, more forest-moon-of-Endor-type place. 

But in spite of their different storytelling goals and different paths through their environmentally ravaged worlds, they both start with the exact same thing: protagonists explaining, at length in hushed tones, each film's complete backstory. In "Oblivion," Cruise's Jack Harper rambles on about the "Scavs" -- the alien menace that destroyed the Earth's moon and most of the planet in their war with humanity -- and "the Tet" -- the spaceship hovering in orbit over Earth waiting to take the survivors to a new human colony on Titan -- and his partner Vic (Andrea Riseborough), and their job as a clean-up crew  and hydroelectric generators that are powering the Titan colony, and the two weeks left on their five year tour working drone maintenance, and the fact that they both had their mind wipes five years earlier at the start of that five year tour. In "After Earth" Smith's Kitai Raige describes the origins of his own ruined earth, this one a victim of environmental devastation, and how these survivors formed their own colony in outer space (theirs is on a planet called Nova Prime), and engaged in their own war with extraterrestrials, and nearly lost to their own creepy creatures called ursas, who can see by smelling human fear pheromones, and the fact that his father Cypher (Will Smith) is a great general, known for his ability to "ghost" -- or to control his pheromones so that he remains invisible to the ursas, and how Kitai is training to be a ranger like his father, and also are you getting the picture that these things are unbelievably long and excessive?

You could argue that the audience needs this information; that thrust into these strange, chaotic worlds unmoored from the familiar trappings of home, viewers want to get comfortable in their new surroundings as quickly as possible. But as I watched both of these movies I wondered: what would they look like with the voiceover completely removed? Would you really be that lost without them? And even if you were, would that be such a bad thing?

True, there is a history of science-fiction movies opening with a blast of exposition. "Star Wars" didn't even bother with a narrator; it just threw the details right onscreen in a slow-moving text crawl. But even there, the details were limited to the absolute minimum required: Rebels versus the Empire, the plans for a weapon called the Death Star, Princess Leia racing to get them to the Alliance. That's it. No mention of Luke Skywalker or Darth Vader or Han Solo, or who built the Death Star. If "Star Wars" was made in the style of "After Earth" and other overly expository opening voiceover narration movies, it would have to begin with Mark Hamill explaining the entire plot of all three prequels: the history of the Republic, the rise of the Empire, and the fall of the Jedis. He'd probably have to spoil Darth Vader's identity, too.

What's the fun in that? The fun, in "Star Wars" and in most science-fiction -- or any fiction, really -- is in the slow discovery of the details of its fantastical world. I can envision a version of "Oblivion" where we don't know initially what happened to Earth, and we have no clue who destroyed it and why, or what Jack and Vic are doing, and we only eventually realize that Jack's memory has been erased. I'd have to watch the movie a second time to know for sure, but I would imagine most of the crucial details are revealed organically in Jack and Vic's dialogue anyway; certainly there is a later scene between the two of them and a third character where he repeats almost all of the information from his overly expository opening voiceover narration verbatim, with one or two minor differences. It renders the already obvious voiceover even more redundant and vestigial. 

As superfluous as the voiceover in "Oblivion" is, the one in "After Earth" might be even worse, since the movie isn't even really about the end of Earth, or the colony on Nova Prime, or the aliens and their fear-smelling kill beasts. This is a two-person character study about a father and a son in extreme conditions. The movie could open with Jaden's Kitai failing his ranger exam -- or with Cypher and Kitai's ship already crashed on Earth and the pair the only survivors. The details of their future's history could come out naturally in hints and asides in conversation and the whole "Do you know where we are? This is Earth," thing could actually be a bit of a surprise. And as an added bonus, you wouldn't have to hear quite so much of Jaden Smith struggling his way through that bizarre future accent Shyamalan gave him (he's from the Alabama portion of Nova Prime, apparently). 

Bad delivery and pointless material equals a really poor way to start a film. And that's really what this is all about; setting a tone. When a movie opens with a character simply telling you what's already happened in this story, it not only destroys any sense of mystery, it immediately alerts you to the fact that what follows will leave nothing to chance or interpretation. It's storytelling a la "The Outer Limits" -- for the next hour, sit quietly and they will control all that you see and hear. Do not use your brain. You will not need it. There is nothing wrong with your movie screen; this motion picture really is that dumb.

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9 Comments

  • joe r | August 23, 2013 4:14 AMReply

    I recently watched oblivion and noticed this immediately. I turned the sound off, and though i enjoyed the visuals much more, the music is key. I would love to see a cut of this movie without that narration.

    Also for some reason i just couldn't buy into tom cruise's character, not sure why, but i guess that's a whole other issue!

  • Scott Nye | June 4, 2013 3:51 PMReply

    Hope your exclusion of the absolute worst offender from this year means that you were spared seeing UPSIDE DOWN.

  • FromWayDowntown | June 4, 2013 12:38 PMReply

    Word, Mr. Singer! Word!

  • Peter Harry | June 4, 2013 10:46 AMReply

    There is at least one case where you can compare the with or without (opening exposition) versions of a film. Some box sets of Blade Runner, one of the best sf films of all time, contain both the original release with tacked-on voiceover by Harrison Ford and also Ridley Scott's 'Director's Cut' without voiceover (also without the completely superfluous happy ending). The latter version is the far better film and in my view reinforces the points made in the above article.

  • ska-triumph | June 4, 2013 10:43 AMReply

    This. Thank you.

    More than flashbacks, I've also become less tolerable with voiceover narration - of just about any genre - over time, and I find it inexcusable with all the hardware and VFX technology available behind and in front of the screen. What happened to "show don't tell"? Or an freakin' mise-en-scene?

    While respecting my previous commenter: if the blockbuster directors were able to provide better-placed exposition/VO in the 70s and 80s (let's not get started with the Scott vs. studio battles on BLADE RUNNER), why should today's visual specialists get any slack? Especially with original properties? Of course, this mainly seems to affect the sci-fi/action genre; even LOOPER's start-up VO arguably didn't clarify the illegal time-travelling premise while showing JGL's Joe efficiently, violently at work.

    It takes a finely-tuned story/script matched with the right pedigree of director and cast to make ongoing expository VO work (e.g. Scorcese and Allen get away with murder in their best films). Unless there's some real hard-earned work in world-building, the type that THE MATRIX or INCEPTION (or, damn, any of Spielberg's genre pieces) strives for, this will keep happening. It's no coincidence that many enthusiasts found OBLIVION and AFTER EARTH weak in this regard and, therefore, "obliged" to have all that VO at the start.

  • ska-triumph | June 4, 2013 3:26 PM

    Something hit me about this... the two the author write about above are original properties that feature at the most 3/4 roles that have any stakes in the film. I wonder if the limitation of physical perspectives, via the plot structures, in these stories retroactively forced the filmmakers to add more exposition than needed?

    Just a thought, since (1) a version of the Kosinki's OBLIVION script had some of the same voiceover with different ("cleaner") visuals, and (2) for me, the "better" films, stucturally had protagonist(s) enco exposition through discovery, as the author wrote (via an alien encounter that likely involved tension/suspense/action).

  • Teal Greyhavens | June 4, 2013 10:02 AMReply

    This is only one of several reasons why I marked "Children of Men" as one of the best films of its decade. Zero exposition in a high-concept, futuristic, sci-fi film, let alone voice-over. To the point where I think some people were turned off by not really getting enough info about the context for the central story. I thought it was brilliant, just as you're describing a voice-over-less "Oblivion" might have been. Who was the great screenwriter who first said, "trust your audience"? We are smart, and we will figure it out. Studio heads who order such voice-over, go back into your coffins please.

  • ska-triumph | June 4, 2013 3:15 PM

    And this, thank you.
    How did I forget to add CHILDREN OF MEN in my earlier babble?
    This was made by a committed and top-notch filmmaker and cast (GRAVITY can't come soon enough). And I believe it's an adaptation.

  • Maxwell Haddad | June 4, 2013 9:53 AMReply

    Your points are very well taken and I agree with all of them. Unfortunately, I don't think the studios agree at all. It constantly seems as if the studios operate under the adviso of making films as palatable and easy to understand as possible for mass audiences. There are exceptions, of course, but elements like these (that can be so easily shoved into the film after production has taken place) stink of studio tinkering. I doubt this is something we will see fixed anytime soon, and I doubt (in many cases) that the filmmaker/screenwriter is completely to blame for these voice overs. Unless the voice over extends throughout the majority of the film and is used more as observation and commentary than exposition, which can work.

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