Is it possible to fit a dystopian-revolutionary-action movie in just over 21 minutes? As I recently learned from the television series Solar Opposites, the answer is Yes (provided you cheat, just a little).
Written by Dominic Dierkes, this mini-movie inside of a tv show is a marvel of screenwriting efficiency. It establishes characters, stakes, and world, pays off arcs, and unfolds a complete plot in less time than it took The Phantom Menace to introduce Anakin Skywalker. Best of all, we can examine some of the tricks and shortcuts Dierkes used to accomplish this feat to better understand the tropes of this style of movie-making, and what we, as the audience, expect to see in these types of films.
To set the scene: Solar Opposites is a comedic animated show about four aliens (and a pupa) that are living on Earth. The main storyline deals with their antics, but we are concerned with the B-story that runs concurrently with the first season, which focuses on The Wall.
At the start of season 1, Yumyulak, one of the younger aliens, uses hyper-advanced alien technology–what the show refers to as “sci-fi shit”–to shrink a human down to an inch tall and place him in a terrarium he has installed in the wall of his room.
Throughout the rest of the season, we periodically check in on The Wall, as Yumyulak adds more and more unfortunate souls to his collection. Reasons for shrinking vary, from a method to get out of jams, a response to being offended, or just the bad luck of being of a collectible nature–one poor sucker is shrunk simply for having a red shirt, something Yumyulak didn’t have yet.
Fed only haphazardly by the indifferent Yumyulak or by his slightly more kind-hearted sister Jesse, and then only candy, the situation among the humans inside The Wall quickly turns grim. It starts as a simple post-apocalyptic wasteland, with roving gangs of people making weapons and armor out of whatever scraps of material are at hand in order to fight and kill for food. Eventually, things settle when a tin-pot dictator called The Duke rises to power.
The Duke–always referred to, hilariously, as “The Duke,” even when directly addressed–establishes a semblance of order in The Wall, but at a terrible cost. All rule infractions appear to carry the same penalty: death.
Social stratification is extreme. The lowest levels of The Wall are for the poor, dirty working class, living in barely survivable conditions in order to sustain the luxuries of the fat cats at the highest levels. Conditions improve the higher you climb–it’s a real Snowpiercer scenario (the joke I just made will make more sense later).
Now, to get to the cheating. Not everything is contained within the 21-minute runtime of the episode itself. All of the background information I just provided above is established in short check-in vignettes peppered throughout the episodes of Solar Opposites’ first season. We can think of these as “prequel minisodes.”
Taken all together, the prequel minisodes nearly double the runtime used to tell this story. However, while they are helpful, they are not entirely necessary to understand what I will now start calling “the movie.” (Also, for what it’s worth, it is still less time than The Phantom Menace needed to introduce Anakin Skywalker.)
The movie does just enough setting its own scene to allow the audience to understand what’s going on without the prequel minisodes. However, the audience will have a much fuller, richer understanding having seen them. Without the minisodes, the characters play out much more as vague sketches and archetypes (even more than they already are), rather than established personalities, with backstory. The movie alludes to prior events and character motivations, the prequels show them.
Inserted below are the minisodes. As I said, you do not have to watch them to follow the story, but they are here if you are interested:
1. First person is shrunk
2. More people are added to The Wall
3. Tim added
4. Cherie added
5. Cherie explores The Wall
6. Riot in the market
7. The Duke shows his true colors
8. Tim makes his move
The second method of “cheating” calls back to my joke from earlier. That method I will call “meta jumping.” Take minisode five, where Cherie explores the Wall for the first time. As Tim explains the dystopian landscape to her, he describes how The Duke maintains order with an iron fist.
Tim claims this is very complicated, but Cherie simply asks, “Is he like ‘The Duke of New York’ from Escape from New York?” “It’s exactly like that,” Tim replies. The entire Wall saga is built as an amalgamation of pop-cultural references, and the fact that the characters within it are themselves pop-culture savvy enough to identify those references and call them out allows giant swaths of exposition to be glossed over, or even skipped entirely.
This style of pop culture-heavy dialogue has its origins back in the TV and films of the late-90s and early 00s, in shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and movies like Scream. At that time, characters merely displayed their cool by referencing pop culture. The evolution continued with shows like Community, created by Dan Harmon, where you can see meta-jumping starting to appear.
On Community, pop culture references weren’t just references but served as replacements for exposition, e.g. meta-jumping. Rather than spend several minutes explaining something to the pop culture nerd Abed, his friends simply tell him it’s “just like Robocop.” (Or Roboat Cop, as the case may be.)
This rests on the assumption that the audience is familiar with the reference, but that is a safe bet, and it saves precious time, all while making the writing and characters look quippy and cool.
Dan Harmon would go on to partner with Solar Opposites creator, Justin Roiland, on the show Rick and Morty, which took pop-culture referencing to a whole new level. Rick and Morty spends entire episodes self-consciously indulging in the tropes of various movie genres, be they superhero movies or heist films.
Having learned from Harmon, Roiland took these lessons to heart, and, along with Dierkes, applied them to The Wall story, using self-conscious pop culture references to simultaneously crack wise and move the plot along quickly.
Audiences don’t necessarily need exposition all of the time. By nature of our god-like, third-person perspective, we often know far more than the characters themselves. The advantage of meta-jumping is it allows screenwriters to take the scenes where in-universe characters need to be caught up to speed, and, essentially, “skip that part.” Instead of painstaking laying out for my readers how the social and economic tiers of a society are turned into literal levels, I can just meta-jump: It’s a Snowpiercer scenario.
The downside of meta-jumping is that it’s cheating. It is a shallow way to get the point across. Exposition might be a lot of work, but it is not wasted time; it is an opportunity to build characterization, expand a world, and live in a moment, and all of that gets lost when you meta-jump. However, when you’re trying to pack a movie’s worth of plot into a sitcom episode’s amount of time, the trade-off is worth it.
We have finally arrived at the episode proper, the movie itself. I put a warning above, but again, the plot is going to be spoiled here, so if you want to watch it first, do it now. The episode is available in its entirety on Hulu, and you can also watch it broken into chunks on YouTube.
The episode–season 1, episode 7, Terry and Korvo Steal a Bear–opens with Molly the Mouse, and her caretaker, Steven. Molly provides much-needed milk for people of The Wall, and that milk is critically valuable in the barter-based market, or Wall-Mart, if you will.
These early scenes quickly re-establish our setting. Most of the work has been done by the minisodes, but again, the movie is designed to function without them, so Steven and Molly’s trip to the market gives the audience a quick overview of where things stand: What is The Wall, how is its society shaped, who runs it, and what are the forces bubbling underneath seeking revolution.
The plot unfolds from there, and from its bare-bones structure, we can learn a lot about what the fundamental requirements are for a dystopian, revolutionary, action movie such as this. After all, it doesn’t have time for anything besides the most basic essentials.
So what are these fundamental requirements?
- An apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic/nightmarish setting where, critically, resources are in short supply.
- The type of resource can vary, but must be something essential. Examples include:
- Water, Mad Max: Fury Road
- Food (and Freedom), Snowpiercer, The Road
- The President of the United States, Escape from New York
- All of the essentials of civilization, any zombie movie
- The type of resource can vary, but must be something essential. Examples include:
- A despot who rules with an iron fist.
- A scrappy group of rebels seeking to overthrow said dictator.
- A violent revolution, featuring bloody combat which not everyone survives.
- At least one heartbreaking loss.
- Also often present:
- Roving gangs of scavengers.
- A traitor in the mix, leading to the hero being captured and/or nearly killed.
Last, the movie usually has to be a commentary on our current society in some way. The gimmick of Snowpiercer was that the train very literally mirrored the socio-economic stratification of our world right now. Zombie films often use the zombies as a stand-in for an oppressed class of one form or another. Solar Opposites, being a comedy, is not necessarily seeking to do much social commentary, but a dramatic version of the same story would.
Having identified our essential requirements, we can see that the movie delivers on them all. Nightmarish setting? Check. Dire lack of resources, hoarded by a brutal tyrant? Check. Scrappy underdog rebels seeking to overthrow the system? Check. We even suffer the heartbreaking loss of Molly the Mouse, who perishes during the revolution.
Notably, the story of The Wall does not end at the episode’s conclusion. Though the battle is won, and the rebels seize control, all is not well. The Duke escapes through a heretofore secret hole to the outside, and rebel leader Tim betrays and murders Cherie in order to keep this information quiet. The story ends with Tim covering up The Duke’s escape, the death of Cherie, and the hole, and establishing his own rule over The Wall, and we close on a cliffhanger, the future uncertain.
However, this did not have to be the ending. Since Solar Opposites is a tv show and not a movie, the writers chose to keep the story open-ended in order to preserve it as an ongoing B-story in season 2. Just as easily, though, they could have chosen to end the story right there, with Tim and Cherie killing or arresting The Duke and establishing a free society in The Wall together, story over.
Thus, where we find ourselves at the end of 21 minutes is at the end of a full arc. A complete story has been told from beginning to end. The fact that the story does not conclude at the end of the 21-minute episode does not detract from the fact that it could have. What’s more, is the story was satisfying the entire way through, with strong characters, thrilling action, and real emotional stakes.
The fact that Roiland and Dierkes were able to accomplish this in a mere 21 minutes–an amount of time some shows struggle to tell satisfying parts of their stories–is a minor miracle. It is an awe-inspiring piece of scriptwriting, as efficient and meticulous as a clock. Though it’s buried in the midst of a silly comedy about foul-mouthed aliens, it is a script we as writers can learn a great deal from.
For The Wall.