It’s been pretty good for science fiction and fantasy at the movies lately. "District 9," "Inception" and especially "Avatar" cleaned up at the box office. What’s most impressive is that these were wholly science fiction original stories not based on established properties. It’s one thing for "Iron Man 2" and the next "Harry Potter" or "Twilight" movie to rack up the dough. The first time any of us even heard of Pandora, or Prawns, or Extraction is the first time we saw these films. That means they had to tackle the dreaded infodump.
The infodump or exposition is the literary bane of science fiction. It’s the main reason why “serious” critics and readers sneer at the genre. There is exposition in every type of fictional story but in science fiction it’s absolutely necessary. You can only string readers and viewers along so much before you have to have the guy in the lab coat sit everyone down and explain what’s happening. Each of the above movies handled the problem of the infodump differently.
"Avatar": Movies Are More than What’s on the Page
James Cameron is not the best writer in the world but he is the best writer of James Cameron movies. To put it another way, James Cameron the filmmaker often bails out James Cameron the writer and that’s what happened in "Avatar."
The opening to "Avatar" is a little clunky and all over the place. Cameron originally intended it to be longer, showing how Jake got in his wheelchair. Soon after arriving on Pandora, we get three straight exposition speeches from Steven Lang, Giovanni Ribisi, and Sigourney Weaver.
If you saw it on the page if would look hideous. Jake’s just being led around by the nose and listening to people babble and it’s after the 15-minute mark that he takes any kind of action. But when it came time to direct, James Cameron’s first-rate visual sense kicked in and saved what could have been a real snooze-fest. His opening shots of Pandora were beautifully shot and choreographed. It conveyed most of the information in a quick natural manner. Cameron also made sure his actors concentrated more on giving performances instead of serving as information spigots. All this made for a quick and easy transition to the adventures of Jake among the Na’vi.
"Inception": The Textbook Example
"Inception" is a more classical approach to exposition; exposition by way of action and advancing the plot. We first meet Leonardo Di Caprio’s Cobb in the middle of one of his dream invasions. We see him attempt an extraction. Then to complete his next assignment he has to recruit Ellen Page and thus get her (and the audience) up to speed on the idea of dream sharing.
"Inception’s" box office success is even more impressive when you consider there is a lot to get through. The expository scenes end up clocking in at over 40 minutes of screen time even though the filmmakers were moving very efficiently and moving the main plot along as well.
Not to give away too many spoilers but – spoiler alert – the expository scenes, in my opinion, have more life and drama to them than the actual mission. Visually the story kicks in to another gear but the actual dramatics that were very clearly set up in the beginning don’t advance as much, at least not until the finale.
"District 9": Swinging for the Fences
"District 9," however, shows that exposition doesn’t have to be boring or tedious and it can in fact be amazing. "District 9" opens with a fake news segment on the alien Prawns. It could almost be the opening for a real "Frontline" report. The documentary technique gets us right into the backstory of the world with its alien refugees in South Africa. We see random people talk about the Prawns, we see the signs for Aliens to stay out. Immediately it taps into our collective conscience about apartheid and segregation as well as conveying the main premise of a shanty town made of alien refugees. It’s so clean and efficient that at first glance we don’t realize that Shartlo Copley’s Wikus is our protagonist. A lesser film would have just used this as a teaser section and killed Copley off. Writer/director Neil Blomkamp was smarter than that and the result was one of last year’s breakout films and performances.
Exposition is part of storytelling and the people who do it right are good at any genre, not just science fiction. Filmmakers and writers in particular have to pay attention to successful fantasy pictures that get the infodump right. Who knows, the way the box office is headed, the infodump writer may be as valuable as the gag writer or the dialogue polisher.