One of the joys of screenwriting is putting childhood terrors into words. The screenplay I’m currently writing has monsters. Not werewolves and vampires (as my last three have had), but otherworldly forces of darkness and destruction.
In this case, the heroes’ goals are relatively straightforward, but the antagonists’ agenda is — by dint of their nature — extraordinarily bleak.
So what’s challenging for this script has been writing against a backdrop of indifferent oblivion. Nihilism is not a crowd-pleaser.
Bad isn’t that bad
In most movies, the villain isn’t really “evil” — he’s just at cross-purposes with the hero. Darth Vader does not perceive himself to be doing wrong. The queen in Aliens is protecting her brood. The shark in Jaws is, well, a shark.1
The villains/monsters of most films can be found to have one or more of the following motivations:
- Protection of an important asset
I’ve ranked these on a scale from “least evil” to “closest to evil.”
A monster acting in its own defense might be terrifying, but it’s morally understandable. A spurned lover on a killing spree steps closer to the big E, but it’s still relatable to normal human emotions. We’ve all lashed out irrationally, though to less fatal degrees.
A sixth motivation is something I’ll call bloodlust/sociopathy. The villain’s actions serve no direct need; bloodlust is its own motivation. Slasher films often fall back on this. Jason Voorhees wants to kill you just because.
As an audience, it’s unsettling. It feels genuinely Evil.
Slasher films usually have one bad guy. What happens when the whole world is similarly bloodthirsty?
Some movies dip their toes into this big pool of bleakness. Zombie class situations, for one. Even if you survive this one moment, do you really want to live in a world overrun by the living dead?
And then there are robots. One could argue the machines of both the Terminator and Matrix franchises are acting out of self-preservation in terms of why they come after the hero. But their greater agenda for enslaving humankind is kind of murky, even if we make good batteries.
They seem intent on wiping us out just because, the treads of their war machines crushing our blackened skulls.
Making oblivion cinematic
The villains I’m writing fall somewhere in between zombies and robots: more sentient than the shambling dead, but less purposeful than Skynet. The challenge has been figuring out how to articulate What They Want in a way that makes sense in a popcorn movie.
If I were writing a junior-year philosophy paper, I’d be able to fold in some Nietzsche and Sartre quotes and call it a day. But that won’t play at 24 frames per second. It needs to be satisfying without external support. So I’m left to look for parallels in other successful movies.
- What do Satanic cultists hope to achieve?
- Why does Hannibal Lecter eat people?
- If Sauron won, what would Middle Earth become?
In looking for my answer, I’m trying to be careful not to explain away the darkness. Or to humanize it. There’s something compelling about evil with the indifference of an earthquake or a tidal wave.
The closest I’ve come is an ant’s perspective of eight-year-old boys, smashing and destroying without apparent motivation or qualm. Scale that up, and it feels like a movie. But not an easy one to write.