Contact (2019) is a story that is built around a plot device. A mobile phone app, once downloaded, sets a timer, a running countdown and when this time runs out the phone owner is dead. This sets up a story where there are a number of people who have used the app, and they begin to die, creating a number of scary set pieces with different characters being menaced and then killed.
The issue for a plot device film is that the characters are superficial as the plot device dominates and also, crucially the story has no theme. Yes, people die, but there's no concern for the characters and there's no sense of a meaningful story: the film's narrative is just a way of having people scared and running about. This can make for a fun, time-filling film, it doesn't create a story that carries any significance for the audience, especially if it clear that the central character is essentially a good person, so that they are not going to die. A film can be a bit of fun and that's good enough, but it can be more.
Countdown's plot can clearly be connected to the story structure principle of a story having a disrupting incident, with downloading the app being the action that disrupts, but to make this action have greater purpose then there needs to be a reason why the central character downloads the app, and this needs to establish a theme, that the audience can relate to.
In the film the app is discovered by a group of friends having drinks and having fun, the app is downloaded as a piece of fun, but its not crucial for any character to do this and at the time there's no clear sense in the scene of any central character, in fact Quinn, the central character of the story is not present in this scene, so the plot device is established without them, and the prologue of the film is basically exposition to establish what the app does. What would give the story a greater meaning, because it connects to the character is for Quinn is to have a precise reason to download the app: the moment, the scene where the app is downloaded has to be important for the character. Quinn downloads the app it because she's will get a free drink if she does: meaning thematically that she places very little value on her life, and the film will test this. With other characters downloading the app for similar reasons: feeling worthless, accepting failure, accepting that fate will always control them.
It is later established in the story that the central character Quinn has separated from her family after her mother's death and is working to become a nurse. So, if the film established this at the start then Quinn might download the app for different reasons: she is in grief and does not care about her life, she doesn't mind taking the chance if the app will end in death, or she's willing to challenge death even if death is an unstoppable power. The story would then function in relation Quinn's desire for life and in relation to the family tragedy. This does occur in the film, to some extent, because Quinn works to save her sister, but the theme has not been established by the time this occurs: its all about the countdown and rushing around in relation to this.
In Don't Breathe (2016), which has a simple plot set up, a trio of teenagers break into a house and then are trapped and set upon by the owner, this could have the superficiality of Countdown, but there is a crucial difference. The teenagers are transgressing by stealing, and they know that the house belongs to a blind man who is apparently wealthy. What these two factors do is make the transgression immoral, and particularly so because the house owner is blind: its an act of cruelty to steal from someone who is helpless and there is the greed: the expectations of success. The robbery looks like easy money, so this is a theme, it seems possible to be immoral and get what you want, but when the plot turns and the house owner is more brutal and savage than the robbers this shows the punishment and foolishness of transgression: the teenagers were arrogant, were stupid, and can't actually cope with genuine violence and evil.
In the film Countdown, Quinn is a good person, she's successful as a nurse, so there's no problem there, she's separated but not fallen out with her family, so there's no problem there. She's not in any particular grief, so has no problem. She is sexually harassed and assaulted by a doctor, so has a particular problem, but this plot line is disconnected from the countdown to death story line, so sits apart. The issue for the story of Quinn having no internal problems, and one, her being assaulted, which is not connected to the countdown, is that what's at stake is staying alive, but without Quinn transgressing or being at fault there is no conflict in her character. She is good in a evil world, she has not transgressed into evil: she doesn't need to remedy anything in her own life. If she were a nurse who made a mistake, through carelessness, through selfishness, then the countdown could be connected to that vanity and error. If the theme were to be connected to the sexual harassment and assault, then the theme might be that a woman will be subject to harassment and this will seem to be inescapable, and in this case the male harasser could set the countdown running on Quinn's phone. The app then being symbolically a male harasser. In the film the app is given a biblical identity to explain its existence, but Quinn is a secular character, so this biblical connection for the app is exposition: to explain plot. If the countdown app working were explained by saying that it used quantum physics to overcome randomness and predict the future, this would be as valid to explain how the app works. The reason for the app is not given any connection to Quinn's understanding of the value of life.
As a rule for storytelling a central plot device cannot just sit as a single entity in the narrative. In Rosemary's Baby (1968) there is very little running around, and the central plot, why things have been happening is not clarified to the end, which might seem like a weak undramatic story structure but it isn't. A mystery in itself doesn't create tension, anymore than a central plot device, but Rosemary's Baby in its title makes clear what the central is: the concern and fear for the unborn child. The fears and concerns of the pregnant woman become developed and extreme as the story progresses, so that the story moves from the natural world into horror by the end. What creates the tension is that the character's who surround Rosemary do not have the concerns and cares that she has for her child, they are flippant, off hand, selfish, so that there is a fracture in terms of what Rosemary's wants, safety for her child, and what others want: this is scary situation where Rosemary's feels more and more isolated and helpless. There is far less violent and overtly menacing action in Rosemary's Baby than in Countdown, but as a horror film Rosemary's Baby is far more successful, because what matters to the central character matters to the audience.
Countdown immediately sets up a scary scenario, so it would seem to be a successful structure, but Quinn is not shown to be truly vulnerable or afraid: the screenplay might read like this, Quinn runs around being scared, but its not connected an everyday fear that is developed by the film. What undermines, or takes the place of dread in Countdown, are a number of comic moments and characters: giving these secondary characters comedy can seem like fun: there's a comic priest and a comic phone repair shop guy, but this lightens and diminishes the threat. A film should maintain a tone and even if there are moments to break the tension with comedy, they should be moments, not the development of separate characters with their own stories. The screen time given to these characters needed to be given to the central character.
The film Personal Shopper (2016) embeds a central concern for the central character and a theme for the story: her brother is dead and she wants him to make contact, and the tone of the film maintains this throughout: its a serious intention to connect. There's no resolution for the plot in Personal Shopper (2016) but because the film commits to the central character it develops the theme of wanting to be connected to a person who has been lost. The theme is made clear when the personal shopper states that she and her brother promised each other to make contact when one of them died, so that the idea of connection is not just a momentary idea, and the job of being a personal shopper, of living one's life to act on behalf of another mirrors the desire to have meaningful contact: the shopping has a superficiality, it makes no actual contact with life, in comparison to the goal of reconnecting with someone one has loved, but crucially for the tone of the film the shopping is carried out mournfully and the character does not move into a comic mode, to lighten the mood of the story. There's no silly figures, parodying celebrity: the film is not about the superficiality of this lifestyle.
In Countdown, for it to have greater resonance, emotional impact and meaning, Quinn needed to be developed, through her family, through her work as nurse, and through the fact that she is assaulted. There is a difficulty in this because the aim is to create a range of scary set pieces and if Quinn is in some kind of grief and despair she might not fight back against the app, but then she does not need to set the app running and it can just be one more feature of her life that is falling apart: so the countdown is not just a plot device, but the countdown on a life that is failing. It might also be that the sister, who in the film downloads the app, might be the person to have the fears, rather than Quinn, so Quinn needs to move from emotional distance and despair to support and love, giving a theme and character arc to the story. The other alternative for the film is to have a clear antagonist, so not just an app, but a true villain, and a group who need to survive this threat: an enemy to fight against. This idea of well constructed antagonist might also lack a theme unless carefully connected to the characters in the film, because someone going around killing people does not make for a compelling story. In films like Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween, Scream, the theme of the film is sexuality, a fear of this change, the aggression and desires it causes and the fear of female sexuality: these films takes the character from innocence to maturity: from being naive the characters learn that they need to fight evil: sexual violence, embodied by the predator male antagonist.
It might be thought that the theme of a film comes out of the story, the main event of the plot, but rather it is the issues, the things that are the concern of the central character that create a sense of value in the story which then moves from the character to the audience. A story is not just about an app threatening the end of life, but how the character has been trapped by this because of personal circumstances: something which has divided and conflicted the person. Horror functions in different ways, as social warning: don't step away from the safe and familiar, beware the other. Horror is also about examining fears that are close, personal traumas, things that can go wrong, failures and dramatizing these, possible for cathartic effect: what is shown in drama is far more than the problems that will occur in real life, so experience the fear in the film and then move on feeling more relaxed and relieved, because the scare is over.
Coming up with a plot device can seem to be a success for creating the basis for a story, its not, if the story connected to it is just in support of the plot device. So, if the idea of the plot device comes, then set this aside and develop characters who this can happen to. Make sure that there's a reason for the audience to care about the characters without the plot device. Successful film making technique and good acting can't overcome a story where the character's aren't developed .
Copyright: Eugene Doyen 2019