Culture And Criticism

The Veracity Of 'Titanic,' James Bond and 'Homeland,' And Why Recognizability Matters

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One of the television ads for Skyfall.

In case you missed it, the Mythbusters crew have just put to rest the question of whether Jack could have survived at the end of Titanic along with Rose. (Uh, spoiler?) This comes a couple of days after universally acknowledged King Of Science Neil DeGrasse Tyson saluted the 50th anniversary of the James Bond movie franchise by discussing the plausibility of some of the spy's famous gadgets. Meanwhile, over at Salon, Willa Paskin took Sunday's episode of Homeland to task for stretching credulity, with regards to both coincidences and apparent lapses in security policy.

What these three discussions have in common is that they all serve as reminders that, as a general rule, we like our fiction to have some recognizable basis in reality. That's not the same as saying that we demand them to be realistic. But even for television shows that tend toward the outer boundaries of the fantastic, such as Game Of Thrones or Battlestar Galactica, discussion often focuses on how they serve as allegories for politics or the war on terror. As viewers, we're casting the unfamiliar in terms that we can understand.

Having some degree of recognizability is, in fact, key for fiction. It's the thing that turns a passive reader or viewer into someone who's directly involved and invested in the story. It's where the vital but often overlooked "willing" aspect of "willing suspension of disbelief" comes in. If there's no recognition of what they're looking at or being told, then the audience's suspension of disbelief is being dragged kicking and screaming out of them, if at all.

That's one of the reasons people nitpick so much whenever their job (or hometown, or hobby, or what have you) shows up in fiction. If the details are right, then it glows with familiarity. If not, then there isn't anything for them to grab hold of. The audience is left saying, "They're telling me that that's what I do, but I don't recognize what they're doing."

In a less personal way, that's what Mythbusters, DeGrasse Tyson and Paskin are investigating. The first two are obviously approaching matters with tongue, to some degree, in cheek. I doubt that Mythbusters is suggesting that Rose and/or Jack should have – after being shipwrecked, manacled, shot at, waterlogged and frozen and still, to a degree, in a state of post-coital bliss, mind you – been capable of MacGyvering themselves a sufficiently buoyant raft out of the materials they had at hand. And DeGrasse Tyson obviously appreciates the cartoonish joy of lead bullets being redirected via magnets, even as he reveals it as bunk.

With Paskin, on the other hand, the lapses get in the way of how she understands the world (and especially the world of Homeland) to work. Spoilerphobes rejoice: I won't go into detail about her argument. You can click on the link above to learn more if you'd like. But suffice it to day, as Monkey See's own Linda Holmes pointed out, entering a press screening of Prometheus required tighter security precautions than the show deemed necessary for access to the highest levels of government. The importance and gravity of the room didn't mesh with the casualness of entry. The scenario, one of the tense dramatic centerpieces of the episode, didn't make sense. It was unrecognizable.

At the end of one of the TV ads for the upcoming Skyfall, James Bond has just executed a ludicrous jump onto the floor of a moving train car whose back wall and roof are sheared off around him. (I only determined this thanks to the full trailer, which reveals barely enough details to examine in freeze-frame.) If it were that simple, it would just be a superhero pose.

But Daniel Craig, while never losing his Bondian confidence, adds just the slightest bit of wobbliness to the move before instantly pressing ahead, and it makes all the difference in the world. The first time I saw it, I laughed, because in that moment, Bond was human. I recognized that guy.

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