Almost every film has it. Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s bad, and sometimes it’s plain ugly. Actually, that could be referring to any number of cinematic elements, from music to actors, but this week’s column is all about exposition.
Some sort of exposition, or background information, is present in most film, regardless of where or when it was made. It is often used to convey backstory or as a tool to revisit a character’s past and expand on their persona. From sci-fi to film-noir, everyone loves a bit of backstory that fleshes out the plot; the hard part is doing it right. Dialogue, narration, flashbacks, a TV news story, text, photos, mise-en-scene, music – exposition is a chameleon that comes in many disguises. The more naturally it blends in with the film, the more seamless (and hopefully better) the final picture.
Think Star Wars and everyone will remember the opening of all six films. The iconic, yellow text that crawls up the screen before vanishing into the darkness of space. Thousands of years of (fictional) history and tons of backstory all crammed into a quick read at the beginning of every film in the Star Wars series, the classic theme music in the background tops off the textbook example of how to do exposition brilliantly.
Not forgetting Mr. DNA too, the talking DNA strand that condenses a lot of potentially boring science into a quick animated clip that sets up the premise for Jurassic Park. Or the tattoos of the local man at the tavern in Puss In Boots that tell the story of the ancient treasure of the golden goose eggs. These are just some examples of how to do exposition memorably and rather subtly.
However, badly done exposition can stop a film in its tracks when a massive info-dump occurs, characters narrating or spouting out tons of information is a common problem and is often done badly, particularly in sci-fi and fantasy films where the audience needs to know how the world works. Apart from notable examples such as The Matrix, most similar films are guilty of dumping in a load of exposition to set up the film but this tactic actually takes you out of the film and its created world.
The character Basil Exposition in the Austin Powers series parodies the ‘M’ role in the James Bond series perfectly and indeed the spoofs the whole idea of exposition. I am sure he loved Star Wars,Jurassic Park and Puss in Boots because if anyone knows exposition, it’s Basil.