Archive for December, 2013

Hobbit II: The Desolation of Editing

Saturday, December 28th, 2013

My review of The Desolation of Smaug will necessarily be spoiler-y. To protect those who have not seen the movie yet, I will warn of the worst spoilers with bold text and put those sections in white text so you have to swipe to read (note this may not work in RSS. Hell, it may not work in HTML. One of my goals in life is learn the minimum amount of hypertext I have to).

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Star Trek, Prometheus and the Death of Sci-Fi Storytelling

Thursday, December 26th, 2013

Note: this article contains major spoilers for the Star Trek movies and minor spoilers for Prometheus. You might thank me, but just in case you want to discover them for yourselves, read carefully.

Ulysses is the worst book ever written.

There, that got your attention didn’t it? In saying that, I don’t mean that Ulysses is a bad book or even not a great one. What I mean is that it is one of the worst books every written because it is opaque, difficult and complex. It is unapproachable for most readers. This would be fine as far as Ulysses goes but its difficult style has persuaded many writers — and many critics — that being opaque, difficult and complex constitutes genius. So truly awful works like Gravity’s Rainbow are assumed to be brilliant because they are incomprehensible. The logic seems to be that a book that bad must be brilliant.

The Problem of the Mystery Box

In the last few years, I have noticed this aesthetic bleeding into science fiction. There are and more science fiction films and TV programs, including mainstream ones, that make no damn sense at all. Defenders of these movies and TV shows see their incomprehensibility as a sign of their brilliance. But I see them as a sign of lazy writing.

Take Lost, for example. I never watched it, but many people vented frustration because its plot wasn’t understandable. In fact, JJ Abrams has boasted about this with his routine about how wondering what’s in a mystery box is better than finding out what’s in the box. Battlestar Galactica, which I did watch, followed the same pattern. In the end, a shaky arc emerged but there were tons of red herrings and contradictions on the way.

Both series were proclaimed as brilliant. But I think this has less to do with actual brilliance than in mistaking incoherence and lack of planning for brilliance. Contrast them against, say, Babylon 5, which had a lot of mystery and intrigue but, in the end, holds together pretty well. Having watched the series multiple times, I can see how ideas are put in place years in advance, how everything is relevant to the plot and how, ultimately, it all makes sense. The reason it does is because Stracyzinski, unlike creators of Lost and BSG, was not just throwing random mystery events on the screen and then, toward the end, trying desperately to reconcile them. He had written out the plot in advance on 3×5 cards. He knew exactly what was going to happen so that events in Season 1 were directly related to revelations in Season 4.

And that’s the key difference. One series had a complex labyrinthine plot that was in view from the start. The others were put together by writers doing random things and pretending like it made them smart. In BSG, for example, the writers didn’t know who the Final Five Cylons were until Series 3 and practically drew names out of a hat. The Lost writers admitted they didn’t have a series bible and that the early days especially had random bits thrown out that they eventually dropped.

I’ve heard, but can not confirm, that several recent sci-fi series like Fringe, Terra Nova, Under the Dome and Revolution are even worse. In these cases, however, it seems more like plain bad writing than ham-fisted attempts at “mystery”. According to the online criticisms I’ve read, the series’ contradict themselves routinely even when the plot is straight-forward. However, this may be an offshoot of the aesthetic built by Lost, BSG and later seasons of 24 of doing a series with a running arc but no bible or advanced planning.

It’s fine to have a mystery box. It’s even fine to not necessarily reveal what’s in it. What is not OK is for the writers to not have an idea of what’s in the mystery box. Because instead of having plot developments that hint consistently at what’s in there, you end up with a maddening collection of red herrings that lead nowhere. You end up with a muddled plot that contradicts itself and punishes rather than rewards the attentive viewer.

Moving to film, a recent example of this trend toward incoherence is Prometheus. The early scripts made sense. But the version on the screen doesn’t. To cite Franklin Harris again:

Unfortunately, it isn’t just that “Prometheus” is ambiguous, which can be a virtue, but that it doesn’t seem to know where it’s going with any of its ideas. And when it comes down to the basic stuff, it fails miserably.

Can anyone tell me what the plot of Prometheus was? Can anyone say, for certain, that there actually was something in the mystery box?

Character as the Source of Drama

A good plot emerges naturally from the responses of characters to a situation. A bad plot emerges when you decide in advance what you want to do and twist the characters to follow those points. Lost and BSG, despite their narrative problems, at least had reasonable characters. But there is an even lower tier of sci-fi these days that combines an incoherent plot with idiotic or inconsistent characters.

Back to Prometheus. The characters in the movie frequently do nonsensical things because the plot, such as it is, requires them to. A character previously scared of the situation takes off his helmet and approaches a menacing tentacle. Why? So it can attack him. A pilot who could care less for one of the characters effectively commits suicide at her urging. Why? So the ship can be destroyed. Hell, the Star Wars prequels had more consistent characterization than this.

Kurt Vonnegut said that in a good story every character should want something, even if it’s a glass of water. In Prometheus, what do people want? What are their motivations? What drives them? A few of the characters have clear motivations, but the plot turns on characters whose motives are opaque if they exist at all. Say what you want about Abrams’ mystery box, at least he wasn’t putting the characters in there.

It’s fine to make a character morally ambiguous or to make his motivations somewhat opaque. One of the best characters in TV science fiction was Kerr Avon of Blake’s 7. Avon claims to be entirely motivated by self-interest, wanting to be safe, rich and secure. But over the course of the series, his actions often betray his self-proclaimed motives. He risks himself, even sacrifices himself for others. In my opinion, his cynical self-interest is who he wishes he were. He sees the idealism in others and finds it childish and even, in the case of Blake, fanatical. But he can’t quite be that selfish person he wishes he were.

But the thing about Avon is that he remains a compelling character even though his motives are unclear. Unlike the characters in Prometheus, he actually has motives besides advancing the plot. There is something he wants. There are reasons behind the things he does. He is consistent in his actions, even if his actions are not always consistent with his words. He doesn’t abandon the crew to death in one episode and then take on a full squad of Federation troops in the next because the plot says so. If Avon is a mystery box at least there’s something inside it, even if we never find out what it is.

The motivations of Hal 9000 in 2001 are opaque. But there is clearly some reason behind them, even if it is not explained until the next movie (or in the book). If 2001 were made today, Hal would kill some people, spare others, pilot the ship to Mars, send laser beams down the hallway and no explanation for any of it would be given or even possible. Defenders would say, “well, he was a crazy computer”. He was, but even crazy computers act in certain ways. And once we find out what drove Hal mad, his actions make sense.

In a recent post, I talked about conspiracy theories. I noted that the difference between a real conspiracy theory and bogus one is that real conspiracies tend to be pretty straight forward (“let’s kill Hitler”), even if the mechanics of them sometimes become complex. Fake conspiracy theories are like Rube Goldberg engines because they are not built up from ideas (“let’s assassinate JFK”) but from perceived holes in the conventional explanations (“a magic bullet”).

The problem with some of the worst science fiction plots these days is that they tend to devolve into Rube Goldberg engines for the same reason. No one lays out the plot in advance and thinks about how Character X would accomplish Goal Y given situation Z. They decide they want to have events A, B, C and D happen and so wrap the characters around that. They then proclaim that we’re too simple to understand the complex plot. Maybe this is the result of our paranoid times: the X-Files‘ absurd plot was born from Watergate paranoia. It was never intended to make sense but to reflect vague conspiracy theories. But for most science fiction, it makes no damn sense. (And the X-Files has well-developed characters with clear motives even if the overall plot was nonsense.)

Star Trek: Spoiler Warning

What brought this post up — and perhaps it’s because I care about it so much — was the recent Trek films. While I liked them, I was ultimately disappointed because it seemed like they were built less around character than around set pieces and action sequences. This is a big letdown for a series that was always built around character.

For example: in the first movie, one of the most problematic sequences occurs after the destruction of Vulcan. Spock throws Kirk off the ship, Kirk runs into Spoke Prime on Delta Vega, they then run into Scotty and then transwarp beam back to the Enterprise.

The number of coincidences and plot contrivances in that portion are staggering. That’s because the script isn’t trying to make sense or be consistent with anyone’s character; it’s trying to gin up a bogus conflict between Kirk and Spock, get the action beat of the monster on the moon, get a meeting with Spock Prime and drag Scotty in. It is entirely a plot contrivance that emerges from the bizarre decision of Spock to not put Kirk in the brig but to abandon him on a dangerous icy planet (I’m thinking that would be called attempted murder in Star Fleet regs).

Here’s an alternative off the top of my head that would have accomplished the same thing. While the Enterprise is being repaired, Spock works on rescuing survivors. Among the survivors is a young engineer’s mate Montgomery Scott, who is put to work since Enterprise lost so many engineers in the battle. Spock prioritizes restoring subspace communications to warn Star Fleet while Scotty is given the lesser task of repairing the warp engines. Hearing that the Nerada visited Vulcan’s moon, he sends Kirk to investigate. Kirk finds Spock Prime, who advises him that Spock II is compromised and can not properly command the Enterprise. He also advises him to promote promising young Enterprise personnel such as Ensign Chekov. Returning to the Enterprise, Kirk relieves Spock. When Scotty works a miracle and restores the engines, he sets off in pursuit of the Nerada and also to get close enough to Earth to warn them by normal communications.

Yeah, that’s not a great plot either. But it’s built around the characters taking logical actions to deal with the situation. I didn’t start out with “we want to put in a cool CGI monster because it’s been ten minutes since we had an action beat.” But you could still put a CGI monster in there if that’s your kink.

Star Trek has other problems: the complete lack of any planetary defense on Earth or Vulcan, Nero’s failure to warn Romulus of the coming supernova (something their astrophysicists could check out), the movie not being entirely clear on the distance scales of star systems and planets. But, overall, it holds together OK. Most of the characters are reasonably defined. I was hoping that in movie 2, Abrams would iron out those problems.

I was wrong. Star Trek: Into Darkness is worse when it comes to storytelling. In STID, Admiral Marcus decides he wants to militarize the federation, start a war with the Klingons and conquer the Galaxy. This sort of thing has historical precedent. The path that most warmongers have chosen would be to ramp up paranoia and militarism through propaganda and staged Reichstag fire incidents. Once the buildup is ready, they stage a full-blown military incident on the border of Klingon space to start the war. One way this could play out in film: the Enterprise crew, stationed on the border of Klingon space, finds the lies behind the propaganda thanks to their Klingon-speaking communications officer. This could lead to a huge battle between militaristic forces on both sides and those who want peace (sort of like Star Trek VI did). You could even end it on a cliffhanger, if you wanted, with the Enterprise crew and a few peace-wanting allies as renegades as the two empires move toward war, then resolve that in movie 3. And how beautifully ironic it would be if the ultimate upshot of Nero’s interference in Movie 1 was to bring about peace and understanding between humans and Klingons decades sooner.

Something like that might have been a great Trek movie. Indeed, you can see the outlines of it in the actual film. Or they could have gone in a different direction. They could have left the Klingons out, kept Khan in and made it about eugenics. Or we could have had a totally unrelated adventure. Or we could have had Gary Mitchell.

But no. We didn’t get anything like that. Abrams decided we need to have Khan and we needed to kill Pike and we needed to involve the Klingons and we needed to have the Enterprise badly damaged in an attack. And so we get a Rube Goldberg engine: the Admiral revives Khan (and only Khan), puts him to work building new weapons (because there are no geniuses in the 23rd century), has Khan stage a couple of attacks (maybe; it’s not clear if Khan is still following his orders) then retreat to Klingon space. He then wants the Enterprise to fire 72 torpedoes filled with Khan’s people to wipe them all out (because simply firing them into the Sun or turning off their cyro units would be conspicuous?) and then sabotages the Enterprise so it will be destroyed by the Klingons. Then he shows up in the Vengeance to destroy the Enterprise and claim the Klingons did it (there being no black boxes in the 23rd century).

None of those complications were necessary. None of them make any sense. He doesn’t need Khan to build advanced weapons; Star Fleet has massive troves of engineers, many of whom might be sympathetic to his cause. He doesn’t need Khan to blow up buildings AND flee to Klingon space AND have the Enterprise get destroyed by the Klingons AND send the Vengeance to destroy it. Marcus has a transwarp beaming device. He could transport a bomb to Khan’s location, transport Khan’s people into the Sun and then stage a military incident on any ship near Klingon space. His Rube Goldberg plan doesn’t make him look like a chessmaster; it make him look like an idiot. Pick one conspiracy and stick with it.

And what are Khan’s motivations in all this? Is he helping Marcus? If so, why does he try to kill him? If not, why does he flee to Kronos? Because he was hoping that Kirk would show up with the 72 torpedoes with his people in them and drag the Vengeance along for the ride? That’s not Khan being a genius; that’s Khan being a plot device.

In the climax, the Enterprise and the Vengeance are duking it out over Earth. Does no one notice? Does no one say, “Hey, the flagship of the fleet is getting the shit kicked out of it by a mystery ship. Should we, you know, ask them what’s going on?”

There were moments when I thought this movie was going to go to interesting places. One, pointed out by my brother, was when Kirk asks why anyone would blow up Star Fleet’s records. But instead of following on that, we get an attack by Khan in a helicopter (Starfleet security is apparently terrible). Another was when Uhura confronts the Klingons on their planet. In a previous Trek iteration, she would have talked them into helping. It would have been a shining moment for her. But no, she needs to fail so we can get a stupid action sequence of Khan taking out an entire fleet with a cannon.

I liked Abrams’ Trek movies but that was mainly in spite of themselves. When the movies focus on character and intrigue, they are good. But that doesn’t happen nearly often enough (especially in the second movie). For all Abrams’ talk about character building, intrigue, mystery boxes and how you don’t don’t need the best special effects for a good scene, STID is just another bang-up film in a Star Trek template. It has its moments; but not enough. I liked it; I wanted to love it.

All is not lost, of course. We are in an unfortunate era dominated by people who savor “mystery” over coherence and plot contrivances over character. If you look past the glamor franchises, you will see better things: Inception, Gravity, Children of Men, WALL-E, Moon, District 9, Cloud Atlas. Hell, even The Hunger Games and Avatar are better than some of the recent crap. Her looks intriguing.

So there is hope. You just have to look past the shadowy remnant calling itself Star Trek.

The New Franchises

Saturday, December 21st, 2013

About a month ago, Franklin Harris wrote an intriguing post on the subject of the new movie franchises:

Marvel Comics didn’t invent serialized storytelling, but it may have perfected it.

During the publisher’s formative years, Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and the rest of the Marvel “bullpen” created a unified world, in which characters from one comic book might pop up in another, if only for a cameo, with little or no fanfare. Just a friendly neighborhood Spider-Man dropping by to say hello.

Fifty years later, the comics publisher-turned-Disney-owned entertainment juggernaut looks to revolutionize serialized storytelling in ways that would have been unthinkable a few years ago.

Franklin goes on to describe the way a movie-TV Marvelverse is being built brick by brick. The movies are no longer movies in the traditional sense; they are stories told in a self-contained universe. And he goes on to argue that Star Wars is about to go down the same path, with the spate of new movies Disney has authorized.

I think it’s an interesting point. Spinoffs are nothing new, of course. Television has been a particular proving ground for spinoffs (Happy Days, All the Family, the X-files). Movies have done it before as well. But what Marvel is doing is something very different. It’s far more cohesive, far more thought out. They clearly started out from the beginning with this sort of multi-media multi-movie universe in mind, laying down the first Avengers movies as prequels toward 2012′s epic.

My only disagreement is that I think he has the order reversed. Star Wars got there first, at least as far as movies go.

Back in the 90′s and early 00′s, the LucasArts studio produced a series of absolutely incredible video games. Set in the Star Wars universe, these ranged from flight simulators that allowed you to refight the battles of the movies (X-Wing, Tie-Fighter, X-Wing Alliance) to first-person shooters that allowed you to be a Jedi in the New Republic (Dark Forces, Jedi Knight) to a first-person role-playing game set thousands of years earlier (Knight of the Old Republic). The video games not only reproduced the movies, they expanded the material there into a larger context. For example, X-Wing covered the rebellion’s desperate flight from Yavin to Hoth. X-Wing Alliance had the plot of Return of the Jedi as only a portion of the larger story of a smuggler family. And characters from the movies — Luke, Lando, C3PO — would pop in for the occasional cameo. This expanded universe included television as well. General Grievous — one of the villains of Revenge of the Sith — was actually introduced in the Clone Wars cartoon. In fact, in 2006, Neal Stephenson wrote that one of the problems with the prequels was that much of the narrative heft had been moved to the video games and cartoons leaving the movies as pure spectacle, the climax to a saga that had been set up on small screens.

Science fiction has spawned this sort of expanded universe for a long time, of course. Besides Star Wars, Doctor Who and Star Trek had lots of novels, spin-offs, etc. But even there, we are now seeing more cohesion. Doctor Who, in particular, has incorporated K-9 and Company, Torchwood and the audio dramas. What Marvel has done is taken this to the next step: create an interlaced franchise of movies, TV shows and comics.

Star Wars is now following Marvel to this next step. But I suspect other franchises are going to as well. The Hobbit could have been made as one movie but has been expanded to three with enormous amounts of extra narrative added, so that Bilbo’s journey is just part of a bigger saga, complete with cameos from the first trilogy. And I suspect Peter Jackson is not done with Middle Earth. Tolkien’s world is especially ripe for a Marvel-esque multi-media approach since he created the world first and the stories second. The Tolkienverse is already fully formed. I suspect a few movies will come out of the Silmarillion in the mid-future. Or maybe a television series.

We really are moving into a different era of entertainment. The rise of the home theater has had a much more profound effect on television and movies than anyone could have foreseen. You’re now expected to watch every episode of a TV series and expected to break out your Iron Man DVD to see some foreshadowing you missed. Thirty years ago, Star Wars was unique in spreading a saga over three movies. Now many franchises are doing it. Twenty years ago, Babylon 5 was unique in telling a television story over a 5-year arc. Now almost every drama is doing it (although usually not as well). One of the most popular shows — Game of Thrones — is unspooling a ridiculously complicated story and HBO is banking millions on the idea that George Martin will give them an ending. Binge watching of TV series and movies is now the norm.

It’s no longer enough to just watch; these days you have to immerse.

The Scourge of Action Movie Bloat

Saturday, December 21st, 2013

(I was going to write a review of The Desolation of Smaug but it occurred to me that there were several relevant movie-related posts that I needed to get off my chest first. And if I did them in my Smaug review it would just get ridiculously bloated and go off on tangents. So here are a few backlogged posts on various subjects related to movies. They don’t need to be read to follow the Smaug review. I just need them around for reference.)

One of the most common complaints about the first Hobbit movie was its length. But Hobbit I was not unusual in having an overlong running time. Almost all movies these days are bloated well beyond any reasonable running length. It’s become unusual to find a movie under two hours in length. This trend has many parents, but one of the most egregious is the explosion of long long action scenes that frequently end with nothing resolved or changed, advance the plot at a snail’s pace (if at all) and frequently exist only for their own sake (or because they are part of pre-programmed action beats).

I became aware of this in the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie. It was good, but the climactic swordfight had me shifting in my chair. It’s not just that it went on and on. It was that nothing was resolved and nothing could be resolved because the enemy pirates were undead anyway. So the climax consisted of minute after minute of boring, poorly shot, pointless sword-fighting. This tendency toward long, pointless, inconclusive action scenes would blow up badly in the next two movies.

I’ve since noticed this pattern recurring over and over again and getting even worse. Every fight goes on forever, every character has to have his signature moment, every “amazing” stunt they can think of has to be in there. And it has frequently hurt the scenes themselves, which often make no sense. Both sides use nonsensical tactics because these are no longer battles either side is trying to win; they are a series of stunts and gimmicks that the director has decided to string together. And it gets absurd. By the time they’re halfway through, the characters have effectively run a marathon but they’re still able to jump impossibly high, kill bad guys without looking and hurl one-liners. There’s no sense that fighting is stressful on mind, spirit or body.

Quentin Tarantino has become one of the worst at this. Kill Bill I had an endless fight with the Crazy 88′s that just had to include every possible stunt. Nothing could be left on the floor. In Django Unchained, probably the worst victim of movie bloat last year, the climactic gunfight goes on and on and ends with … nothing. Django is captured instead of shot dead on the spot, as he would almost certainly be in any sensible movie.

Hobbit I suffered from this. A lot of criticism of the movie’s length focused on the dinner scene. But while that drags out a bit, it’s mostly humor and character-building, which is fine by me. The Rivendell sequence drags on as well (Weaving and Blanchett, in particular, speak verrrry slowly). But I think that’s also a minor problem.

No, I think people misidentified the primary culprit. To my mind, the movie’s deeper problem is the long action scenes, which go on and on. The climactic fight in the Misty Mountains is particularly egregious, with every character having to get their moment to kick butt, every possible permutation of enemies having to face off and every stunt having to be included. It’s not enough to get Azog fighting Thorin. He has to fight Bilbo, too. He has to fight the other dwarves. He has to fight the eagles. It’s like Peter Jackson couldn’t make up his mind which kick-ass moment he wanted to end on, so he threw them all in. And, in the end, nothing is resolved. No named character is even wounded.

I’ll have a rant about Star Trek: Into Darkness in another post but it suffers from an awful case of action movie bloat as well. It ends with a chase through space, a chase through the streets, a chase through the air. And, in the end, they couldn’t make up their mind about whether Uhura or Spock should kick Kahn’s ass, so they both do. And no one of name is killed (well, Kirk briefly is). You can contrast that against Star Trek II, a massively superior movie that was 20 minutes shorter and had maybe a quarter of the action scenes. The first battle between Reliant and Enterprise is tense, thrilling and brilliant. The strategies are plain. It’s clear why everyone is doing what he’s doing and what they’re trying to accomplish. Although it ends with neither party destroyed, both ships are damaged, a named character is killed and the repercussions are felt throughout the rest of the film, informing the strategy for the second battle. And it takes about ten minutes of total screen time. In a modern movie, Kirk would have pulled his shield trick. Then Scotty would have pulled another trick. Then another ship would have shown up. Then Kirk would have been knocked out and Spock would have used the Corbomite maneuver. It would take 45 minutes and my eyes would be rolling up into my skull.

There is a severe dearth of good editing in Hollywood. Maybe it’s the video era; movies are rarely watched in one full sitting. Maybe it’s that no one cares or has the power. Maybe it’s the international market (action is the same in every language). But no one is willing to cut movies down to an appropriate length. And this is especially obvious with the long bloated action scenes that every movie seems to require. I swear, one of these days we’re going to get a version of Sense and Sensibility with a pointless and inconclusive gun battle in the middle.

The Shakespeare Project: Richard III

Friday, December 13th, 2013

Richard III is the polar opposite of Henry V. Whereas Henry is one of the few full-throated heroes in Shakespeare, Richard is a completely unrepentant villain. And Shakespeare is clearly fascinated with both. He earlier explored the heights of Henry’s character; now he plumbs the depth of Richard’s.

And what a plumbing it is. Richard is a fantastic anti-hero: crafty, amoral, and completely unprincipled. His soliloquies allow him to take the audience into his depravity. The first three acts are a whirlwind of intrigue, verbal sparring and conniving. The funny thing is that, once Richard has power, he gets kind of boring. In the first three acts, he had an underdog thing going for him. But in the fourth act, his actions are just cruel and arbitrary. And Shakespeare seems to tire of him. It’s quickly onto Bosworth field and the dramatic finale.

This is Shakespeare’s second longest play, but it felt shorter than some of the less approachable tragedies and comedies. Despite the many machinations (I read the play on my iPad while having a book open to the beginning to make sure I knew the characters were), I was rarely lost.

Next Up: Henry VIII

The Authentic Games Metric

Thursday, December 5th, 2013

In Tuesday Morning Quarterback’s most recent column, he suggested picking post-season favorites based on what he calls Authentic Games:

Power rankings, strength-of-schedule, likes on Facebook — there are many ways to assess NFL teams. As the home stretch approaches, Tuesday Morning Quarterback makes his annual contribution: the Authentic Games metric.

Authentic Games are those against other potent teams. The regular season is a smorgasbord of strong and weak; in the postseason, only strong opponents trot onto the field. That makes how a team performs against equal-caliber opposition the gauge TMQ likes.

The Authentic metric values most W’s over best percentage. Thus I rank the Denver Broncos at 4-2 ahead of the Cincinnati Bengals and Indianapolis Colts at 3-1. The reasoning is that the more wins a team has versus power opponents, the better prepared the team is for the postseason.

In principle, the Authentic Games Metric makes sense. A great team should be able to beat other great teams rather than pounding on cupcakes. But I was immediately suspicious because it plugs into what I call the Grand Championship Delusion: the belief that the team that wins the championship is always or even usually the best team. We want desperately to believe that the team that wins the title is not a team that had a good season and then got hot. Or a team that had a good season and then had a few breaks go their way. We want to believe that they possess some ineffable quality — clutchiness, manliness, moxie — that makes them win. And the idea that their record in “Authentic Games” is tempting as a way to measure their supposed manliness.

However, once my skepticism was aroused, I came up with numerous problems with the Authentic Games Metric:

  • There is a great deal of parity in the NFL. If you opened up the playoffs to all 32 teams, we would doubtless see the occasional one seed upset by the occasional 16 seed. And the likelihood of upsets only increases as the teams become closer in quality. A team’s record in a 16-game season is subject to enough random variation, chance plays, tipped passed and blown calls. When you narrow it down to 2-6 “Authentic Games” between teams of near-equal quality, you’re basically just looking at noise.
  • This is born out by research that Football Outsiders has done: great teams are usually defined by their ability to dominate lesser teams not win close games. A great team puts games out of reach; a lucky team wins the nail-biters.
  • Even if Authentic Games gave you some read on who is really the best team in the NFL, applying those to playoffs results invokes even more uncertainty. You’re now dealing with an even smaller sample of 11 games involving teams that are nearly equal in quality.
  • Basically, I think this is yet another attempt to find the “special sauce” that would enable us to know why some some #5 seeds win the Super Bowl while #1 seeds fail. Because, to our simian brains, “football happens” isn’t enough. We don’t want to believe that the winner is a result of team quality convolved with a lot of luck and random chance. We don’t want to believe that a team wins the Super Bowl because they just happen to have three or four good games in a row. No, there has to be a reason behind the madness.

    Anyway, here’s what I did to test the Authentic Games Metric:

    I took all 60 playoffs teams from the last five years. I then went through their schedules and kept track of how they did against other playoff contenders. I then tracked how well this predicted playoff results. In the case of a tie, I went with the team that had more Authentic Games. Since we are subject to noise, I did a second test just looking at strong predictions — where one team was two or more games over or under .500 against fellow playoff teams during the regular season and their opponent was not.

    As a control, I then checked predictions made based purely on their regular season record (with a tie going to the higher seeded team) or which team had home-field advantage. I then checked against predictions based on Football Outsider’s team rankings.

    The result? It really isn’t even close. Teams that won the most Authentic Games were 25-25 in their matchups. For strong predictions, teams were 17-18. Essentially, the Authentic Games Metric is the same as flipping a coin. Of course, using the regular season records was 27-28, which bears out TMQ’s criticism that seeding and the regular season don’t tell you nearly enough about the relative quality of the best team.

    However, I did find two predictors that were useful. One was homefield advantage. Home teams were 30-20 in the playoffs. Even if you discount home teams in the divisional round, who have had a bye while their opponent was playing, home teams still win 60% of the time (I’m obviously excluding the Super Bowl here).

    Of similar quality was Football Outsider’s team efficiency ratings, which went 32-23. Not great, but pretty decent all things considered. FO would be the first to admit that predicting the winner in a football game is a fool’s business. Not only do you have the problem of random luck and chance, you have the problem that football is about matchups. A team may be, by some metric, the best. But if they have a weak secondary, they can get torched by a “lesser” team.

    Breaking it down by year reveals just how random the Authentic Game metric is:

  • In 2008, Arizona went 1-4 in authentic games and came within a hair of winning the Super Bowl. Meanwhile, Indianapolis (5-1) died in the first round against San Diego (0-5). Philly (4-2) made the conference final but only because they played New York, also 4-2.
  • In 2009, Indianapolis and New Orleans were both 3-1 in Authentic Games, which would seem to give the metric some credence. But Minnesota (4-1) died in the conference final while Baltimore (1-6) made the divisional round. This was actually the best year for the Authentic Games Metric.
  • In 2010, Pittsburgh (2-4) made the Super Bowl while New England (6-1) died in the first round. The AFC final matches two 2-4 teams in Pittsburgh and New York.
  • In 2011, Baltimore and Green Bay went 6-0 in Authentic Games. Only Baltimore even made the conference final. The New York Giants went 1-3 and won the Super Bowl. Detroit went 1-5 and lost in the first round. New Orleans went 5-1 and lost in the division round. Atlanta went 1-4 and lost in the first round. San Francisco went 4-1 and lost the conference title game. Instead of a matchup of Baltimore (6-0) and Green Bay (6-0) we got New England (1-2) against New York (1-3).
  • In 2012, Seattle was 4-1 in Authentic Games and lost in the divisional round. Green Bay went 2-4 and lost in the division round; Baltimore went 2-4 and won the Super Bowl. Instead of Seattle (4-1) against Indianapolis (3-2), we got Baltimore (2-4) against San Francisco (3-2).
  • You see? You can occasionally pick out a team that did well in both Authentic Games and the playoffs but it’s mostly random. Part of this is, again, the vicissitudes of football. But FO’s rankings don’t do too badly. I think it’s more of a flaw in the Authentic Games metric itself. Because a metric based on 2-6 games is going to be worse, not better, than one based on 16.

    If you want to predict how the NFL post-season will go, here’s my system:

    1) When in doubt, pick the home team or the team with better FO ranking.
    2) Have a lot of doubt.