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What is Awesome?

26 June 201005:50AMessay

There is something which has been bothering me for a while, and that is Awesome. Awesome is a word which gets thrown around a lot, often, I think, not really deservedly. I am here today, ladies and gentlemen, to clear up the confusion of what, exactly, constitutes 'Awesome'.

The most logical place to start when defining things is, naturally, to look in the dictionary. The totally reliable and entirely trustworthy academics of Dictionary Dot Com define awesome thusly:

awe·some -adjective
1. inspiring awe: an awesome sight.

  1. showing or characterized by awe.

  2. Slang. very impressive: That new white convertible is totally awesome.

This is a decent start. It's (no surprises) something that inspires awe, or is 'very impressive', but this doesn't really begin to cover the subtle nuance of awesome. Awesome has a very clear demarcation beyond just 'very impressive'- you know it when you see it. There's a difference between something which is merely cool and something Awesome. So where to begin? Well, I have a theory about what makes something awesome, and it all comes down to expectations, and more specifically, breaking them.

I propose that in order to be considered Awesome, an object, event, person or other... thing-not-covered-by-those-three, must be:

  1. Expected. The onlookers, audience, other dudes, whoever is doing the calling-of-awesome, must be expecting something to happen. In movies, this is often done with musical cues, swooshy camera movements, and other such things, to build it up. In the real world, other people often do this- a huge crowd (or queue (I love that word, so many eueueues)), rumors, or announcibles usually clue you in to the fact that something is about to happen. This is the element of suspense.
  2. Unexpected. Yes, I know it contradicts the first point, just shut up for a minute and listen. While the observers must be expecting something to happen, they can't know what it is beforehand. This explains why action movies are rarely as good the second time around- you know what's coming and it's no longer unexpected. The awesome thing must come as a grand, usually sudden reveal. This is the element of surprise.
  3. Totally Unexpected. Just shut up already, okay? This is different to the last one. The last one is in context with the observers not knowing what will happen- this one is that even if they did know what is coming, they wouldn't believe it. In order to be truly awesome, the Awesome thing must be completely off the wall, over the top (but not so much that it's cheesy, it's a delicate balance). In a film, it has to 1-up everything which has happened so far, everything which the characters would expect, and IRL, it similarly has to completely top anything which has happened so far. I call this the rule of elevens, after Spinal Tap's amp, which 'goes up to eleven', because ten just isn't loud enough. This is what an awesome thing must do: completely surpass anything else which has come so far, in size, or magnitude, or speed, or courage, or stupidity, or craziness or whatever similarly objective measure you choose to place upon it.

Let's look at some examples then, shall we?

The Lord of the Rings
There are two truly awesome moments in these films, ignoring the fact that both films were entirely awesome from start to finish. The first is when Boromir gets hit by not one, not two, THREE arrows in the chest and still keeps fighting. This is awesome by anyone's standards, but this post isn't about anyone's standards, it's about mine, so let's apply them:
1. Expected. Boromir says he'll protect the hobbits as they make their escape, so we expect him to either hold out for a while or go down fighting- more likely the latter, because he's just had his moment of temptation with the ring and everything, and we want to see karma at work and make him earn our forgiveness. So that's cool. 2. Surprise. That first arrow comes out of nowhere, the heroic music music stops suddenly, and Peter Jackson does that thing where we see the hobbits shouting but no noise comes out. Bam. In your face surprise. At this point we're pretty sure that he isn't going to make it. And then...
3. ...he gets up. Kills some more baddies. Gets shot again. Kills yet more baddies. Gets shot AGAIN. And _then _he starts to slow down a bit. This sequence ramps it up to eleven, then twelve, then frickin' thirteen, and Boromir is still fighting. This is totally unlike anything we've seen before in the movie and unlike anything we'll see again. For us it's totally over the top. For Merry and Pippin it's totally over the top. It's what the guys at TVtropes call a Crowning Moment of Awesome, and it's my favourite scene in the whole films, except for this next one, which only just tops it.

Scene: Frodo is at the base of Mt. Doom. He collapses. Sam is with him. What happens next?

1. We know Sam's going to do something. We know it. It's been his entire purpose throughout the entire trilogy, to help Mr. Frodo with every little thing. He's the best friend ever, and Frodo's just collapsed. He has to do something, right?
2. Of course he does. He can't take the ring and finish the quest himself, because although that would be heroic, it wouldn't be what Mr. Frodo wants. So Sam picks Frodo up, and carries him. Wait, whut? That is not really the most logical choice for this situatio, but hey. I mean, of course he does. He's Sam. This is appropriately accompannied by music, etc, etc.
3. Let's put this in perspective then: Sam, the 'fat hobbit' from the Shire, who is a fricking gardener and is frankly a bit of a putz, starts carrying Frodo up the sheer side of an erupting volcano in the middle of the black land of Mordor under the very eye of the biggest bad Middle Earth has ever seen. Is this Awesome? Yes. Yes verily, it is. (Actually, for Sam it's not that unexpected... a close second to this for him is defeating a fricking demigod spider queen using a knife and a jar of light. But hey, all in a day's work.)

Let's look at something that isn't the Lord of the Rings.

How about Hot Fuzz? Totally the opposite end of the cinematic spectrum: fairly low budget, fairly not-that-serious, and made on totally the other side of the world. And yet we see the same characteristics. If you've seen the film, you can probably guess that it's the final 20 minutes or so to which I refer.

1. Expected. Nick has just basically been defeated, but since he's the hero, we don't expect him to give up. He makes this bit pretty obvious when he starts looking at aviators and police movies in a petrol station. But what will he do against a cult of murderous neighbourhood watch people?
2. Oh. He's going to fight them. That's cool, I guess. And he's going to use a gun from the evidence loc- wait-what-ALL-THE-GUNS? What the hell is he planning with this?
3. And then he rides into town on the back of a white stallion covered in more armaments than any sane human could possibly use... into the middle of a quiet English country town. And then the shooting starts. Where the rest of the movie has been at about 2 or 3, it spends the final 20 minutes with the dial locked to eleven, made even more insane by the setting and enemies. If this was Bruce Willis and some scary black-clad terrorists, this would not be Awesome. But since it's Simon Pegg, and a town full of eccentric English people, it totally is.

Okay, one more, and it's one which you probably haven't seen. It's the end of the perennial late-night-channel-ten movie favourite, The Seige. I won't explain the full plot now, but basically New York is in danger, Bruce Willis is a dickhead militant general putting the city under martial law and segregating minorities and generally being a dick, and Denzel Washington is the FBI agent who's still dedicated to tracking down the perps. I guess I did just summarise the plot. Never mind.
1. So, it's the end of the film, and Denzel's character is annoyed because this general dude is herding kids into stadiums and torturing people. We expect the good guy to do something, otherwise what would this movie be about?
2. The guy walks in and arrests him, for torture and murder. Beeeep! Wrong move! This is entirely not what we were expecting... maybe some kind of shootout, or verbal smackdown, but not an attempted arrest. That's just a bit silly really.
3. And then it gets awesome, and Denzel reads the guy the "you have the right to remail silent" speech so beloved of CSI, but manages to make it sound really cool. It's a hard scene to describe... the inappropriateness of trying to arrest the general with tanks rolling down the streets has a lot to do with it. But it works. Next time it's on TV as the late movie, watch it. You'll probably be surprised.

Finally, an example of what doesn't work. Last season's Doctor Who finale. You could tell they were aiming for awesome, but really, it just spent the whole episode at 11. There wasn't a build up, there wasn't a surprise- it was just over the top. Because if you spend the whole show at 11, 11 is the new 1, and you have to build it up all over again. Hopefully the new series will be better (no spoilers please!).

That's it then: the complete and comprehensive guide to Awesome. Applying it to other films, and indeed, things which are not films, such as music, theme parks, and real life (as distinct from theme parks) is left as an exercise to the reader.

Thank you, and goodnight.

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