Along Came a Spider ★★

A Dialogue Between Myself on the Merits of Nitpicking
or How Do We Reconcile Plausibility with Entertainment?

I miss the mid-budget cat-and-mouse potboiler that proliferated in the 90s and died out in the early 2000s. I miss their low stakes, their tricky labyrinthine mysteries, and their utterly nonsensical twists. My partner and I grew up on a lot of these films, such as Kiss the Girls, The Bone Collector, and others. They were came to prominence after the early death of the so-called "domestic thriller," such as Pacific Heights, The Hand that Rocks the Cradle, and others, where the plotting wasn't quite as convoluted, but the stakes were often paltry in comparison with the galaxy-spanning threats of today's films.

Both aforementioned genres have similar DNA but the cat-and-mouse potboiler takes it cues from police procedurals. We can thank Thomas Harris for popularizing (or mastering, if you want) the combination of Ed McBain-style police procedural with Jim Thompson-style crime sensationalism. I'm specifically referring to the generic conventions, not the aesthetic qualities as McBain and Thompson share little in common with Harris' prose. What Thomas Harris contributed to the long discourse of detective fiction was not the idea of the criminal and detective being both geniuses, but the criminal being psychopathic and impossible to understand. The Silence of the Lambs isn't just an Oscar-winning masterpiece film; it's also a masterpiece work of narrative fiction (one of David Foster Wallace's all-time favourite books). Again, I should be clear: Harris invented none of this; rather, he did it the most efficiently. One of the many imitators to follow was James Patterson, a publishing juggernaut with hundreds of novels to his name and none of them any good. His first Alex Cross novel is Along Came a Spider, which turned out to be the second film in the Alex Cross universe (a film adaptation feat mirrored by the Dan Brown novels and films).

Detective fiction is a widely theorized genre, beloved by many theorists and critics because of its central conceit: the mystery. In order to solve that mystery, writers often deploy detectives who are smarter than the average person and generally smarter than the writer himself. As the writer knows everything about the mystery (we should assume for the sake of this review), it rests on the detective's shoulders to make the intuitive leaps which allow the solution to present itself. Many mysteries withhold the detective's thought process from the reader, so when the detective reveals they know something, it's a surprise for the audience. They ask themselves, "how did the detective guess that?" and the pleasure of the mystery is the unfolding of that intuitive leap, the unknotting of the tangled web woven by the antagonists. The pleasure is in being outsmarted by the detective.

Along Came a Spider uses this method numerous times and each time, the possibility of Alex Cross's intuitive leap being correct is so preposterous as to be entertaining. An example: after the kidnapper has successfully received his ransom (ten million dollars in diamonds, an already preposterous ransom for the FBI to produce in such a short amount of time), he shows up at Alex Cross's house. Alex remarks that twelve million dollars in diamonds is a large ransom, with the kidnapper making no response to this. A scene later, Alex reveals to the audience that he intended to make this mistake because he suspected the kidnapper wasn't the one who made the ransom request. This is absurd. Intuitive leaps are the bread and butter of detection, but this goes beyond logic into the realm of Cassandra-like prognostication. There's nothing in the film, in the text, to suggest that there is a collaborator, nothing to pique Alex's suspicions. Yet, in the next scene, after watching security footage, he successfully deduces that not only are there other perpetrators, but that they're not in league with the original kidnapper! On top of that, he also correctly notes that there are more than one person working against the kidnapper! It's preposterous! This could be an example of a mystery not playing fair, but really, it's what happens when a writer of average intelligence is writing a character who has a genius-level intelligence. Where Doyle could pass off Holmes as being a genius thanks to scrupulous research, Along Came a Spider has to cheat to make the narrative hinges turn without squeaks.

It's already preposterous that a Doctor Alex Cross, a worldwide bestselling author and expert in behavioral forensics, slums as a Washington DC police detective. My partner argued against this, saying that perhaps Cross works as a regular detective because of his love for the job, and I responded, if he's that good of a detective, it is his ethical duty to become a teacher or a consultant to help as many people as he can, to spread his knowledge, and not selfishly waste it on minor (comparatively) crimes in one single city.

I'm not one for nitpicking plot points normally, but as somebody who loves mysteries and twists and narratives, I think about them and their rules and their nature and their flow all the time. I think about how stories work and how they might or might not be successful in their intentions. Mysteries don't always have to play fair (like for example, Twin Peaks doesn't play fair and people love that shit) but if they start by playing fair, then they must finish by playing fair. Along Came a Spider does not play fair...

... and boy is it entertaining for doing so. Despite the film providing Cross with supernatural levels of cognition, the film still works. After all, this isn't a film asking the plot to tie together in a neat fussy bow like a Christopher Nolan film (sidebar: how amazing would it have been if Nolan arose during the early 90s and made his name making these mid-budget cat-and-mouse movies? He would have been great at it. Too bad). Instead of being a careful illusionist act (like Seven), Along Came a Spider is like a vaudeville act: desperately trying to entertain you by shifting gears every ten seconds, hoping the pace and breathlessness of the plot will keep you distracted from thinking about the frayed strands of the story.

I don't think nitpicking as a mode of criticism is productive. As one tool in a complete set, it can be very useful. Consider this fantastic Last Jedi review by Adam Roberts over at Strange Horizons (a superlatively good site for genre criticism). First of all, Roberts' prose is delectable and whenever I read his work, I despair of ever writing a sentence as wonderful as the ones he seems to concoct without sweating. Secondly, his review is effusive at first, but eventually, like a boy turning away from childish things, he settles into the important work of nitpicking the plot. As a seasoned science fiction writer, and as a historian of science fiction, Roberts is one of few writers I would trust to nitpick science fiction. But, I should clarify, he isn't interested in the feasibility of the technology (an avenue of critical inquiry I have ZERO patience for) but rather how the construction of the narrative, its successes and failures, work in tandem with the other formal elements, such as themes and characters. He makes some excellent points about Admiral Holdo's plans (he doesn't get her name right, though). He writes astutely about the eucatastrophe:

It’s a twist, is the point, but there comes a level where plot-twists stop being a feature and aggregate into a bug. The whole of this movie is sutured together from twists: the unexpected jolt, the knight’s move, the character dying when you didn’t expect it, the other character certain to die who is saved at the last minute.

Roberts could have been writing about Along Came a Spider, a film made entirely of setpieces. Roberts writes, "it’s probably true that the bagginess and strung-togetherness of the storyline matter less than the excellence of the individual set -pieces—most of them are very well staged...." He goes on to interrogate how the individual setpieces and science fictional elements work with the themes he identifies. That hope and leadership are so important to the themes begs the question of how these setpieces depict them. Holdo's leadership is can't be faulted, Robert argues, because in the the universe of Star Wars "everything is bent around the lines-of-force of the audience’s eucatastrophic satisfaction." Similarly, the universe of Along Came a Spider is built on the supernatural intuitive leaps of the detective. Without Cross's superhuman cognition, the film is nothing but over-articulate and ambitious criminals. The force of the universe, the thrust of the narrative, is Cross's abilities. In a way, then, the nitpicking of Cross's preposterous prowess is self-defeating: without it the film is a shadow of itself, a pale hollowness.

But this isn't to say that nitpicking is entirely unproductive. I mean, I did spend a couple hundred words poking at his godlike guesswork. The key with this tool, like any tool, is moderation. Too much nitpicking as a critical practice gives us a culture of thinking we're smarter than the stories being told. We become obsessed with unlocking every secret a story has, to the point where any element of the texture of the film is read literally, not as a metaphor, but as an essential clue to unlock the text. Not all stories operate on this principle (ie they are all mysteries just needing a cipher) but assuming all stories are is a) poor viewing practice and b) poor critical practice. I always think of Inception when I think of this, specially the final shot, the ambiguity of the spinning top. People have spent eons combing the surface of the text looking for clues to indicate whether or not the top stops spinning. The answer is, obviously, ambiguous. There is no definitive answer; if there was, the filmmakers would have included it. The text provides a purposefully ambiguous final shot and this frustrates viewers who have been trained by critical practices popularized by Red Letter Media to view all elements of the text as operating towards a Grand Unified Theory of Theme.

When, in films, there are jagged edges, such as in The Last Jedi or Along Came a Spider, viewers are frustrated and assume these edges are "bugs" not "features." Roberts' observation of the eucatastrophe as being buggy is a personal judgement, one he admits to ("I’m as much a sucker for the old eucatastrophic bait-and-switch as the next spaceboy or spacegirl"). The storytelling in The Last Jedi didn't bother me—I gave the film a perfect score—not because it's perfect but because of my preferences. But notice that I didn't call the jagged storytelling flawed. Rather, it's all working towards a focused goal (hope and failure). In Along Came a Spider, the twists and super abilities aren't flaws, they are the texture of the film. We can nitpick the plausibility of Alex Cross, but the nitpicking should always be in the context of whether or not the story jives for the viewer. For my partner, they couldn't care less about the intuitive leaps. For me, it rankled a little, but I'm not about to punish the film for its bending the laws of possibility. The film is successful in what it sets out to do, even if it has to cheat.

I don't really have a definitive answer on the merits of nitpicking, I'm afraid, other than to advise using moderation. Nitpicking should just be one of numerous critical strategies, not the only one. We should also do well to remember that not all stories follow the Robert McKee/"Save the Cat!" rules of storytelling and that's not because of failure but because of variety. After all, if stories could be produced algorithmically, they would eventually stop surprising us.