Plot Points: The Wraith and the World-Building Power of Insufficient Exposition
The English word “perplex” comes from the Latin plectere, meaning to weave, plait, or braid. When a film “per-plexes”, it weaves through us, making knits and knots as it goes. A new structure is formed between us and the screen which binds us together, whether we want this or not.
Being “perplexed” by a film is not simply being confused by it. When we are confused (con-fundere, “to pour and mix together”), our relationship to the film is chaotic and without structure. It is an emotional and subjective jumble that is not “constructive” in any way. We are somehow “lessened” by our relationship to the film, instead of enhanced by it.
When I first saw the poster for 1986’s The Wraith (above) I was, understandably, intrigued. It seemed to suggest a petrol-scented science fiction testoster-flick, sort of “Close Encounters of the Knight Rider Kind”, which was enough to get me in the door. But as the plot unfolded, the film revealed itself to be something more than that. Not something more thrilling necessarily, but something more perplexing.
In order to explain how this semi-unknown film manages to be the apotheosis of every 80s hard sci-fi trope while simultaneously violating every audience expectation, I will need to spoil many elements of the plot and characters. But I assure you this actually doesn’t matter. The film spoils most of them itself in the first act, and this takes away none of its perplexity.
When we first see the four lights swoop down out of the Arizona sky and dance along the desert roadways, we are comforted. The framework of extraterrestrial visits to the United States is well-establish in our culture, and was so by the time this film was released: E.T. was released four years prior, The Last Starfighter and Starman, two years. From even this little bit of material, we already expect to be able to take refuge in some simple tropes of the genre.
But instead of turning into lovable little Muppets, or spritely miniature robots, or even improbably humanoid aliens, these four lights collide and become…
…a 1984 Dodge Twin-Turbo M4S Interceptor. This was a limited edition concept car created by PPG Industries as a combination pace car/engineer indulgence project. Its main legacy in the world has been the marvel of how through turbocharging and aerodynamics alone the tiny 2.2L four-cylinder mid-engine could push the machine to 195 miles per hour.
But in the moment, having never seen one of the only six such cars ever made, we think, okay, so it’s an alien car for some reason. We’re thinking about Knight Rider and Herbie and Maximum Overdrive. We’re assuming that the car will befriend some middle-class sixteen-year-old and help him get a date to the prom. Or perhaps enact some sort of intergalactic Christine-style revenge spree.
And then the driver gets out. Two arms, two legs, one head. Starman after all, we think? But there’s something off about him. Even in his helmet he seems to threaten some great violence, but we are sure this is our hero. We wait for him to remove his helmet. We wait…and wait…
The credits haven’t even rolled yet and we are already mood-fishtailing all over the place, cursing our cultural conditioning that has indoctrinated us into simply looking for the next trope to leapfrog to. The movie poster, the year, and the cast (Charlie Sheen, Sherilyn Fenn) have tricked us into thinking this would be some delightfully cheesy 80s flick. But we have been rocked back on our aesthetic heels. We are, in a word, perplexed.
As the film progresses, it continues to not play nice with its (apparent) genre, which is at first off-putting. But then we remember that we are the ones in the wrong by coming to the theater with all of these neatly arranged beats and pigeonholes in our minds that we expect the movie to fulfill. The speculative-fiction cinema of the 1980s cut such a deep farrow into Western culture that we sometimes forget that all such films were not “of a piece”; in each case we must allow the idiosyncrasies of the artists and the zeitgeist to freely collide.
And The Wraith has quite a big idiosyncrasy at its very center. The rules and mythology of the world on the screen are never explained. We eventually come to understand that the driver is the reincarnation of a murdered young man come back to avenge his death and protect the woman he loves.
But we are not told why he has a car with a glowing engine, nor why it can dematerialize, nor what entity or deity gave it to him, along with a set of Giger-esque motorcycle leathers (to drive a car, which is impossible to wreck). Or why he has a shotgun with LED lights. Or why… really anything in this picture.
We are not told why the smallest, youngest, weirdest, underbitiest member of the gang is able to find a sexual partner no less frequently than every four days. We are not told why we needed to know this.
We are not told whether “the Wraith” is the car or the driver. Or whether both form some sort of joint spectral organism.
But, see, if the movie were to tell us any of that, if diegetic reasons were laid out for us to snap together like so many plot-Legos, then we’d feel as if the world of the movie is small enough to fit inside our minds. By leaving out some of this exposition, which is normally found by the paragraph-full in films like this, then the world of the film takes on some of the mystery and open-endedness of our own world. Events still happen in (more or less) cause-then-effect order, and characters still act in accordance with their own internal logics, but the film snob’s internal rhythm of “oh and then Trope X will cause Archetype Y to arrive at Plot Point C” is disrupted.
The Wraith‘s unique and highly effective mode of storytelling and world-building has two potential causes: genius or incompetence. We all can think of examples where clever excising of exposition has deepened our engagement with a film. We can also think of films which explain so little about their rules that events seems to be happening at random, and our consciousness tunes out completely. The line dividing those two outcomes is very thin indeed, barely wider than personal subjectivity.
Is it the audience’s job (and the critic’s) to try to figure out which of these two slots this film fits into? Is there something to be gained by “correctly” separating perplexity from shittiness? To burn precious brain cycles on scouring director Mike Marvin‘s back-catalog of sex comedies and erotic thrillers filmed under pseudonyms to try suss out if he is in fact a quote-unquote “bad” director, so that we can condemn his work appropriately?
Honestly, until I saw the The Wraith I had a much firmer handle on that question. The actual question, to me, is whether a film can, through the right collisions of direction, story, talent, zeitgeist, editing, and music, each of low to middling quality, “accidentally” result in a remarkable movie experience. Not that’s what necessarily happened here. But if that possibility is on the table, then deconstruction and attribution of a film’s quality become tricky prospects.
The Wraith is a worthy and remarkable work, all the more so because it is somewhat forgotten despite having many hallmarks of a cult film. But for the serious film consumer, especially one with experience in the genre, The Wraith will make you reexamine your assumptions and expectations of movies like this, and it will also make your reexamine the criteria we use to label a movie as “good” or “bad”.
This gets at the very heart of Flickchart, and I hope as people add The Wraith to their charts that they are smiling at the unique challenge that it presents.