The world froze over a long time ago. So long ago that I can't remember the warmth of the sun. I heard stories growing up... How the planet grew hotter as our fuel was burned. How we made towers to work the weather. But the truth is... one day... it started to snow. And it never stopped.
- Narration from 'The Colony'
So many worlds. But connecting them all is Dust. Dust was here before the witches of the air, the Gyptians of the water, and the bears of the ice. In my world, scholars invented an alethiometer - a golden compass - and it showed them all that was hidden. But the ruling power, fearing any truth but their own, destroyed these devices and forbade the very mention of Dust. One compass remains, however, and only one who can read it.
-Narration from 'The Golden Compass'
Oh yes, I forget to tell you. The spice exists on only one planet in the entire Universe. A desolate, dry planet with vast deserts. Hidden away within the rocks of these deserts are a people known as the Fremen, who have long held a prophecy, that a man would come, a messiah, who would lead them to true freedom. The planet is Arrakis. Also known as Dune.
- Narration from 'Dune'
The scrolling text, the omnipresent narrator, the main or ancillary character delivering an interminable screed of exposition before we even get to see any of the story proper...all of these are increasingly becoming the bane of filmmaking.
And it's made all the stranger because of these sloppy, boring, confusing, and pace breaking issues are the cause of a major hold over from the days when films were either delivered in serial format (so some exposition was required for those picking up a series in the middle) or perhaps even earlier than that the prologue of a novel or the introductory monologue of a play.
Look back at some classic operas and stage productions. The audience isn't being coached in the story specifically so much as being presented with a musical or emotionally acted sequence to present the themes of the show as much as the plot.
Here's the opening lines of The Ballad of Sweeney Todd again...
Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd
His skin was pale and his eye was odd
He shaved the faces of gentlemen
Who never thereafter were heard of again
He trod a path that few have trod
Did Sweeney Todd
The demon barber of Fleet Street
I can attest that the eerie music, the ghostly chorus (usually made up of the victims of Sweeney who gather right after the curtain rises in one place for this song.) and the deliberately strange lyricism is a stunning prelude.
The song even ends with a little self awareness, but not as a joke so much as creepy undertone to the whole piece which was of course based on early 'penny dreadful' fiction designed to shock and disgust it's audience in the first place.
Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd
He served a dark and a vengeful god
What happened then, well, that's the play
And he wouldn't want us to give it away
Not Sweeney Todd
The demon barber of Fleet Street
In Sweeney Todd the stage play the opening song does indeed somewhat introduce us to the story and principal character, but in doing so it sets a mood. It's 'wordy' being a fairly lengthy multi-versed song, but it also creates more of an atmosphere than might be conjured if, so, Sweeney or some other character just told the story in a voice over or text scrolled by talking about Sweeney.
In other words not only is the practice of blunt-force exposition a meaningless relic from plays which has no place in films, but plays actually did this better than many, many films which try and use this device just as a way to either establish a convoluted narration quickly and lazily, or (perhaps worse) dictate to the dull-witted audience what the plot is and what to care about and feel in the film so they can comprehend all of the complexity occurring in the movie proper, which of course they wouldn't have the patience or intelligence to glean from simply VIEWING it after all.
The movie version of Sweeney Todd to return to a comparison has no dialogue. The motif of blood is a LITTLE unsubtle and at times sensationalist, but it does show the audience something of the story and ideas without a word being said, allowing the original music minus the lyrics to carry the mood.
The blood is like the narrative that flows (literally in this case) between each important aspect of the story: the rain, the house, the portrait, the chair, the chute, and the oven and pies. It's touch extravagant and length, but at the very least it doesn't depend on Johnny Depp outright talking (or singing) about the plot or a text crawl telling us the time period and who the characters are and what will happen next.
As opposed to, say, the Oliver Stone movie Savages which not only has an opening narrator character, but that character NEVER SHUTS UP. All throughout the film this character will chime in with some kind of aside or an observation, none of which are all that insightful and many of which seem insulting because WE CAN ALREADY SEE WHAT'S GOING ON FOR OURSELVES.
Half the time when characters begin a narration they are literally speaking to no one. Maybe this doesn't bother anyone else, but for me this kind of thing always pulls me a little out of an experience, especially if this issue is never addressed.
Lord of the Rings actually managed to side-step this issue. Yes Galadriel is narrating the beginning of the film, but in the second movie (in a brilliant stroke) she is seen to be telephonically communicating with Elrond Halfelven in the same voice as her narration and she even mentions some of what she said in the first film. What could have just been Galadriel narrating because the audience is stupid or the writers were lazy instead becomes a story in itself. Notice how the second and third movies DON'T open with Galadriel narrating them like the first one. Her narration serves a story and character purpose because she isn't speaking to no one or the audience directly, she is actually speaking then as later to Elrond trying to convince him to help humanity in the last battle to come. The first line as well 'The world has changed' sounds less like someone talking to the audience as much as talking to someone else who would more easily understand the flowery turn of phrase. Having this line accompanied by whispering voices in elven seems to lend credence to the idea that this is a telepathic message to Elrond. Yes it IS everything he already knows, but the purpose is to hammer all these events and their meanings home since Elrond would probably more prefer to forget the horror of the past.
But who is John Conner talking to in Terminator 3? Who is Sam talking to in The Colony? Why is the history, politics, and even present events from The Golden Compass being reviewed by a character who, by the end of the film, has left the world? Why is Morgan Freeman narrating the latest Conan the Barbarian movie? In the original at least the character played by Mako who was narrating actually IS Conan's chronicler and companion so recording his adventures makes perfect sense. But Morgan Freeman never shows up in Conan, so is he playing the voice of God? Is he some kind of later chronicler?
Did the writers even care or think about it?
The most hilarious example of exposition overload is the ten minutes devoted to pure backstory in the director's cut of David Lynch's Dune. The Princess Irulan begins by saying this...
A beginning is a very delicate time. Know then, that it is the year 10191. The known universe is ruled by the Padisha Emperor Shaddam IV, my father.
Okay...who are you talking to? Clearly she's in character here, but she never mentions who or what she's delivering all this information is for.
Even weirder is the information she is delivering...
In this time, the most precious substance in the Universe is the spice melange. The spice extends life. The spice expands consciousness. The spice is vital to space travel.
M'kay...I think anybody living in the universe of Dune probably knows all of this already since it's so paramount to their lives.
Then of course there's the line immediately following a long expository train beginning with 'Oh yes, I forget to tell you.'
WHO ARE YOU TALKING TO??
So suffice to say I vastly prefer exposition that fits into the narrative or is delivered via visual input over dialogue or text, neither of which is required any longer I'd argue.