The following story was originally published on 9 September 2018 and appeared at medium.com/allpersonsfictitious.
The film opens on a subway platform in a big city. Probably Manhattan. People dart around boarding and exiting trains. Through the crowd, a group of people wearing black leather appear. They move purposefully, jostling commuters aside. A second group of similarly dressed people then descend the escalator.
Without warning, it’s chaos. Both groups pull weapons from their trench coats and shoot wildly at each other. A woman leaps sideways firing two handguns simultaneously. A kneeling man slides along the concrete as though it were ice, dodging projectiles and returning fire. Well-dressed urban professionals run screaming in every direction. The action intensifies. A hand grenade explodes nearby. More combatants join the fray from an arriving train.
As the violence continues, the camera finds a weeping man crouching behind a pillar. He’s been grazed by a stray bullet. Beside him lies the dead body of a colleague, an innocent bystander. The two were on their way back to the office from lunch when the battle began.
The film follows this man in the aftermath of that gunfight. Although his physical injuries heal, he’s permanently altered. He suffers from PTSD and has panic attacks in crowds and enclosed places. Afraid to leave the house, he loses his job and sinks into depression. He lacks coping strategies, refuses therapy and resists confiding in his wife, leading to divorce. From there, he struggles to pay child support and becomes estranged from his two adolescent children.
In the final scene, he sits alone on a sofa in his small apartment a broken man. He drinks a beer and watches TV as news breaks about an incident downtown. There’s been some kind of firefight involving speedboats and helicopters in an abandoned warehouse by the docks, and a passenger ship caught in the middle is now sinking in the harbor.
Children gather on a playground pointing and laughing at a classmate. As their conversation becomes audible, it’s clear these kids are mocking him for his belief in Santa Claus. (Note: If the Santa thing tests poorly with focus groups, substitute an equivalent type of magical thinking here. Maybe the child believes there’s a ghost in the boys’ locker room or that the math teacher is a werewolf.)
The kids point out the logistical flaws in the Christmas Eve feats attributed to Santa Claus. But the boy explains that Santa is magic and thus not governed by natural laws. At this, the kids laugh even harder, shaking their heads as they return to class.
The boy’s face fills the screen and is replaced by that of a grown man. Twenty years have passed, and the man is sitting before a desktop computer editing a website.
A portrait of the man emerges. He lacks formal education, has a menial job and is characterized by his belief in the fantastical, outlandish and conspiratorial. He believes in UFOs and mythical creatures. That the government is spraying chemicals from airplanes to control the minds of citizens and that pharmaceutical companies are stifling easy cures to diseases for record profits on prescription drug sales. Also, that scientists are conspiring about human impact on the environment in order to…doesn’t matter. He believes these things.
One day, the man’s internet crashes. As he paces his apartment in frustration at not being able to blog, watch videos or visit ideologically-aligned websites, he notices a book on his coffee table. It’s clear it’s been left behind by someone else because this man does not read books. He didn’t even read them in school when they were assigned.
With nothing else to do, he opens the book, reluctantly at first, and begins reading. It’s a book of science or philosophy. Maybe it’s Plato. Whatever it is, it has a profound effect on the man, and he reads it long into the night, failing to notice that the homepage on his conspiracy website has reloaded.
Next, the man enters a library. It’s clear some time has passed. He returns a large stack of books on history, literature and science. The librarian gives him a knowing smile, and the man heads back to the shelves for more reading material.
The man takes his blog offline and disengages from social media. He denounces his prior worldview and conspiracy theories. He rejects superstition in favor of empiricism, ideological division in favor of empathy. He returns to school and chooses a path he hopes will help make the world a better place. He learns to separate reliable information from the half-baked conspiracies he once embraced. And he keeps reading.
An unhappy child does not discover one fateful day that he is the chosen one in some apocalyptic prophecy, born to face down ultimate evil and save the world. Instead, he grows up like anyone else, adapts, evolves, reinvents himself, makes mistakes, learns and attempts to find happiness. Or he seeks help. And he ends up a fairly contented and well-adjusted adult.
A young couple meets in an elaborate way and, after initially disliking each other, fall in love through a series of comical and contrived misadventures. Then, they fight a lot. Eventually, they realize they were more in love with the novelty of their “meet cute” scenario then they were with each other and decide to separate and move on with their lives. Eventually, they each marry someone else, have children, grow old and die after having lived relatively happy lives.
When he is finally revealed, the villain isn’t sexy or charismatic. He doesn’t strut around and banter wittily with the hero. He’s a pathetic, twisted man doing pathetic, twisted things to a world he hates and that hates him back. He is completely alone, and, after he is defeated, he is completely forgotten.
And in the end, there’s no final jump scare to set us up for the inevitable sequel or franchise of diminishing returns. There’s just two hours of a temporary, fleeting experience never meant to be repeated, remade or rebooted.