9 years ago: The Dog Rule

June 1, 2004, on this blog: The Dog Rule

Simply stated, the Dog Rule holds that no good movie seeks a larger emotional response from the survival of a dog than from the casual death of a dozen or more people.

The rule was devised after watching an earlier Roland Emmerich opus, Independence Day. In that film, evil space aliens attack the earth. The audience sees New York City and Los Angeles destroyed. While little of this mass destruction is on a human scale, the explosions and fireballs make it clear that millions of people have just been killed and that the audience may be witnessing the highest-ever cinematic death toll (depending on how many people lived on Alderaan).

Then Emmerich cuts to a highway tunnel near L.A. where Vivica Fox, a cute little kid and a golden retriever are trapped in an unmoving line of cars attempting to flee the city. Fox and the little boy duck into a maintenance tunnel just as another fireball shoots up the road, casually dispatching hundred of people still trapped in their cars. In slow motion, we see the golden retriever leap to safety and the audience cheers.

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  • TheBrett

    To be honest, you could say that about an individual person as well. It’s just a dramatic “hook” to get the audience invested in the personal struggle of someone caught in the horrific series of events.

    I still really like that movie, by the way. Nearly 20 years on, and it’s still one of the best incarnations of Big Dumb Popcorn Movie that has ever been made. The scenes with the alien spaceships unleashing their primary weapons are still “woh!” moments, particularly the one in LA.

  • JJ Abram’s Star Trek has to be well in the running for highest death toll, given that two planets are destroyed (both the Vulcan and Romulan homeworlds), albeit not quite in the same reality. Not to mention the massed destruction of Starfleet ships, and whatever collateral damage from all the things crashing into San Francisco (which takes a real beating in his version of the series.)

    No dogs survive, but that kind of genocide still makes everything else in the movie feel weighted oddly- why would I care about whatever character’s emotional wellbeing, when literally billions of sentient beings are dead?

  • hidden_urchin

    That’s why the death of Spock’s mother felt forced. I know they were going for a parallel with Kirk losing his father but they just destroyed a planet so killing Amanda was just pointless. Also, it was kind of doubtful Spock would have let go of her so that she could get so close to the edge of the cliff.

  • reynard61

    Stalin said it better: “One death is a Tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic.”

  • Worthless Beast

    I remember back when I still lived in Arizona one of the radio personalties on one of Phoenix’s alternative rock stations talking about the differing reactions call-ins on the show had to news of tragedy, depending on the victim.
    “If there’s a story about some beaten dog starving on the street, people go AWWW! and have all this righteous indignation over it, but if we report some homeless guy starving on the street or a suicide, people are all…. MORE OXYGEN FOR ME!!!”
    – He was laughing at it more than having a push for justice, but it was very true.
    I think the “save the dog” thing in fiction really plays on that and thensome. In fiction, especially an action movie, the only “real humans” in it are those that are fleshed out – the protagonist, his/her friends and sidekicks, even the villains – while the rest might as well be a nest of caterpillars for their Random Human Unit-ness. This way, subconciously, they’re less people to us and more …. well, packed in a traffic jam escaping hostile aliens, they become “the THINGS in the WAY!” as we imagine ourselves in the protagonists’ shoes, trying to escape death/save the world/make it to a friend’s memorial service/whatever.
    Children and dogs, however, are innocent. We have an instictual drive toward the protecting of children, and dogs are our loyal friends and for some, beings that are *better* than human for their loyalty and cuteness. Even if we do not know a child or a dog (they haven’t been fleshed out by the narrative yet), there is an immediate desire to see them protected, unlike a stinky and in the way adult Random Human Unit.
    Then, the cute dog getting away over the rubble of burned bodies kind of loses its charm for those moviegoers who really stop to think about the implications and realize that a cheap trick is being attempted on them by the director.

  • Yes. The telling of a story like this by bringing it down to a level we can understand is not necessarily manipulative at all. It’s simply bringing it to a level human beings can understand and identify with. It’s a good storytelling tactic. It doesn’t mean the storyteller is saying this one dog or human is more important than the millions who’ve died, at all.

  • Well, I think there’s a bit more to it than that, because we’d previously established that You’d Best Not Talk Smack About Spock’s Momma, as talking smack about Spock’s momma is his Berzerk Button, so killing her sets up for Kirk compromising Spock later by taunting him over it….

    Which actually seems like kind of a cheap and utilitarian thing to kill Amanda over.

  • Except for Porthos, who survived his transporter mishap, but may have rematerialized Long Ago in A Galaxy Far Away.

  • Tapetum

    Individuals (animals or people) that have been seen and known, however briefly, get a lot more response than the faceless multitudes, however great. I’m seeing this a little on FB and some of the petitions arriving in e-mail right now. There’s a ten-year-old girl needing a lung transplant, and she’s on the children’s transplant list, but her odds of getting her lungs would be much better on the adult’s transplant list. (The current cut-off age is 12.) So there are petitions and drives to get her moved to the adult transplant list, because there are videos and personal pleas about this little girl, and she’s adorable and people don’t want her to die. What there isn’t, is much acknowledgement that there aren’t enough organs for donation period, and that her moving to the adult transplant list and getting lungs would almost undoubtedly mean that someone else who also needed lungs had gotten booted further down the list.

    It’s been much on my mind, because she’s in the same transplant area I’m in, and one of my fourteen year old students is about to go on that transplant list. I don’t know if the little girl with the petition would be a good candidate for the adult list. I do know that making the choice of whose life to trade for another’s shouldn’t be made by on-line petition, or by who’s cuter and more appealing to the general public.

  • Susan Gerard

    I don’t know why this girl isn’t getting a partial lung transplant. They do that with kids whose bodies can’t accommodate adult-sized lungs. It would save her life, but *might* drop an adult down (they could use one lobe for the child, the other, larger lobe for an adult), which is not necessarily a bad thing if the need was the basis for the receipt of the transplant (i.e., no adult is as desperate for a lung as she is right now).

  • Susan Gerard

    I agree with Beast, “Children and dogs, however, are innocent.” Our hearts go out to them, whereas we fell less sympathy for adults. That’s not to say that the rule is invalid. It sheds light on poor character development and flimsy plot devices.

  • Guest

    It’s a way of exploiting a fault in our human wiring. Intellectually, we might know that saving a million people is better than saving one, but our capacity for empathy hinges on having a face to look at so that we can actually see the suffering. It’s why a lot of people will go for a ‘sponser a child’ charity, even though if they gave the same amount of money each month to a regular charity, they’d probably save many more people. They need to know the person their money is going to, in order to motivate themselves to give.

    We also tend to blame other people for getting themselves into situation where they need help. It’s like a protective thing – ‘they’re suffering because they are bad, or unprepared. As long as I don’t do what they did, I’m safe’. This impulse to blame the victim doesn’t seem to happen with animals, maybe because we know they don’t have agency in the same way. You can’t really blame a starving dog for ‘not working hard enough’ or think ‘he’s probably a drunk’.

    Does exploiting a human weakness make movies bad? I guess it depends what you think movies are for. If you think movies should uplift the human race and teach us to reason better, then yeah, it’s bad, but if you think movies are entertainment and the point is to make people feel something, the dog trick works.

  • Cathy W

    My thought was “putting her on the adult list is probably medically unwise, as she’s not done growing and couldn’t accommodate a full-sized set of lungs”… but I agree with your point.

  • Charity Brighton

    It can turn that way though. Left Behind series relies on this tactic almost exclusively; the faceless multitudes of all the people who are obliterated during the Rapture, during WW2, during the judgments, plagues, etc. barely even count, but we’re supposed to cheer and care when the protagonists make it through another day. I guess it depends on how well the author manages it.

  • Mark Z.

    The only honest story, by this rule, is John Varley’s “The Manhattan Phone Book (Abridged)”, which you should all go and read now.

  • Worthless Beast

    Maybe this is
    the root of it.

    Living life and
    being on the Internet have taught me a harsh lesson: When it comes to adults,
    *there are no victims.* Think about some of the news stories we see with
    innocent people hurt/killed and some of the reaction to it: Some actor or
    director dies of a random heart attack. Very few people seem to jump to
    the conclusion of “poor person had a random genetic defect they didn’t
    even know about” – more hop to say “they must have been TAKING DRUGS!
    Irresponsible addicted to painkillers Something *I* would never do!”
    Or… random shootings. Aurora – gun nuts talked about how the victims
    should have done illegal concealed-carry or “rushed the shooter like a
    man” as I recall. I remember on one
    news site, after the Sihk temple shooting, someone saying “Well, they shouldn’t
    have been religious.” SERIOUSLY! Someone
    blamed the people for their own deaths because they were at the temple… I guess
    that’s one way of saying what you’d like to have done to people who are
    different than you without getting your hands dirty because there’s always some
    neo-Nazi nut you also condem doing the icky part of getting rid of people who
    don’t think should exist for you… *rolls eyes.*

    And I’ve seen
    this extend to meatspace… when I still had a job (no I didn’t lose it over this
    incident, miraculously), I caught my boss standing around with her friends /
    the teenage childern of her horsey-set friends (I worked at a barn as a lowly
    poo-scooper), and they were talking about the tsunami in Japan – this was back
    when that had hit. One of the teens said
    “Well, I guess this is what they get for Pear Harbor.” While my better “I like my job and would like
    to keep it and am not in these people’s social class” judgement almost kept my
    mouth shut, I screwed up my courage and informed them that not only were a
    couple of significant bombs dropped back then, but that most of the people
    affected by the natural disaster *were not even born during WWII.* I kept
    my job for many months longer and lost it over something else. Amazing, that. Who knows? My mouth my have contributed to the
    eventual unemployment… I don’t care. I felt I had to say something.

    I have to
    wonder if any of them saw the news story about the dog that survived the
    tsunami that was found watching over an injured dog that everyone on the
    Internet cooed at. (Including me… ) I
    have to wonder, if unlike me, they cooed over the loyalty of the dog while
    forgetting said dogs’ lost human family…

    Adults… or (or
    even children that are countries away and faceless or belonging to other races)…
    none of them are victims, ever, it would seem, when people only see them as
    apart of an agenda, in the way, or part of the backdrop. Children (“of our own kind”) are innocent –
    the moreso younger they are… perhaps, in
    part, because we think they’re blank and moldable. I, myself, have expressed a desire to send
    the Westboro people off to a deserted island somwhere they can thunderdome it
    out for themselves, but would want to save the children – because unlike
    adults, they don’t “have a choice” nor are they “set in their ways.” Companion animals, particularly dogs (who
    unlike cats, worship at our feet rather than demand our worship) are innocent
    in that way, too… no real choice over what they do or where they happen to be,
    and they are simple in mind and the like. A dog, like a very young child, is never going
    to be able to make complex political decisions that disagree with yours.

    Of course, it
    only works to an extent. We all cheer
    for the cute golden reteriver to survive a disaster movie, but what about a pit
    bull? (I’ve met people in real life who see them less as living creatures and
    more as living bombs that need to be exterminated. To them, they aren’t like “real dogs.” Sad
    for me, because I grew up with pit bulls that were raised right and very sweet

  • Worthless Beast

    And this is what I get for copy-pasting text into Disqus.

    I can never win with this stupid program! Not on my old browser, not on the newer one I’ve got, either! *Shakes fist.*

    I should blame Disqus for its own disaster…

  • Yes, but I don’t care about Buck et al either. A bad writer’s gonna write badly, no matter how they choose to tell a story. But if the LB characters cared about the broader world, if they thought and behaved like real people, we’d have an entirely different set of books.

  • There is always someone blaming the victim. However, I’ve noticed that in most places, there is also always someone standing up for the victim. And after that first person stands up, they get a lot of support.

    One thing about the internet is, there are a lot of people on it who do not socialize outside of it. Most of these people are likely fine. However, some of them only socialize on the internet because no one in meatspace will have them.

  • I wish people would use that to get people to become organ donors.

  • EllieMurasaki

    I am reminded of a tweet I saw screencapped on tumblr, to the effect of “libertarians who complain about not getting dates: dude, the market spoke. it said no.”

  • Hah!

    Also, why would anyone want to date someone whose philosophy is based on not caring about other people? Not exactly a good prospect for even casual sex, let alone a lifetime partnership.

  • Freak

    Reminds me of an episode of Acid Reflux: http://acidreflux.ficwad.com/comic/21

  • Worthless Beast

    I mostly socialize on the Internet, because I won’t have people in meatspace. Not always… I like to think I’m pretty fine when I do, I’ve just always been introverted – even before I ever had Internet. I do take comfort in that the worst things I’ve seen people say have been Internet-related, but, occasionally (as with my ex-boss’ friends), people say obnoxious things in meatspace, too.

    Sometimes, I stand up. Sometimes, I know I will not be listened to and let people continue to be meatheads.

  • Kirk is a supreme asshole in this reboot. There’s really no way around it: his nickname for Leonard McCoy is based on McCoy’s bitter divorce.

    MCCOY: Yeah, well, got nowhere else to go. The ex-wife took the whole damn planet in the divorce. All I’ve got left is my bones.

  • Tying in why that’s a reply- cheap and utilitarian seem to be all Abrams can really do. Apparently he really doesn’t see a difference in genre between Star Trek and Star Wars, either, so we can expect to see more of the same there.

  • Sure, though “Kirk talks smack about Spock’s mother in order to provoke an emotional outburst” is straight out of TOS.

    (My central theory of Old Kirk vs New Kirk is that new kirk lacks the single formative incident that led old kirk to become a seriously flawed but not entirely reprehensible git, namely the death of his commanding officer on the Farragut. The latest movie appears to have given Kirk a comparable character-defining incident, but the lesson from it seems different in character. I remain open to the possibility that as his circumstances continue to diverge from his counterpart’s, he’ll find some other path to non-reprehensibility)

  • aim2misbehave

    I believe the best source for that has it in the running for #4… http://www.bodycounters.com/bodycounts.php

  • aim2misbehave

    That, and the fact that the viewer needs an amount of background info to care about characters, so in general the number of characters that the viewer can care about is limited by the length of the media in question. Which is why an “ensemble” cast is usually only 5-6 people for a movie, but then there’s shows like Game of Thrones that have casts large enough to populate a tiny country. (Love Actually is the only movie that really seems to have pulled off a giant ensemble cast, and that only because everyone was connected to everyone else)

  • BaseDeltaZero

    Not a movie, but Ovbfubpx Vasvavgr znantrq na vzcerffvir dhvagvyyvbaf, zvavzhz… it was… quite a shock.

  • Headless Unicorn Guy

    Some years ago, Christian Monist described a fireman friend of his who died of leukemia. And a reaction several had to the news: “Well, he SMOKED, didn’t he?” Like they were waving their own non/anti-smoking as a magic shield against his cancer cooties.
    And I’ve seen the same personally and recently. I’m currently under watch for possible prostate cancer, and have experienced the reaction, “Did you eat meat?” (There’s apparently some study du jour that claims eating meat causes prostate cancer.) Again, waving their own Veganism as a magic shield.

  • Headless Unicorn Guy

    The term “meatspace” always reminds me of some bad Eighties cyberpunk novel or RPG. Cyberpsychosis: “Metal/Silicon is better than Meat.” I can hear the sneer in the word “Meat” every time the word is spoken..

  • Bill Hiers

    It did feel forced, and I hated the scene where Kirk used her death to goad Spock into attacking him. It made Kirk such a creep for exploiting his supposed friend’s grief and anger.

    But I did like the quiet scene later on between Spock and and his father. I’m not saying this makes this makes the mother’s death and Kirk’s actions any more palatable, but it was just a nice scene.