In the 1997 film Men in Black, undercover officer James Edwards is recruited into the highly secretive MIB organization, which was instituted to protect humanity from all manner of extraterrestrial threats. In order to carry out their assignments the agents of the MIB make use of extremely high-tech gadgets, such as memory-erasing devices and super-powered weapons.
Of course James, like the audience, is curious about what all of these things do, but is repeatedly told to “not touch things!” Perhaps the most prominent of these curiosities is a red button in the car of James’s mentor, Agent K.
“Oh, the red button there, kid! Don’t ever, ever touch the red button!”
Well, of course that button’s going to get pushed at some point! In an interesting piece of reverse psychology, as soon as stories tell us that something must not happen, we know that sooner or later they will. After all, there isn’t any reason for them to show us the wall unless they’re going to crash through it at some point. And so, near the conclusion of the film we get the following line:
“You remember the little, red button? Push the little, red button!”
James does so, and the entire car transforms, with two jet engines springing out of the back, sending it rocketing down a tunnel! Right before it plows into the back of cars stopped in traffic it flips upside down and drives along the roof! And with that, our curiosity has been satisfied.
Men in Black isn’t the first film to show a barrier in the first act and then break it in the third. A very similar sequence plays out in the 1984 film Ghostbusters. In this movie, a trio of parapsychology professors start a business to eradicate paranormal menaces in New York City. The most genius member of their crew, Egon Spengler, develops some nuclear-powered gear to help them wrangle the inter-dimensional beings that they encounter. The first time they use the equipment, though, they each shoot their proton-powered energy beams at the same target, which is nearly a fatal mistake!
“There’s something very important I forgot to tell you,” Egon tells them. “Don’t cross the streams! It would be bad! Try to imagine all life as you know it stopping instantaneously, and every molecule in your body exploding at the speed of light!”
Well there you have it, clearly they’re never, ever going to cross the streams. Well, actually no, of course they are! Specifically they do so at the climax of the film, when they face a monstrous parademon who draws his energy from a dimensional gate. Nothing that the Ghostbuster team tries has any effect on the monster or the gate, until finally Egon comes to the inevitable conclusion.
“I’ve a radical idea. The door swings both ways, we could reverse the particle flow through the gate. We’ll cross the streams.” As a further encouragement to the other members of the team he adds, “there’s definitely a very slim chance we’ll survive.”
And so they cross the streams, and the combined power of their proton packs gives them the energy output they need to destroy the dimensional gate and banishing the parademon back to its original realm! Fortunately the heroes do survive to tell the tale.
In Men in Black, the little, red button was simply a volatile gadget that needed to only be used in the right situation. In Ghostbuster the forbidden action was a bit more serious, as it was something that could have potentially catastrophic consequences. That Egon would suggest that they embrace those potential consequences underlines just how desperate their situation has become at the end.
But sometimes broken rules aren’t just used to show how severe the danger has become, sometimes they are used to show character development.
There are several rules established early on in the 1991 film Beauty and the Beast. In the movie’s introduction we learn that the Beast was once a young prince, who was transformed into a monstrous brute for failing to show kindness to an enchantress. And he will remain a beast until he is able to show sincere love for another person, and be sincerely loved by that person in return. But the Beast becomes despondent, locking himself away in his castle, concluding that no one could ever love a beast.
Then, one day, an old man wanders into his home, followed by the daughter of that man come to rescue him. The Beast allows that the old man may leave, but only if the daughter remain a prisoner of the castle. She consents.
The Beast tells her that she may never leave the castle, but she may go anywhere within it…except for the West Wing. But, of course, she soon breaks the second of those rules, trespassing into the West Wing where she finds clues of the man the Beast once was, and the heartache he carries inside.
The Beast is infuriated, and she then breaks the other rule by running away. She is beset by wolves, though, and the Beast saves her, though he is severely wounded in the process. She brings him back to the castle and nurses him back to health, during which time they grow to sincerely care for one another.
Then all of the rules that the Beast imposed are broken again, but this time he is the one unmaking them. He encourages her leave, tells her that she is no longer a prisoner of the castle. She does so, but then returns at the end, just in time to break the last and greatest wall, the one put in place by the story’s introduction. She confesses that against all odds, she has grown to love the Beast, and with that the curse is broken.
We often put up barriers in our stories, establishing rules of what cannot happen. But of course we only do so to then break through them by the end! The reasons for doing so are twofold. The first is to illustrate how drastically things have changed in the world. What was once an unthinkable action with huge consequences is now a better alternative to the dire situation we find at the story’s climax! The second reason is to show character changes. The choice that once would have gone against everything a character stood for comes to be in perfect harmony with where they are now. They have changed, and the reversal of their rule is an excellent way to illustrate it.
Which brings me to my current story, Covalent. In the last chapter Cace briefly considered restoring Rolar to health by fusing into him the last remnants of the beast they defeated. Of course he immediately rejected that idea because it would be entirely unconscionable!
But, of course, why would I show you that decision unless it was going to be reversed? And indeed, as the story goes along things will become so desperate that the unthinkable becomes necessary!