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¡AI, caramba! Reality chills as Reality Bites meets The Big Chill

Updated: Sep 13, 2023

Earl Fowler

To mark the 40th anniversary of the movie The Big Chill — which hit theatres on Sept. 28, 1983 — I did a piece for this blog last April about a ridiculous and, I assumed, patently bogus sequel of my own devising.

You’d be surprised how many people thought it was for real, including the part about Meg, Mary Kay Place’s character, wanting to give birth again — but this time as a man in his seventies.


It got me thinking about the nearest Generation X analogue I could come up with to Lawrence Kasdan’s boomer-angst classic. And that would be Reality Bites, Ben Stiller’s feature directorial debut, which will officially turn 30 in four months (first screened at Sundance on Jan. 28, 1994).

The Big Chill is about a group of classic rock/Motown-loving baby boomers who had been friends and/or lovers at the University of Michigan 15 years before. They gather in the early Eighties for a weekend of soul searching and/or lovemaking after Alex, one of their old Wolverine compatriots, fatally slits his wrists.

Go Blue!

Reality Bites is about the lives of an aspiring videographer and her disenchanted Gen X friends and roommates, all immersed in the grunge scene of the early 1990s.

I had a whimsical notion of attempting to meld the two movies into a single plot to see where that would lead. Then I malevolently decided to palm that challenge off as a test of the creativity of ChatGPT, the chatbot launched by American artificial intelligence research laboratory OpenAI last November.

Give us the tools and they’ll finish the job. Or can they?


Conclusion: I can see why striking Hollywood screenwriters are shaking in their tees, tops and hoodies. ChatGPT is only getting better, and it already has a pretty canny understanding of how to pull at audience heart strings and bank accounts in the formulaic way that highly popular, wildly profitable movies tend to do.

Audiences like what they know, as any glance at film and TV review-aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes will confirm. Screw the refined palates of craggy Old School critics, now obligingly dying off — grey, gaunt and irrelevant as aging Grand Ole Opry stars.

In a matter of seconds, ChatGPT generated four credible, integrated plots that all could be developed into better movies than some of the crapola rolled out lately on Netflix or the other streaming services.

There was no particular reason to stop at four versions, except that the point had been made and my mind well and truly boggled.

To better appreciate the scenarios, let’s first add some flesh to the premises of the original movies.

The Big Chill ensemble cast stars:


• Tom Berenger as Sam, TV actor and long-time crush of …

• … JoBeth Williams as Karen, trapped in a boring marriage to a boring guy from Ironside

• Glenn Close as Sarah, a doctor and wife of …

• ... Kevin Kline as Harold, a genial yuppie about to sell his midsize shoe company for a killing, no pun intended

• Jeff Goldblum as Michael, a horny journalist tired of writing about celebrities for People

• Mary Kay Place as Meg, a disillusioned former public defender who has sold out as a real-estate lawyer and is now desperate to have a child

• The late William Hurt as Nick, a cynical, impotent, drug-abusing Vietnam War veteran who gets involved with ...

• ... Meg Tilly as Chloe, the twentysomething former girlfriend of Alex, whom …

• ... Kevin Costner would have played if he hadn’t been cut out of the movie except as a corpse.


Long story short: Sam and Karen have sex. Urged to do so by Sarah, who is still feeling conflicted about an affair with college boyfriend Alex, Harold gives impregnating Meg the old college try. Michael doesn’t have sex with anyone, but not for lack of collegial trying. Nick and Chloe might eventually have sex (he reminds her of Alex but makes a point of reminding her that he is, in fact, somebody else). Harold goes for a run in his company’s Running Dog Athletic Footwear shoes and risks losing it all by offering illegal insider trading tips to Nick (who doesn’t appear interested) and Alex (who obviously wasn’t).

There’s more to it than that — football, weed, wine, nostalgia, conversation and a killer Sixties soundtrack, for starters — but you get the gist.

The Big Chill is mostly about how the revolutionary fervour of the 1960s had unravelled by the Reagan era into what was soon to become the Clinton era, with the boomers now in charge and even more selfish than their parents before them. As Winona Ryder’s character says about the Me Generation in Reality Bites, they “disembowelled their revolution for a pair of running shoes.”

Running Dogs, anyone? Just do it.


Ryder’s Reality Bites character is Lelaina, the aforementioned videographer. This movie also features a pretty stellar cast:


• Ethan Hawke as Troy, a coffee-house guitarist and would-be filmmaker who had a drunken encounter with Lelaina years ago and should be her love interest but, you know, stool happens

• Ben Stiller as Michael (the same given name as Goldblum’s character in The Big Chill, so this is going to get a mite complicated)

• Janeane Garofalo as Vicki

• Steve Zahn as Sammy

• Joe Don Baker as Tom

• A bunch of other people (including Andy Dick as a thoroughly slimy boss), but the first credited movie appearance by Renée Zellweger — as Tami, one of Troy’s one-night stands — is especially noteworthy for you trivia buffs.

I could summarize the plot, but this is surely why the good Lord created Wikipedia:

Troy is floundering, having lost several minimum-wage jobs — the last of which he loses for stealing a candy bar from his employer. Lelaina was valedictorian of her university and has aspirations to become a documentarian, although initially has to settle for a position as production assistant to a rude and obnoxious TV host.

Lelaina meets Michael Grates when throwing a lit cigarette into his convertible causes him to crash into her car. They soon begin to date. He works as an executive at an MTV-like channel called In Your Face, and after seeing a documentary she has been working on, wants to get it aired on his network.

Lelaina’s roommate, Vicki, has a series of one-night stands and short relationships with dozens of men; her promiscuity leads her to face a very real risk of contracting HIV after a former fling tests positive for the virus. Working as a sales associate for The Gap, Vicki is later promoted to manager and is content with her new job. Her friend Sammy Gray is gay; he remains celibate, not due to a fear of AIDS, but because forming a relationship would force him to come out to his conservative parents.

After an impulsive act of retribution, Lelaina loses her job, which causes some tension with her roommates. Eventually, Vicki’s HIV test comes back negative and Sammy comes out to his parents (and he even starts dating) and the two manage to resume their lives.

Meanwhile, Lelaina’s relationship with Michael dissolves after he helps her sell the documentary to his network, only to let them edit it into a stylized montage that compromises her artistic vision. Lelaina and Troy have a heart-to-heart which leads to them sleeping together and confessing their feelings. The morning after, he avoids her, and after a messy confrontation, leaves town. When Troy’s father dies, it forces him to reevaluate his life, deciding to attempt a relationship with Lelaina.


If you haven’t seen it or can’t remember what happens next, I’m going to leave you hanging (Will our young lovers reunite? Were Michael’s expensive slacks ruined by the carelessly discarded ciggy? Was Costner cast as Troy’s doomed father and then cut out of the picture?), because we now take you to AI Central. I might be taxing ordinary human intelligence by asking you to keep all those characters straight in your head, but it’s actually not that difficult and I still have an inordinate faith in meat brains.


Here are the first four responses I received from the fallen angels, goblins and cacodemons inside ChatGPT — again, within a matter of seconds — when I typed in: “Write a movie plot integrating The Big Chill with Reality Bites.” One could, of course, ask this inexhaustible fount — Creator and Destroyer of virtual worlds — for similar modifications, rewrites and tweaks of any screenplay described anywhere on the Internet. The same goes for novels, short stories, meandering essays like this … perhaps that’s why of the four suggested new titles, I like Reality Chills the best.


Title: Generation Reconnect

Genre: Dreamed

Logline:

When a group of estranged college friends reunites after a decade apart, they find themselves navigating the complexities of adulthood, love, and the shifting landscape of their ideals, all while grappling with the realities of a rapidly changing world.

Synopsis:

Generation Reconnect is a heartfelt and humorous blend of The Big Chill and Reality Bites, bringing together the generational perspectives of two iconic films.

Act 1:

The story begins with a group of college friends who, in the 1990s, were idealistic and determined to change the world. But as the years passed, they lost touch. Michael, a successful lawyer, receives a devastating piece of news: their charismatic friend Alex, a charismatic activist and the glue that held the group together, has passed away in a tragic accident. In his will, Alex asks for his ashes to be scattered at their alma mater. This request brings the old friends back together.

Act 2:

As the friends converge on their college town, they are struck by how much has changed. Each one is grappling with the disillusionment of adulthood. Michael is caught in a loveless marriage, Sarah, an artist, is struggling to make ends meet, and Jeff, a once-aspiring musician, has settled into a dead-end job. Lelaina, a documentary filmmaker, is still searching for her big break, and Vicki, an environmental activist, is now working for a corporate giant.

Their reunion is a mix of nostalgia and tension as they grapple with their past ideals and how far they’ve strayed from them. Lelaina and Michael, who once had a passionate fling, feel a spark rekindling between them, leading to a romantic subplot.

Act 3:

The group decides to fulfill Alex’s wish and scatter his ashes at the alma mater, taking a road trip filled with laughter, introspection, and unexpected revelations. Along the way, they confront the generational conflicts between their ’90s idealism and the realities of today’s world.

At the alma mater, they finally come to terms with Alex’s death, understanding that life is too short to hold onto grudges and that they need to make the most of their present. They decide to honor Alex’s memory by taking action to make the world a better place, each in their own way.

In the end, Generation Reconnect is a poignant exploration of friendship, love, and the struggle to reconcile youthful idealism with the complexities of adulthood. It’s a story that captures the essence of two iconic films while delivering a fresh perspective on the challenges and triumphs of a new generation.

Not unworkable, but a bit on the hackneyed side. And honestly, dude, I have absolutely no idea who Jeff is. Do you mean Goldblum? Breaking the fifth wall there, bro. The whole ash scattering thing has been done to death, though it could be livened up, so to speak, with a windy cliffside eulogy along the lines of: “Alex was a good bowler and a good man. He was one of us. He was a man who loved the outdoors. And bowling.” Still, we can do better. And on its second attempt, the chatbot does:


Title: Reality Chills

Genre: Drama/Comedy

Logline:

When a group of estranged college friends reunites at a mutual friend’s funeral, they confront their past, present, and uncertain futures, navigating the complexities of love, friendship, and the ever-changing world they once rebelled against.

Plot Summary:

Act 1:

  • The film opens with a vibrant, idealistic group of college friends in the late ’80s who are passionate about changing the world and living life on their own terms. The group includes Alex, a budding journalist and activist; Lisa, a struggling filmmaker; Mark, an aspiring musician; Sarah, a free-spirited artist; and Tom, a buttoned-up business major.

  • Flash forward to the present day, where the friends have drifted apart and are now leading very different lives. Alex is a successful but jaded journalist, Lisa is a struggling filmmaker still chasing her dreams, Mark has become a corporate executive, Sarah is a single mother struggling to make ends meet, and Tom is a divorced businessman who has lost touch with his creative side.

Act 2:

  • The catalyst for their reunion is the sudden death of their mutual friend, Rachel, who was the heart and soul of their group. They all reluctantly return to their college town for her funeral, rekindling old memories and emotions.

  • As they spend time together over the weekend, they grapple with the harsh realities of adulthood, including failed relationships, unfulfilled dreams, and the ever-looming spectre of corporate culture.

  • Old tensions and rivalries resurface, especially between Alex and Tom, who were once close but have grown apart due to their differing lifestyles and priorities.

Act 3:

  • Lisa, inspired by Rachel’s untimely death, proposes a project to make a documentary about their reunion, aiming to capture the essence of their ’90s counterculture ideals versus the reality of their lives today.

  • As they collaborate on the documentary, the group confronts their past mistakes and regrets, leading to heartfelt conversations and moments of reconciliation. Sarah realizes that she can still pursue her art, and Tom rediscovers his love for music.

  • The documentary’s premiere becomes a cathartic experience for the friends and the audience, offering a bittersweet reflection on the passage of time and the enduring power of friendship.

  • In the end, while they can’t turn back the clock, the group renews their commitment to supporting each other and living more authentic lives. Alex decides to take a more principled approach in his journalism, Lisa finally finishes her long-delayed film, and Mark starts a band with Tom. Sarah embraces her role as a mother while continuing to create art.

Reality Chills is a poignant and humorous exploration of the generational shifts and personal transformations that occur as idealistic youth confront the realities of adulthood. It combines the nostalgic charm of The Big Chill with the Gen X zeitgeist of Reality Bites to create a heartfelt and relatable story about growing up and staying true to oneself.

OK, now we’re loosening up and getting the band back together. Not sure who Lisa is, though she sure sounds a lot like Lelaina. Is Sarah still Glenn Close? Tom could be Tom Pierce or Tom Berenger, I have no idea as to Mark’s identity, and how the hell did they pry Rachel briefly loose from her contractual obligations to Friends? Is that why they had to kill her off so quickly? Still, throw in an antic sex scene and some witty Nora Ephron-style dialogue, and this baby is poised to move some serious popcorn. (By the bye, it’s invigorating to see Alex out of the coffin and back in the saddle again. Fresh out of Yellowstone and up to his elbows in divorce proceedings, Costner can definitely use the money.)

Title: Generation Unplugged

Genre: Dreamed

Logline:

When a group of friends from college reunites for a funeral, they must confront the complexities of adulthood, their divergent paths, and the clash between idealism and pragmatism, all while navigating the challenges of the digital age.

Plot Summary:

Generation Unplugged combines the themes and character dynamics of The Big Chill with the backdrop of the 1990s and the technology-driven dilemmas of Reality Bites. The story revolves around a tight-knit group of college friends who are brought back together after the unexpected death of one of their own.

The main characters are:

  • Alex - The artistic and free-spirited filmmaker, who is passionate about capturing the essence of life on film.

  • Sarah - The practical and ambitious corporate executive who struggles with the pressures of her demanding job.

  • Michael - The idealistic musician who still holds onto his dreams of becoming a rock star.

  • Lisa - The quirky and intellectual writer who juggles a multitude of creative projects but can't seem to commit to one.

  • Ben - The tech-savvy and sarcastic computer programmer who has a cynical outlook on life.

  • Emma - The rebellious and fiercely independent photographer who has been travelling the world.

The story unfolds as they gather for the funeral of their college friend, Tom, who died in a tragic accident. The reunion forces them to confront their own mortality and reevaluate the paths they’ve chosen in adulthood. Amidst their grief, they also grapple with the role of technology in their lives, with Ben working for a cutting-edge tech company, while Emma is skeptical of the digital world.

As the group spends more time together, old tensions and unresolved feelings resurface. Alex and Sarah have a past romantic connection that neither has fully moved on from. Michael is still chasing his musical dreams, but Lisa is urging him to face reality. Ben and Emma’s differing views on technology lead to heated debates. Throughout it all, they find solace in reminiscing about their college days, the era when they felt most alive and free.

The climax of the film occurs when they discover an old collection of letters and photographs that Tom had preserved from their college years. These artifacts serve as a reminder of their youthful idealism and aspirations, prompting each of them to reconsider their current lives.

In the end, they decide to commemorate Tom’s memory by embarking on a road trip together, unplugging from their digital devices and reconnecting with one another and the world around them. Along the way, they rekindle old friendships, confront their fears, and find renewed inspiration to pursue their dreams.

Generation Unplugged is a heartfelt exploration of friendship, nostalgia, and the struggle to balance idealism with the realities of adulthood, set against the backdrop of a rapidly changing technological landscape. It ultimately conveys the importance of human connection and the value of staying true to one’s passions and dreams in a digital age.

Like you, I have utterly no idea who anyone is supposed to be any more. Found my mind in a brown paper bag within. But maybe someone from the Brat Pack is available to take this on? Judd Nelson doesn’t seem to have been overburdened with ingénue offers lately. Is Molly Ringwald still capable of pulling off ideological debate scenes? If she finds herself over her head in arguments over radical new technologies like this one, she could always fall back on: “I can’t believe it! They f****** forgot my birthday!”


Title: Generation Reunion

Genre: Dreamed

Logline:

When a tight-knit group of college friends, now in their thirties, reunites after years apart, they must confront their past, navigate their present, and face the realities of adulthood while trying to recapture the rebellious spirit of their youth.

Synopsis:

Generation Reunion combines the spirit of The Big Chill with the wit and humour of Reality Bites to create a heartfelt and humorous exploration of friendship, love, and the challenges of growing up.

The story revolves around a group of friends who were inseparable during their college days in the 1990s. The group includes:

  • Alex (played by a charismatic lead): The successful corporate lawyer who seems to have it all but is secretly dissatisfied with his life.

  • Sarah (played by a free-spirited actress): The wild and adventurous artist who refuses to settle down.

  • Mark (played by an idealistic journalist): The idealistic and socially conscious journalist who still clings to his youthful dreams.

  • Lisa (played by a pragmatic doctor): The pragmatic and practical doctor who yearns for a family but struggles with her love life.

  • Ben (played by a slacker musician): The laid-back musician who never quite grew up and still lives with his parents.

Years after drifting apart, they reunite for a weekend when their old college friend, Sam, unexpectedly passes away. Sam's death shocks them all and forces them to reevaluate their lives. The group decides to spend the weekend at Sam’s family cabin, rekindling their bond and reminiscing about their youthful dreams and idealism.

As the weekend unfolds, they grapple with their present-day issues, including career dissatisfaction, failed relationships, and the stark contrast between their youthful aspirations and adult realities. Tensions arise as old conflicts resurface, but they also rediscover the enduring connections that once made them so close.

Alex reconnects with Sarah, and they both realize the importance of balancing responsibility with the pursuit of passion. Mark and Lisa confront the sacrifices they’ve made for their careers and reassess their priorities. Ben, always the carefree spirit, teaches them the value of living in the moment.

Throughout the film, the soundtrack is filled with iconic ’90s music, creating a nostalgic atmosphere reminiscent of Reality Bites. The characters’ humorous banter and moments of vulnerability provide comic relief amidst the serious introspection.

In the end, they scatter Sam’s ashes as a symbol of letting go of the past and embracing the future. Generation Reunion beautifully captures the essence of two iconic films, blending the bittersweet nostalgia of The Big Chill with the witty observations of Reality Bites to create a touching and relatable story about friendship, love, and the challenges of growing up in an ever-changing world.

Now wait a second! I just noticed what’s happening here. “Dreamed” is now supposed to be accepted as a movie genre? Whose woodies are these I think I know. Beetlejuice! Beetlejuice! Beetlejuice!

And wait just a diddly darn minute! Somebody made iconic music in the ’90s? I guess you could make a case for Prince, but maybe this whole artificial intelligence thing isn’t, like, as maniacally brainiacal as advertised. Does boho sex priestess Sophie B. Hawkins still wish she were Ben’s lover? Is that Sam in the corner, losing his religion? Is Lisa stuck in a moment that she can’t get out of?

In fact, we’re all are stuck in precisely such a moment, and it would be huge mistake to blindly subscribe to an a priori belief in human creative superiority. As a second experiment, I just tried asking ChatGPT to “add Nora Ephron-style dialogue to The Big Chill.” Here’s a small part of what was spat out in less time than it has taken you to read this sentence:

Original Scene:

Sarah: Michael, I thought you were supposed to be this terrific lover!

Nora Ephron-Style Version:

Sarah (teasingly): Michael, darling, I heard through the grapevine that you were a legend in the art of love. But I’ve got to say, you’re more like a Picasso — intriguing, occasionally confusing, and everyone has a different interpretation.

Original Scene:

Sam: There’s something going on here. I mean, it’s too easy. We’re all the same.

Nora Ephron-Style Version:

Sam (with a knowing glint in his eye): Seriously, guys, there’s some cosmic conspiracy at play. It’s like we’re all trapped in a sequel that nobody signed up for, and the tagline is “The Reunion: Where Everyone’s the Same but Different.” Cue the dramatic music!

Pretty snappy. Pretty Nora. In the virtual reality universe into which we are all being drawn, willy-nilly — that eternal moment out of which we can’t, um, get — everyone’s the same but different. And few have more on the line, as it were, than novelists, playwrights, short-story authors and Hollywood screenwriters. Give the grasping Big Five Hollywood studios the tools and they’ll finish off the middle men. As the poets would say, let seem be finale of be.

Cue the dramatic music!


How about we go with a Sixties classic unforgivably omitted from The Big Chill soundtrack?

But you tell me

Over and over and over again, my friend

How you don’t believe

We’re on the eve of destruction …


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