The 7 Elements of a Good Movie
A lot of my friends jokes that I hate all movies. This is largely untrue, as I hate bad movies. A lot of what makes a bad movie is subjective, sure, but there are solid reasons behind labeling something good or bad (usually). There is a science behind dissecting movies for those of us who are movie nerds in the same way there is a science behind understanding and enjoying art, food, literature, or 80’s lunchboxes. Anything that exist can be studied and enjoyed – or hated – with valid support behind it.
Video: A really bad movie.
This doesn’t mean that everything I like is good and everything I hate is bad, in the same way that we are all human. Some folks fail once and give up. Some folks fail 1,000 times and keep trying. Just because there is a sound reason behind a belief such as that Batman v. Superman is steaming garbage or that Transformers: The Last Knight is the film equivalent of cancer, that doesn’t mean it’s always true for everyone.
I mean, it should be because facts. But for those of us nerds who are deeply into something like film, we have internal metrics for discussing and understanding film. Everyone who has studied film or worked within the media of movies has read the philosophy of film, even if accidentally.
I personally have 7 metrics for understanding if I hate or love a film…
WHY DOES THIS MOVIE EXIST
This might be the silliest and least scientific of my metrics, but c’mon. We all ask ourselves that. Why does this movie even exist? Do we need 78 Transformers movies and 15 Spider-Man reboots?
Obviously, most big blockbusters exist because money. Someone figured they could make money on a property or a story. But the why can be a little more complex. Does the filmmaker actually care about this movie? Do they have a good idea for the source material? Are they just collecting a paycheck?
Video: A really great movie.
Zack Snyder is not a director I enjoy. One of those reasons is that he has actively said really stupid things that show he doesn’t understand the characters in his movies. He famously said that Batman should get raped in prison. When I see a movie he’s making, I don’t have a good WHY? I only have a shoulder shrug and wonder who on earth gave him the ability to make a Batman movie.
Compare that to James Wan. He seems to truly understand and love Aquaman. Yes, Aquaman exists because money. But the director, Wan, and star Jason Mamoa appear to want to tell a fun story about a silly character.
Academics will talk about thematic elements, plot, story structure, visuals, etc. I do that too. But a lot of these can be part of what’s more important than having some specific 5 act structure or traditional plot. Many movies that break the rules – like Pulp Fiction or Straight Story – are amazing movies. But even the strangest David Lynch film or longest, most tedious European family drama can come to the table with a great tool: Coherence.
When I speak of coherence I speak of a total “feeling” of internal logic within a movie. Did you make a rom com? Does it feel like a rom com? Is it shot like a rom com? Or does it have a fun, romantic plot that ends with a character in Auschwitz after the entire movie was filmed like a horror movie with jump cuts?
It’s a bit harder to point out major releases that lack general coherence, but here are some examples everyone knows.
Plan 9 from Outer Space is universally considered one of the worst movies ever. At it’s core, it’s a science fiction movie. But he plot is about zombies. And the theme is apparently humans are destroying themselves. The movie is entirely filmed like a weird pseudo-horror TV show on sound stages, but presented as straight science fiction and has seemingly random events, camera work, and plot elements. It lacks all coherence.
Compare that to The Empire Strikes Back. The film movies briskly but allows time to linger. It is filmed like, and feels like, a sci-fi serial or radio drama from back in the ancient days of pop culture. Wide shots present large, epic scenes, and close up shots bring emotional depths. It feels like an entirely coherent story built with purpose and feel. Darth Vader feels scary and appears with a jump. He doesn’t skip into scene. The darkest points of the film are… dark. The lighting on Hoth is bright and full of white and the battle movies like a World War 2-style film. Bespin feels more enclosed. Han is frozen in carbonite in a dark, scary room full of uncertainty.
Whereas a bad movie, like Plan 9, has a character scratching his head with a loaded gun and it’s meant to play as serious.
I am separating the overall coherence of a film from what I call “internal logic”. Internal logic is specific to a film and a story. If a character uses magic, what can that magic do? If there’s time travel, how does it work? You can put any ridiculous thing in a movie and make it work – think about how stupid the idea of a time traveling DeLorean is and then consider how great Back to the Future is – if your film has solid internal logic.
We have 6 Star Wars movies that build up what the force is, how it works, and it’s seeming limitations. Even with great strength, you have to train and focus and become a tool of the force. Then in The Last Jedi, we have Rey become seemingly more powerful than any other Jedi without more than a few hours of training, and Luke can now send a force ghost across the universe while he’s alive and make it look like himself 20 years younger. That’s a major breakdown of internal logic to me. There is no previous film where anything like that seemed to be even possible.
Honestly, I think the Harry Potter movies are boring. I do. But they have strong internal logic. Magic has clear limitations. Magic has clear logic in that universe. Cars are still cars, but magic can make someone fly. It all works beautiful and when there are moments that the rules set within the story are twisted or broken, it’s for a purpose and still fits. Harry Potter doesn’t just magically bring back all the dead characters or turn into a giant 190 ft. monster because, hey, that’d be cool!
Video: The BEST movie featuring Harry Potter.
You can have the best directed, best written, and most visual stunning movie, but you need people to show up and act. One of my biggest complaints about the Star Wars Prequels was how wooden and bad the acting was. The highlight is Ewan McGregor because at some point between the first and the second movie he gave up pretending like they were serious or even logical, and just went full schlock.
Now consider Colin Farrell as Bullseye in Daredevil. He’s a great actor but his weird, muffled, scenery chewing nonsense was just awful. Remember Cate Blanchett in Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls? Terrible. Or how about Tommy Lee Jones as Two-Face?
There’s a perfect point. In a serious gangster movie, Tommy Lee Jones might’ve been a fantastic Two-Face but in that Batman universe Two-Face had been a black man acted by Billy Dee Williams. Then he was suddenly an over-the-top version of the character that never once appeared like that in the comics, and now was acted by a guy who is best at understated middle-class tough guys.
Now imagine a completely different Batman Forever with a more serious, conflicted Billy Dee Williams OR Tommy Lee Jones. Better movie? Probably. Better part for an actor? Absolutely.
So a movie must have actors who can act in the parts they are needed to act in.
Not whatever the hell this is:
DOES THE MOVIE SAY SOMETHING
This is probably the least needed point for a movie to be good, but most great films say SOMETHING – anything – about the society they exist in. Is this movie a modern retelling of biblical stories, like Robocop, or a simple story about friendship and our overly watched society, like Captain America: The Winter Soldier? Even if what the movie says is fundamentally flawed and awful, like the original Birth of a Nation, at least having a thing to say makes the movie have some inherent weight to it. That weight can be positive, negative, or just fun to consider.
Movies that have no voice or at least none that makes sense usually fall into the bad category. What did The Last Jedi have to say about anything? Friendship? Freedom? Well, the movie ended in basically the same place it started, so heck if I know. Did Spider-Man 3 have something to say about the darker side in us all? Nope. Did the last Fantastic Four movie have, uh, anything at all to say about humanity in general? Uh, I don’t think so. If it did, no one saw it anyways…
PLOT OR LACK THEREOF
Plot. This, to me, is way more specific than coherence or internal logic. You could make the most breathtaking sci-fi movie where everything works well but then have a stupid, meandering plot with no resolution. Generally a plot in a movie is simple. There is a character or characters. A thing happens, good or bad. The result of that thing leads to either more things or an internal conflict. There is some kind of resolution or result.
A good plot: Batman (1989) sees a man who lost his parents to a brutal crime take on a crazy gangster as they both fall for the same woman. Batman loses (is shot, Vicki Vale kidnapped, the city poisoned) before triumphing over the madman and saving the people of Gotham.
A bad plot: In Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, two Jedi go to a planet to… negotiate with a trade thing? For reasons? Then there’s an attempt on their life because… reasons. They escape to a planet and rescue a queen, for some reason taking an idiot with them. Then they escape again but now end up on a planet where the Jedi are perfectly fine with kids and women being slaves? But this kid has magic powers so they, uh, bet on him? These are JEDI KNIGHTS, remember, and then they want to train him in the force which results in everyone going back to Naboo for reasons. Also the Sith are returning I guess. And for some stupid reason, Amidala is pretending to not be herself and this all ends up in Palpatine getting a new job somehow and Anakin being trained so he can one day bang the queen he met when he was like 9 and she was like 18. I guess. And the entire movie they neglect to really explain what the Trade Federation even does, why their blockade of Naboo is so bad (could they not get medicine? Can’t a planet sustain itself for a few years?), or why they sent 2 warrior Jedi to negotiate anything at all ever instead of, you know, diplomats.
Video: God help us all…
Often overlooked but absolutely crucial to a great film is an ending that resolves the plot of the movie. Now, that ending doesn’t have to be happy or expected, but it does need to close the story. Cliffhangers aside, endings are critical and so hard to make right.
A great ending can be a dream about a unicorn like in Blade Runner that brings up more questions while answering some. In the original Blade Runner the ending – SPOILER – leaves an open ended question that is vital to the film: is Deckard, our hero, a replicant or a human? By not answering this, the movie completes its philosophical journey.
A bad ending can be a lot of things. Perhaps a major plot point was just forgotten. Perhaps a movie builds up a character or element of the story, only to waste it and do a hard left without reason or merit.
Bad endings? Well, you have 2012 where the last line is a kid saying no more pull-ups while billions are dead. Ha! Joke! Or whatever he hell the end of Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls was, where there were magic alien bones that turned into aliens and a UFO and then… Indiana Jones goes back to work. This guy just discovered that life exists outside of our planet and he went back to teaching ancient history, I guess. At least he tried to get the Arc of the Covenant looked at by experts.
The universe is full of just… godawful garbage movies. There are also tons of great movies. For every Batman & Robin there’s a The Dark Knight. For every Doom there’s a Pokemon: The First Movie. For every Cloverfield Paradox there’s a 2001: A Space Odyssey. Junk doesn’t just create junk, it can also push us into creating beauty. And look at the overall quality of blockbusters now versus in the 80’s and 90’s. Stories are better. Acting is better. Characters like Black Manta are getting a treatment that keeps them true to their roots but also builds on them.
Long gone are the made for TV excruciating superhero films or racism filled Disney cartoons. Movies are being better by being inclusive, allowing everyone to tell THEIR BEST stories…
But here’s a giant secret that THEY don’t want you to know.
Sometimes, just sometimes, even bad movies had meaning and feeling and are loved by people. Even me. One of my all time favorite movies? Zardoz. So what do I know about a good movie or a bad movie? Sometimes entertainment doesn’t have to be anything OTHER THAN entertainment.
So like the movies you like, just know that they might be absolutely trash piles. But that’s OK. Usually we want 5-star restaurants or well-done home cooked meals. Other times, we hate ourselves and stuff our faces with Little Caesars and Hite Beer. We need those moments, too.
Unless you liked the Star Wars Prequels… Then you are wrong and bad and awful and you should feel bad about yourself and go watch a good sci-fi movie. How about Fantastic Planet, Event Horizon, or… ZARDOZ!