I don’t know about you, but far too many movies I’ve seen within the last few years had a certain “sameness” about them. They all seemed to have the same elements, they’re becoming more predictable, they all lack a distinct emotional impact. I’ve found that I just don’t care about most of the characters I see in movies anymore.
Turns out I’m not imagining things.
Slate magazine has a review of the formula-driven Hollywood movie making cookbook, Save The Cat! The Last Book On Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need by Blake Snyder. Snyder broke down a typical movie into a three act structure, right down to each element that had to happen at a certain point in the movie. It has become the filmmaking Bible, and it’s why many movies you watch seem so familliar.
- The beginning of a movie has a character doing something reckless or undorthodox, then gets chewed out by an authority figure (movie establishes theme for character)
- The central conflict or emergency occurrs that the maligned, misunderstood character finds him/herself in the middle of (character’s motivation/reason for existence is established)
- Character has conflict(s) with other characters that think he/she’s wrong (dramatic tension)
- A primary character dies, or the audience is led to believe the character dies (the “all-is-lost” moment, giving main charcater opportunity to save the day)
- Misunderstood, maligned main character proves the others wrong and vanquishes foe in epic end-of-movie climax, earning respect from other charcaters
How many movies have we seen that follow this example? I can think of a dozen right off the top of my head. Movies are feeling so similar now, with plot twists so predictable you can see them coming a mile away, even if they don’t make sense, but they happen anyway, because it’s part of the formula.
The New York Times opinion piece How Hollywood Killed Death similarly argues that character deaths have become so common that there’s hardly any emotional impact anymore, and even when a character dies, he/she is conveniently revived through some hokey plot device so that the movie will have a happy ending.
Save The Cat! has a website for screenwriters that breaks down movies according to their “beat sheet”, allowing screenwriters to make sure they have all the required plot points included, as per the formula, thus ensuring more carbon-copy movies will be cranked out by Hollywood.
And while we’re on the subject, how come so many movies these days revolve around the fate of the entire world hanging in the balance? It seems like every week another movie opens that has a plot focusing on the destruction of Earth, or civilization as we know it. It’s gotten to the point where the impact has been completely negated. Another crisis that will end mankind…? Oh that’s nice. [yawn].
Some of the best movies I’ve ever seen have involved much more intimate dramas, between much smaller groups of players, which, as it happnens, have much greater impact. Some of the movies I’m thinking of include:
- Margin Call, which takes place overnight at an investment banking firm and revolves around bankers trying to avoid the blame for a finacial meltdown at the firm
- Smoke Signals, about two American Indians who go on a road trip, one of whom is forced to confront an old, simmering anger
- Gran Torino, the Clint Eastwood film about a retired war veteran who confronts his racist beliefs
- The Station Agent, a wonderful film starring Peter Dinklage about an anti-social dwarf who inherits an old railroad station and despite his best attempts to avoid it, makes some friends
- Pan’s Labyrinth, a fantasy film about a young daughter of a sadistic Spanish officer who discovers an eerie, captivating fantasy world
The sci-fi blog i09 has a great post called In Defense of Low-Stakes Storytelling that is worth a read.
“You Just Don’t Get It, Do You?”
Along with cookie-cutter movie plots, there are certain Hollywood cliches that you see a lot. Dialogue or scenes that have been done so often they are stale, tired and evidence of lazy writing. Here are a couple of examples I can think of right off the bat:
- The homicide detective who arrives at a crime scene and asks, “What have we got?”
- A character noticing he/she’s being followed by someone, and saying, “We’ve got company.”
- The irresponsible, reckless, weird or lazy main character whom nobody thinks highly of being the one that somehow saves the day (a tired action movie plot device if there ever was one)
And of course, the line, “You just don’t get it, do you?” It’s more commonly used than you might think.
- Save The Movie! – Slate Magazine article
- How Hollywood Killed Death – New York Times op-ed
- Save The Cat! – Screenwriter’s website