Broadly speaking there are two kinds of movies : dumb movies and smart movies. Now, I’ve nothing against a dumb movie. Some of them happen to be great. Here are a few good dumb movies: Rambo, Die Hard, Scarface, The Fast And The Furious, The Transporter, Titanic, Avatar. These movies are our escape from the world. You don’t have to think about them much. You gawp. Gawping is good: not everything has to be a brain-teaser. The requirements of a dumb movie are simple : it must be entertaining. By contrast, a smart movie is one you’re still thinking about six months later. A smart movie is one you might find yourself accidentally quoting. It resonates with you. A smart movie is, in short, a life-changer, albeit in a small way. It establishes itself. It gives you a handful of characters and builds them, lets them breathe and walk around, and offers you a conclusion that, if not definitive, is satisfactory. A smart movie creates a microcosm that draws you in. It may be implausible, sure, but it’s self-contained. The rules make sense. It has, at the very least, internal logic.
And a shared quality of a good dumb movies and a good smart movie is logical consistency. Logic, in the philosopher’s garden, is the study of interaction. If A, then B. If A and B then C. Therefore, if A then C (this gets more complicated later on). Logic, in its most elegant form, ties the world together. The sun rises and sets in a cycle. The sun rose yesterday. The sun rose today.Therefore, barring a catastrophe, the sun will rise tomorrow. This makes sense. And it makes sense on movies, too. John McClane takes on a building full of terrorists and survives, against incredible odds, because the rules of Die Hard are internally consistent.
I got to thinking about internal logic after watching Now You See Me, a movie about a couple of magicians who pull off the world’s greatest heist. It’s sort of Ocean’s Eleven meets David Blaine. It effortlessly fits the demographic of people who like card tricks and bank robberies. That’s a big group of people.
Like Ocean’s Eleven, Now You See Me introduces each of its characters as individuals, so that you can see them work as whole people. We have Woody Harrelson’s shady “mentalist” schtick, where he hypnotises people into giving him money (or something), Jesse Eisenberg’s arrogant, mouthy card trick guy, and David Franco and Isla Fisher are in it too for unspecified reasons. If you’re someone who knows Zombieland, you know that Jesse Eisenberg and Woody Harrelson can carry a movie more or less on their own. They have the chemistry. And we see it when the magicians are brought together. There’s snarky comments, and you’re relieved. Because at least Now You See Me won’t be humourless.
Except it is. And that’s a problem. Now You See Me picks up a whole bunch of threads all at once: there’s four magicians brought together by a mysterious agent. There’s a bank robbery. There’s a subplot involving Morgan Freeman. There’s a subplot involving Michael Caine. There’s a pair of subplots connecting Mélanie Laurent, who is very engaging for reasons that have nothing to do with the movie, and Mark Ruffalo, who is very gruff.
It’s not really worth my going any further, because the film doesn’t. If you were expecting two hours of spirited cattiness between Eisenberg and Harrelson, forget it. That doesn’t really happen. If you were expecting a clever heist, like Ocean’s Eleven, I’m afraid that doesn’t work out either. If you were expecting a thriller, with care chases and fights, that does happen…sort of. But what blights out all these minor enjoyments is the awareness that nothing in this movie makes sense. Character motivations do not work even within the confines of that character, let alone the whole film. The twist ending doesn’t make sense on any level whatsoever.
The problem is (and I’m only just getting to my main point) that there are a lot of movies out there pretending to be cleverer than they are. Now You See Me fails to satisfy because, with a big handful of threads to start off, it then begins to drop them one by one. At the end of the film, I had the sensation you get when you’re about to take a last drag from your cigarette and somebody snatches it away (how was i to know you can’t smoke at a baptism?). I had the feeling of lacking closure. And the reason, if we’ll be honest, is that Now You See Me is logically inconsistent. This is a film that will frustrate you even if you accept the initial premises. This is the movie equivalent of flap-waggling pop philosopher Alain de Botton.
Logic is important because we are rational moviegoers …yah, even Twilight fans. As human beings, we live in a world governed by rules, either laid out, like law, morality and ethics, or intrinsic, like the laws of physics and mathematics. The world, at least on the human scale, behaves with a predictable, rational regularity. That’s logic in action. Our acceptance of the world is predicated on it making sense to us. Similarly, our suspension of disbelief, the key component of imagination and fantasy, is predicated on a form of logic or rationality. imaginary worlds, no matter how absurd, have to mesh together as an entity for us to accept them. That’s why dreams where you’re forever trying to get somewhere but can’t, or always trying to remember a number that keeps changing, are so frustrating. They lack logic.
The problem is that internally inconsistent movies are becoming pretty common. Maybe they always have been, and I’ve failed to notice, but it seems like there’s a lot of half-baked crap on the silver screen. Let’s take an example: Prometheus (2012). When I heard about this movie I became so excited I had visible stink lines. Ridley Scott is returning to the Alien universe? Whoa. Michael Fassbender is going to play an android? Noomi Rapace is going to be in it? Double whoa. We’re going to find out who the space jockeys were and what the spaceship was about? WHOA GUYS WHOA
And I saw it, and I staggered out of the cinema, mind blown to crispy chunks. It was only during the drive home that I had these niggling thoughts. And it took me weeks (nay, months) to put it together: Prometheus was a bad movie.
A really bad movie.
A long-distance overview of its premise is solid, sci-fi entertainment. Scientists go in search of alien species, discover it, it infects them and they all die. It’s only when you look closer than that that you can see the problems. Long-time readers will know that I hate Damon “Destroy Everything You Touch” Lindelof for writing some bad movies, and I don’t want to go down the tedious route of spewing invective against the guy again. I will say this, though: to return to the idea of an internal logic, Prometheus fails on all counts. Its characters are a group of scientists. Scientists, at least as we understand them, are known for thinking deeply, obeying protocol, following the scientific method, and making discoveries by way of a rigorous process of hypothesis, analysis, experimentation and deduction. A scientist, on being told that the air is “breathable”, would not remove his or her space helmet, breathe the air, and then whoop like a frat party at the arrival of a kegger. Scientists are not known for being stupid. And that’s the central fault of Prometheus : everybody acts like an idiot for no purpose other than to further the plot. The internal logic of this movie is non-existent. An apt comparison would be to Alien, in which characters act like idiots and carry the plot, but these characters are not scientists, proceeding into a situation with partial to full knowledge of the situation. These guys are the space equivalent of a road haulage crew – smart in their own way, but liable to make errors when confronted with an eight-foot-tall biomechanical beastie with acid for blood. It’s beyond their purview as characters, and therein lies an internal consistency. Prometheus doesn’t have that, which makes it a frustrating watch.
Coming at the problem from a different angle brings you up against Sucker Punch (2011), a movie that plays out like the video game tie-in of itself. Four girls in an asylum act their way through a plot to escape via a rich fantasy world of gunfights and revealing clothing. If that were the sole purpose of the movie, this would be fine (and who can disagree?), but Sucker Punch drags along with it an unspoken question: doesn’t this all mean something? The answer, unfortunately, is no. If you have to ask that question, no. Sucker Punch fails as a film, not because it fails to deliver guns, stockings and explosions, but because Zack Snyder (writer and director) seems desperate to beg the question. As a reviewer of the time stated:
If you want to understand Snyder’s central narrative gambit, it’s right there in the title. He gives us what we want (or what we think we want, or what he thinks we think we want): Absurdly fetishized women in teeny little skirts, gloriously repetitious fight sequences loaded with plot coupons, pseudo-feminist fantasies of escape and revenge. Then he yanks it all back and stabs us through the eyeball.
Yet try as he might, Snyder can’t make Sucker Punch mean more than it is. I guess the philosophical equivalent is the famous Cartesian exposition: “I think therefore I am” (a solid piece of reasoning) then being used as a comprehensive proof for the existence of God. Starting from an initial premise, Descartes reasoned:
I exist → I have not always existed → I must be the product of something ⊨ ipso facto God
the thought process behind Sucker Punch is similarly flawed:
Hot girls, guns, and kung fu make a film popular → These are all staples of geek culture → To use them unapologetically is stupid ⊨ ipso facto Sucker Punch is a satire of geek culture
I might have jumped a step there, but so did Zack Snyder.
To reiterate: the mark of a good movie (smart or dumb) is that it makes sense as a self-contained world, with an internally consistent set of rules. Citizen Kane, The Godfather, and The Social Network are smart movies, for example. They maintain an internal logic that bears up to scrutiny. They bear repeat watching because their characters behave in ways that make sense within the context of the film. Prometheus, Sucker Punch and Now You See Me are examples of films that don’t pass the logic test. That, unfortunately, makes these films worse than Freddy Got Fingered, a movie that, though bizarre, peurile and horrible, at least makes sense in and of itself. And that’s a truly damning comparison.