Movie Cliches

I don’t think I ever posted this, did I? Spurred by Cracked’s attack on injury cliches, I present a list of movie cliches I once sent to Roger Ebert for inclusion in his Little Movie Glossary (none have shown up; possibly because I accidentally abbreviated one that could be mistaken for a mis-spelled bad word and therefore tripped a spam filter). Several of these have appeared in cracked and on But I thunk of ’em independently.

Empty Weight: Bullets are heavy and even the less experienced gun owner can tell the difference between a semi-automatic pistol with an empty clip and one with a full clip. Yet professional spies, soldiers and assassin who handle them for a living will not notice until they get the hero/villain in their sights and pull the trigger on an empty gun (Die Another Day, the Abyss, numerous others). Some guns also have magic slides that fail to lock open when they hit an empty magazine. Cracked hit this one and other gun myths.

Body Block: Character A sees a danger menacing Character B (falling rocks, flying spears, laser beams, whatever). Instead of dragging or tackling Character B out of the way, Character A shoves them out of the way, stops, then stands there like a moron while the flaming arrows, speeding car, charging bulls or falling rocks hit them.

Don’t Buckle Up, It’s Not the Law: No matter how sophisticated spaceships in the future might be, no one will strap themselves into their chairs so that they aren’t flung all over the screen at the slightest jolt.

The Kirstin Dunst Rule: The quality of a movie starring Kirsten Dunst is directly proportional to the amount of skin she reveals. Contrasts the bad Marie Antoinette biopic with the excellent Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

No Body, No Death: If you don’t see the body, the person ain’t dead, no matter violently his car has exploded.

Easy Money: A mcguffinesque suitcase full of money will, by the end of the movie, end up thrown out of a building, set on fire, or, the old reliable, dropped from height into water (money, like the Wicked Witch of the West, apparently being dissolved by water).

The Fun Gun Fake: If the villain — especially a likeable one — is holding a gun on the hero as if to execute him, he will pull the trigger only to have the hammer click on an empty chamber. This often applies even to semi-automatic weapons where the chamber locks open if the magazine is empty. This cliche includes both pretend executions and if the villain gets the drop on the unarmed hero after a long shootout. See The Matrix, Traffic, etc.

Pencilneck Phenomenon: It is *really* easy to break someone’s neck. All you have to do is grab their head and twist a little.

The Bergman Rule: A critic’s review of an Ingmar Bergman film is frequently more illuminating about the critic than about the film.

Comic Reverse: In any comedy, the statement “No way will I/we ever [X]”, there will be a quick cut to the character doing X.

Age of Sail Sale: All age of sail movies feature: (1) an establishing shot showing how crowded and chaotic the ships is; afterward the ship is nearly empty and silent so we can hear and see the actors; (2) an incident of corporal punishment; (3) a lack of provision leading to rationing, possibly even one case of scurvy in a minor cast member; (4) ships not using maneuvers or taking advantage of wind but simply rolling up next to each other and firing away at point blank range. See Master and Commander, Pirates of the Caribbean, the Horatio Hornblower series, etc.

Primate Rule: No good movie features a monkey or chimp in a prominent role. Apes and guerillas are OK, though.

The Romantic Reverse Phone Call: When a man calls a woman and confesses his love to her and we don’t see the woman on the other end until at least partway through the conversation, it’s because he’s making this dramatic confession to someone else. See Cinema Paradiso, Woman in Red, etc.

The Male Maturity Movie: a genre of films whose primary subject is a male playboy realizing the emptiness of his life and settling down. See About a Boy, Alfie, How to Murder Your Wife, etc.

The Not-too-Pretty Phenomenon: In the Male Maturity Movie, it is critical that the female protagonist be the second-best looking woman in the cast, so he can resist the temptation of a seductress but still get a hot babe. Works best if the temptress role is played by someone flashy with an emphatic figure, while the heroine role is played by a more wholesome woman with a face the camera just loves. See La Dolce Vita, Nothing in Common, etc.

Flames of Death: In a movie, fires can start and get out of control almost instantly. A hot poker against drapes will start an instant conflagration. Bars are especially vulnerable — a single spark will send flames shooting down the entire length. Many examples, but the defining one is probably in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Law of Unconciousness: Whenever a character is hit in the head, he will be knocked out and remain out for precisely as long as necessary for the plot. He will, however, not suffer any permanent effects. This is especially fun in a TV series — e.g., the X-files in which Scully was knocked out an estimated 843 times.

Read it Out!: whenever a character reads something important, he will either a) read it aloud or b) hear the writer’s voice in his head while he reads. It doesn’t matter what it is — street sign, placard, graffitti, computer screen. This is done so that precious screen time isn’t wasted with something that needs reading.

It’s Him! (written version): Tendency of movie characters, when seeing an important character in a photograph or video, exclaiming something like “It’s him!” or “Oh, my God!” just to make sure the audience noticed.

It’s Him! (oral version): Tendency of movie characters, when looking for someone important, to scream out, thus alerting the persuee and giving him a chance to run. Usually in the form of “Freeze!” or “Hey, you!” or “Stop!”. Especially common in a crowd so that the target can run while the persuers fight their way through.

Sticky Fingers: Detectives will always find fingerprints when they look unless the perpetrator took measures (on film) to hide them. This despite the fact that clear fingerprints are very hard to find in real life. Movie cops rarely have to go to the best places to find fingerprints. They can pick fingerprints off a random patch of table or a wall. The fingerprints are never smudged. And every person in the United States is part of a fingerprint database, even if they’ve never committed a crime or worked in a sensitive government position (see Black Hat Database).

Black Hat Database: The government collects and stores amazing amounts of obscure information about its citizens, which is part of a large, user-friendly, perfectly efficient database. This database never gives incorrect information or comes up empty, unless the bad guys have “wiped” the relevant records. Enemy of the State is a perfect example. Se7en is probably the worst example as the detectives find a killer through — of all things — a secret federal database that catalogues the checkout of library books.

Good Aim: Whenever a male character pees their pants, it always runs down over their toes. See Unforgiven, Gladiator.

Nice Sidle: The cliche of having a bad guy silently sidle up to a good guy/victim in order to shock the audience by their sudden appearance. This can be done with deceptive camera angles but lately, most directors prefer medicine cabinet mirrors. Heroine opens the cabinet, takes out something, closes the mirror. Boom! The bad guy has appeared in the reflection, standing behind her. Amazingly, bad guys can glide silently over usually noisy surfaces like metal, broken glass or squeaky wood. See Sleeping with the Enemy and especially Domestic Disturbance.

Astronomy 101: In movies involving astronomers: (1) the astronomer works by looking directly through the telesecope, usually in a brightly lit room; he’s never in an isolated control room using electronic instruments, (2) when any object is detected, it can be looked up instantly in a glitzy computer database, (3) if a comet is detected, one solitary observation will reveal that it is about to collide with Earth; usually its trajectory is plotted on a PC in 3-D color; (4) unusual discoveries are never reported to the IAU, but to some mysterious government agency — after which the astronomer will die a fiery death, (5) Bright objects that are visible to every amateur astronomer on the planet can be kept a secret by the government. See Deep Impact and Armageddon. For a splendid counterexample on every point except (2), see Contact.

Dr. Kevorkian Will See You Now: incidental characters who are doctors are never a good thing. They only come into the movie to prescribe the wrong drug (Requiem for a Dream), announce a terminal illness (numerous movies) or be a disguised bad guy looking to kill the protaganist (mocked nicely in Naked Gun).

The Suave Sex Rule: A sex scene in a movie always involves amazing and often improbable copulation, even between complete strangers. It never involves any awkwardness or premature ejaculation — unless that’s the point (American Pie, for example). The positions are chosen for maximum exposure of the woman’s body. See Fatal Attraction, especially, or any pay cable movie between 11 pm and 5 am.

Dennis Franz Rule: In any American film involving male nudity, the fattest male lead is the one who will bare his butt.

Jim Carrey Theorem: The quality of a Jim Carrey movie is inversely proportional to the number of weird faces he’s allowed to make.

Homage Sigh: The sound made by a movie watcher when a movie mocks or makes homage to a scene from a vastly superior movie. The Matrix was a popular target a few years ago. The worst sighs have been reported when Robert DeNiro mocks his own mirror speech from Taxi Driver.

Law of Courtroom Glamor: No matter what the setting, courtrooms in movies are always large and impressive, with expensive wood furniture. You never see cheap chairs or dirty windows or anything. A Few Good Men is an excellent example, in which the producers made sure not to film in the usual drab, plain military courtroom.

Wahlberg Complex: Psychological condition in which a character is totally unsurprised by events, no matter how bizarre. Named after Mark Wahlberg’s performance in Planet of the Apes (2001) in which his character is completely unsurprised to find himself on a planet where apes rule humans.

Valkyrie Plates: The invisible metal plates that allow actresses in films, no matter how large their breasts, to run, fall or be kicked in the chest without any pain. See Charlie’s Angels. Related to the invisible bulletproof vest, in which a female character in tight clothing who is clearly not wearing a vest is shot, then reveals the vest. See Scream 3.

The Slick Science Rule: Science labs or facilities are always gleaming, polished ultra-modern facilities, not cramped offices with books and papers strewn all over. Contrast Goldeneye with Contact, both of which use the Arecibo Radio Observatory as their setting.

The Encylopedic Grave Digger: Grave diggers know everything about everyone buried in the cemetary they work in, even it’s 800 years old and they started working the day before. Invented by Shakespeare for Hamlet, copied by everyone else.

Contemptible Contempt: Every movie trial has to have a scene where the hero rants and raves over the protests and gavel-banging of the judge — sometimes on an irrelevant topic. Probably the single most irritating case was in Big Daddy, but it is staple of even good movies like a Few Good Men. This behaviour is unheard of in real trials and would certainly not be tolerated by a judge (see a nice burial of this cliche in Catch Me If You Can). Great movies do not resort to this crude cliche (see To Kill a Mockingbird).