Written by: Big Ross, CC2K Staff Writer
There is an element to the making of films (or any work of fiction) that really involves the audience quite directly, though we might not realize it. This element is referred to as “suspension of disbelief.” It refers to the willingness of the viewer (or reader) to accept the premises of what he or she is seeing (or reading), even if those premises are fantastic or impossible. For the purposes of this article I’m going to restrict my consideration to movies. So throughout the film-making process, I imagine film makers are saying, “Well, we’ll just have to hope the audience goes with us on this.” And by and large we do, but our suspension of disbelief is conditional. We do so in exchange for the promise of entertainment.
That’s where problems can arise. Any inconsistencies or plot-holes that go against earlier premises, established knowledge, or common sense can result in the audience (us) feeling that the filmmakers have broken the agreement, and this can lessen the enjoyment we have of a particular film. A very good example of this done right is Lord of the Rings. I think we all know that Middle-Earth never existed. There are no such things as elves, dwarves, hobbits, or dragons. Magic and wizards do not exist. But we all have accepted that these things are real (in the context of the story) so as to enjoy the story. It’s obvious by its longevity, as well as by all the money the films based on it have made, that J.R.R. Tolkien and Peter Jackson, et al. were successful in holding up their end of the bargain. But often, things go wrong.
I think a good example is the “Special Edition” of Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. George Lucas promised his legions of fans that this “updated version” would have re-mastered special effects and even new scenes that he was simply unable to produce when he originally made the film. Of course, fans had seen this movie so many times to the point that most were so familiar with it they had the dialogue memorized. So when they watched a certain scene they were very familiar with unfold in a way they did not remember, a violation occurred. The scene I’m referencing (as you can see) involves Han Solo and the bounty hunter, Greedo. Originally, after some banter in a booth at the Mos Eisley cantina, Han shoots an unsuspecting Greedo under the table, essentially murdering him. Now Greedo was pointing a gun at Han, and Han’s freedom (if not his life) were in danger, but it was still a pretty hardcore move on the part of one of our “heroes.” Perhaps it was a little too hardcore for an “older & wiser” George Lucas. In the “Special Edition” the scene plays out the same, but surprisingly Greedo shoots first, misses (at point-blank range), and then Han shoots and kills him. A minor change, you say? Maybe. But for a lot of fans, this change was met first with confusion, and soon outrage. I’ve personally seen people wearing t-shirts with the phrase “HAN SHOT FIRST” emblazoned in bold letters. We could spend quite a bit of time discussing why they feel a sense of betrayal, but the point is that the sense is real. In the minds of many Star Wars fans, George Lucas violated the agreement; he broke their suspension of disbelief, and negatively affected their enjoyment of the film. I’m guessing this was when the tide first began to turn against Lucas, which later culminated with his inept hack job on the prequel trilogy, as was wonderfully expounded upon by Tony Lazlo . But I digress.
My point (and I do have one) is that none of us really have the same conditions for keeping our sense of disbelief maintained during a movie. We have different backgrounds, educations, occupations, interests, and areas of expertise. An average person may think nothing of it when Captain Kirk orders, “Warp speed, Mr. Sulu,” but a physicist may decry that is impossible due to Einstein’s theory of relativity. I’ve read that the first twenty minutes of Saving Private Ryan had an even more profound emotional impact on WWII veterans than it did on the average movie-goer, and for good reason. We all go into a movie theater suspending our disbelief, but elements of that movie can impact our suspensions differently, resulting in some of us enjoying a film, and others not. Since I’m admittedly something of a geek, dork, and/or nerd (pick your euphemism) I feel I’m cursed with a more easily shaken suspension of disbelief than the “average movie-watcher”. Here are a couple of examples of movies that bothered me, but might not have affected other people in the same way:
1. The Mummy – Alright, first I’ll admit that this isn’t anything close to a quality movie to begin with, and it may only warrant discussion in CRAPFEST (I’m referring to the 1999 version starring Brendan Fraser). But the thing that broke my suspension of disbelief was not the idea of a mummy. I can get on board with that as a general premise. The thing that bothered me was when people in the movie started speaking what was supposed to be ancient Egyptian out loud. Maybe the average person isn’t aware of this, but no one today knows what the spoken language of the ancient Egyptians sounded like. We can roughly translate hieroglyphics thanks to the Rosetta stone, which allows translation first to Greek, and then to English (and other contemporary languages). If the mummy had been speaking something that was supposed to be ancient Egyptian, ok. But when the other characters (who should have no clue what it sounds like) started speaking it as well, my suspension of disbelief was broken and my enjoyment lessened, though I admit, it wasn’t that great to begin with.
2. Mission to Mars – This is an example of an element in a movie that was shown in a trailer that immediately broke my suspension of disbelief such that I had no desire to see the film. Mission to Mars is a movie about (duh) a space mission to the planet Mars, not to be confused with that other movie about basically the same thing, called Red Planet. I think the major difference is MTM starred Gary Sinise and Don Cheadle, while RP starred Val Kilmer and Tom Sizemore. Regardless, there was one scene in the MTM trailer where Gary Sinise walks up to Jerry O’Connell (who is supposed to be a scientist). Jerry is sitting in front of a bunch of jellybeans floating in some kind of zero-gravity field and are roughly arranged in a double-helix (the shape of DNA). Now to this point I don’t have a problem. Going to Mars? Sure, not too outlandish of an idea. Zero-gravity field generator? Hey, it’s supposed to be the future, why not? Then what was my problem? Gary asks Jerry, “What’s that supposed to be?” (referring to the jellybeans). Jerry answers something like, “The ideal woman.” Gary then grabs one of the jellybeans, scattering most of the others to which Jerry looks crestfallen. Gary asks, “What is it now?” Jerry mutters, “A toad.” Get the joke? I’m guessing most people didn’t, because it was a science joke, and a horribly bad one. The jellybeans were supposed to represent DNA, the genetic blueprint of all life. But that stretch of jelly beans was maybe 2-3 feet long; this is not even close to covering the sequence of the simplest gene of the simplest single-celled organism, not to mention the entire genome of a human (or even a toad). Now I understand that this brief scene probably went over the heads of most in the audience (as well as my explanation to most reading this), but it stuck with me. It was a deal breaker, and because of it I refused to see Mission to Mars, which was probably a good thing because I think I heard this movie sucks.
Now don’t get me wrong. I know that people trying to make movies have a hard enough time as it is. I’m not saying that they should go over their scripts with a fine-toothed comb and a magnifying glass looking for the slightest inconsistency so as not to upset a single audience member (but it might not hurt). So what am I saying? Well, that’s a damn good question. I guess I’m saying that part of writing a good movie script (as if I’m qualified to know) and making a good movie is guarding against glaring violations of the suspension of disbelief of the target and/or general audience. It seems kind of obvious, but it makes the movie-going experience more enjoyable for us, and makes more money for the film studios. It’s win-win. Plus, it ensures that fan boys don’t wish all manner of dreadful things happen to you, as I’m sure George Lucas could attest to.