What makes a bad movie bad instead of good?
That’s an interesting question. Although obviously the answer is somewhat subjective there are countless cases where a majority or near totality of audiences agree that X is a certifiably bad movie.
Now by using the term “bad” I don’t necessarily mean poor structure or weak characterization or flimsy themes. Plenty of movies with all of those issues still end up widely accepted by moviegoers at large. They may be critically derided but film series like Transformers and The Fast and The Furious will continue to escape the “bad movie” label while others do not.
I also don’t mean bad movies where the people in charge of the movie just didn’t care or intentionally tried to be bad. We already know why those are bad. I’m talking about a bad movie that could have been good but somehow failed along the way. A bad movie that people expected to be good. A bad movie that perplexes us with its badness. How do those movies end up in the bad zone?
After thinking about it for a long while, I’ve decided that the reason is actually quite simple. We all approach movies differently. Not everyone engages films analytically nor do they watch them with an appreciation for the history of the medium, film technique, and overall narrative strength (uh I certainly don’t). Average moviegoers won’t notice if a film is a rip off of 2001: A Space Odyssey or be aware if a director/screenwriter/cinematographer is truly original or just a copycat. No, what people do is watch movies and then decide whether the movie made them mostly happy on some level or if it just confused them. And the way they judge this is by the amount of times they are taken out of the narrative flow of the movie and instead presented with something confusing or implausible or just plain annoying.
People notice when the movie interrupts their desire to be swept away in the cinematic experience and instead are forced to watch something less than what they hoped for. Instead of a scene that moves them, they get a scene that weirds them out. These roadblocks get in the way of the story.
Let’s call these story tumors.
A story tumor is an easily identifiable problem that occurs within the plot of a movie. It can be an issue of logic, a character behaving out of character, a completely unrealistic plot point. Anything that any average Joe can point to and say, “That didn’t make sense. This movie is stupid.”
Story tumors may seem trivial at first, but they are cancerous. They begin to grow and as they do more and more people point them out.
No movie is perfect. What movie doesn’t have things to nitpick and criticize? Flaws are just a part of moviemaking just like everything else. Only the rarest of gems gets a 100% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. But by popular consensus and box office some movies are clearly deemed “good’ and others are “bad.”
But I believe the reason is not hard to discover: When the audience can consciously identify and notice story tumors, they will turn against the movie. You can hide some major movie problems under the sheer momentum of story and effort of the actors, but once the audience latches on to a couple of story tumors, it’s over. Even if they half-liked the movie, they will concentrate their assessment of the film based on their unshakable feelings about the tumors.
Once a movie racks up three or four story tumors, it’s dead in the water. It cannot recover any goodwill from the general audience, although it may continue to find a few defenders.
To flesh out this concept I want to look at some well-known examples of these story tumors in action.
Originally I was going to make this one long article but instead I think I’m going divide it into bite-sized sections so that you can read just about the movies you are interested in. Here are the bad movies we will be covering in the next few days:
We’ll begin tomorrow with the sequel to The Matrix. Thanks for reading!