If you look on Rotten Tomatoes, two highly rated movies this past summer are “Detroit” and “Dunkirk,” both of which are based on actual events. While “Dunkirk” was a financial success, “Detroit” was not. Yet if you watch both movies, you’ll notice something missing: Emotion.
The best stories don’t just show interesting action, but also immerses us in the emotion on the screen. In a great horror film, you’re scared right along with the characters. In a great comedy, you’re laughing at the characters’ actions. In a great romance, you want the hero to find love and worry when they may not. In all great movies, you feel a strong emotion. People didn’t watch “Titanic” multiple times just to watch an ocean liner sink. They loved reliving the emotions the movie made them feel.
Even today, certain films become cult films because people love the emotions they evoke. People have seen “Star Wars” dozens of times, yet they willing watch it again because it brings back pleasing emotions.
That’s missing in “Detroit” and “Dunkirk.” Instead of letting us identify with a single character, both films focus on showing us events without us really getting to know the characters. By showing us emotionally-charged scenes, both movies try to get us emotionally interested in the story but it fails.
In one scene in “Detroit,” the National Guard appears and is warned about snipers. That’s when a little girl peeks through venetian blinds to see what’s going on and a soldier in a tank mistakes the little girl for a sniper and fires a machine gun into that window.
Just the idea of a machine gun killing a little girl is horrifying, but there’s little emotion behind that action because we don’t know who the little girl is and we don’t know who that soldier is who fires the machine gun. As soon as the soldier fires the machine gun, we never see the little girl or the soldier again so the whole scene is relatively meaningless. It serves only one purpose and that’s to horrify us about the actual events surrounding the riots in Detroit during 1967.
In “Dunkirk,” we see multiple stories at once including a soldier trying to find a way off the beach, a captain of a private boat trying to get soldiers off Dunkirk, and a British pilot flying over the beaches. Yet in all three stories, we never really get to know any of the main characters. Instead of feeling emotionally involved, we’re more like distant spectators. When something bad is about to happen to any of these characters, we don’t worry. We simply watch and observe.
The problem boils down to this. Truth is often not as interesting as fiction. That’s why movies based on actual facts often have to be altered to make them into more interesting stories. Stories provide a condensed emotional roller coaster that tells a story within a theme that explains something about life. In “Terminator 2,” we learn the importance of not killing because human lives are valuable. That’s the theme buried under the action, but without that theme, the action would be pointless, which is the problem with “Terminator 3.”
“Detroit” and “Dunkirk” focus on showing us actual events without letting us identify with any particular character. The events in both films are terrifying, but because we don’t feel emotionally attached to any particular character, we don’t feel emotionally attached to the movie. Despite the high ratings on Rotten Tomatoes for both movies, they’re well-done with great intentions while staying true to actual events. They’re just emotionally empty.
There’s a reason even poorly rated movies still prove popular. “Miss Congeniality” was poorly rated by critics on Rotten Tomatoes, yet was a box office hit. That’s because audiences could get emotionally involved in the change and progress of the main character. “Detroit” was highly rated, yet proved disappointing at the box office simply because it’s a dry, distant movie that tells an important story but without getting you to feel emotionally involved. “Dunkirk” fared much better at the box office, but it’s also emotionally empty.
In the future, people will still be watching “Star Wars” but it’s doubtful people will want to watch “Dunkirk” or “Detroit” over and over again. That’s because people want to feel emotions in a story, and docu-dramas like “Detroit” and”Dunkirk” fail to deliver.
The moral of the lesson is simple. Make audiences feel emotionally invested in your hero, and that involves making a hero change. In “Detroit” and “Dunkirk,” there’s little emotional change in the main characters. They simply exist and remain mostly in the same emotional state that they were in since the beginning. In loved movies like “Star Wars,” the main characters change emotionally from beginning to end. Luke starts off unsure of himself and winds up sure of himself.
In “Die Hard,” John McClane starts off wanting to get back with his wife and when he defeats the terrorists, he finally gets back with his wife.
In “Titanic,” Rose fears her life is doomed and by the end, she learns to take risks and live life to its fullest.
In “Detroit” and “Dunkirk,” the main characters begin and end the same way emotionally, and that’s what makes a dull story whether it’s true or not.