Everyone says that you should watch good movies to see how it’s done. I say you should also watch crappy movies to see what to avoid.
Everyone has their idea of what makes a lousy movie. However, most people agree that some movies are worse than others. I had a chance to watch one of the worst movies I’d ever seen called “Jacob’s Ladder.”
Released back in 1990 by the screenwriter who also wrote the hit movie “Ghost,” “Jacob’s Ladder” follows a similar theme of death. In case you haven’t seen this movie or even heard of it, there’s a reason.
Here’s why I think the movie sucks. First of all, it cheats us from start to finish by using the traditional cop-out, “It was only just a dream.” Such an ending pretty much negates everything that might have emotionally involved us and leaves us feeling cheated — like buying a fine piece of jewelry for an outrageous sum, only to find out later that it’s a cheap fake.
Besides the “trick” ending, “Jacob’s Ladder” starts off with an intriguing opening of soldiers fighting in Vietnam. Then it jumps to Tim Robbins (the hero) back in New York where he almost gets hit by a subway train full of strange looking creatures.
Here’s the problem. Throughout the movie, Tim Robbins constantly sees strange people with warped faces, heads bouncing around unnaturally, and tentacles and strange growths popping out of people’s heads. But none of this is ever explained. We know that Tim Robbins is seeing things, but there’s no consistency in what he sees.
One moment he sees a strange growth popping out of a woman’s head and the next he sees a tentacle wrapping around a woman’s leg. Being bizarre for the sake of being bizarre is fine, but it needs to be explained somehow instead of leaving us dangling and wondering, “Is that it?”
Most irritating for me was watching individual scenes. Each scene is like a mini-movie with an exposition, rising action, and climax. That means every scene should grab your attention and create tension as you wonder which characters are going to get their way as they struggle against one another. Then the scene needs to end with one character winning.
In “Jacob’s Ladder,” scenes have no tension or battle between characters. Something happens, the characters take action, and that’s it. No suspense, no tension, and hence, no audience interest.
The jumbled format of the movie doesn’t help either with Tim Robbins bouncing back and forth between Vietnam, New York with his current girlfriend, and living with his wife and kids. The jump from one time period to another is so sudden that it lacks any curiosity or tension. It’s just another odd scene that pops up and ends way too quickly without leading anywhere.
None of the other characters in the movie seem to have any goals of their own. They exist solely to help or hinder Tim Robbins. A good movie has all characters striving for similar types of goals, such as overcoming fear in “Die Hard.” In “Jacob’s Ladder,” we’re treated to one bizarre scene after another with no logical connection. During this film, I found it more interesting to watch my cat sleep than watch the movie, but I forced myself just to see how it would end up.
Surprisingly, the movie actually had a good idea about a government drug-induced experiment that went horribly wrong in Vietnam. But by the time we learn this revelation, we’ve already wasted 90 minutes of our life being bored out of our mind watching surreal scenes that are surreal just for the sake of being unusual that the effect numbs our senses and leaves us bored.
“Jacob’s Ladder” is a prime example of what not to do. Don’t rely on a “It’s only a dream” ending. Don’t be shocking and bizarre just for the sake of being shocking and bizarre. (It’s the same idea with explosions and special effects. Don’t have them unless they actually serve a purpose to your story.)
Finally, make sure every character has a goal and everyone knows what it is. Even Tim Robbins, the hero, doesn’t seem to have a goal until halfway through the movie when he realizes he might have been drugged by the government while in Vietnam. But to learn this at the halfway point of the movie means the movie has already wasted our time.
When I see good movies, I’m in awe and feel like I could never create something that wonderful. When I see a crappy movie like “Jacob’s Ladder,” I get inspired to know that even on my worse day, I could create something far better.
Use good and bad movies to inspire you. There will always be good movies to learn from, but there will always be plenty of bad movies you can study and see what not to do, and sometimes that can be a more valuable lesson than anything else.