Just as there are elements that every successful movie tends to use, so there are the same elements that every lousy movie tends to use. Avoid these tendencies of a lousy movie and you can avoid writing a lousy movie yourself.
In the past year, my favorite bad movies have been “Tron Legacy,” “G-Force,” “The Last Airbender,” and “Clash of the Titans.” Here are the major flaws of these lousy movies.
First, we never get acquainted with the hero. Watch the original “Star Wars” and you’ll see that the opening is very slow moving compared to the latest prequels (which are horrible in comparison). This slow exposition is necessary so we can learn who Luke is and what he wants. More importantly, we can see his constant frustration and begin to feel sympathy for him. Once we sympathize with Luke, we care what happens to him, and then we’re hooked.
Now pick your favorite bad movie and ask if you ever felt connected to the hero emotionally to the point where you cared what happened to them? Probably not, which meant that all the special effects and action fight scenes are meaningless afterwards since you don’t care.
To make us care about your hero, you have to show us who your hero is, what your hero wants, what’s your hero’s problem, and why we should care. We like heroes we think are funny (John Travolta in “Pulp Fiction”), feel sorry for (WALL-E sadly watching a movie about a couple falling in love in “WALL-E”), see their vulnerable side (Bruce Willis being afraid of flying in “Die Hard”), feel outraged by an injustice done against him (Rocky getting head butted in an illegal move during the opening boxing fight sequence in “Rocky”), or that we respect because they can do something that we cannot (Mr. Incredible in “The Incredibles”).
Is your hero likable because he’s funny, trapped in a sad situation, showing a flaw, or doing something we respect? If we can’t like your hero right away, the rest of your movie is pointless because nobody will care.
A second major flaw of lousy movies is their incompleteness and inconsistency. In “G-Force,” the villain turns out to be a mole who had been working with the guinea pigs. At the end, the mole suddenly sees all the destruction he’s done, shouts out, “What have I done?” and stops. Real exciting, huh?
Imagine if Darth Vader had aimed the Death Star at Princess Leia’s planet and the rebel base, then suddenly stopped, shouted out, “What have I done?” and gave up. Not much of a thrill, is it? That’s an example of inconsistency. If your villain is bad, keep him bad consistently because that’s his role in your story.
Even good movies can suffer the flaw of incompleteness. In “Inglorious Basterds,” the Nazi Jew Hunter orders soldiers to machine gun a French family where only the girl manages to escape. By the end of the movie, we somehow expect this French girl to take her revenge on the Jew Hunter, but no, Brad Pitt does it instead while the French girl dies at the hands of another German soldier. See how this weakened the story?
Imagine if Bruce Willis didn’t take out the head terrorist but his wife did it instead. Doesn’t have the same impact and sense of completeness, does it?
A third fatal flaw in movies is the lack of foreshadowing. When Hans the terrorist shoots the co-worker of Bruce Willis’s wife in cold blood, and earlier shoots the head of the Japanese company in cold blood, we know that Hans the terrorist has no hesitation in killing and that when he finds Bruce Willis in “Die Hard,” he’ll kill him just as easily. Now we have suspense.
When Darth Vader blows up Princess Leia’s home planet, we see the result and we know Darth Vader will have no problems blowing up another planet, and that should scare the living daylights out of us. When any of those villains in a horror slasher flick kills someone, we know the danger the rest of the characters are facing.
In “The Last Airbender,” was the big threat of the Fire army attacking foreshadowed earlier? No, so when the Fire army does attack, it just seems meaningless. If you never saw this movie and are just reading this description, the threat of the Fire army sounds stupid and it’s no better in the actual movie either.
In “Clash of the Titans,” the big threat is the Kraken monster roaming free. But we never saw this monster do anything earlier, so seeing this monster at the end has no sense of imminent danger. Seeing the Kraken attacking is like a baby seeing a live hand grenade roll into his bedroom. If the baby has no idea what a hand grenade can do, there’s no sense of fear. Likewise, if we never see the Kraken monster do anything terrible, seeing it at the end provides no sense of danger.
If you can avoid these three common elements of lousy movies, you may still write a lousy screenplay, but hopefully you won’t and by avoiding these common flaws, you can focus on writing a good story.