What makes a bad movie is a combination of characters we don’t care about and the lack of primeval goals that we can understand
The other day I was wondering to myself, “What makes a really bad movie?” Some movies are so bad they’re actually entertaining, such as “Plan 9 From Outer Space.” Others are so bad that you just have to stare in amazement that it ever got made in the first place.
I remember watching a 1991 movie called “Married To It.” This was the first movie I’d ever walked out on in the theater because it was so boring. I can’t even remember what the movie was about beyond having three different couples thrown together with multiple stories intertwined between all of them. Beyond that, I just remember thinking that nothing in this movie caught my attention or made me care one bit about any of the characters.
Another movie that left me puzzled and bored throughout was the 1990 “The Sheltering Sky.” I just remember it took place in Africa but otherwise seemed flat, dull, and outright boring. A bunch of us had rented that movie and watched it, and halfway through we unanimously voted to shut it off and do something else.
Since I can’t remember either of these two movies other than the fact that I didn’t like them, I’m left trying to figure out why these two movies didn’t excite me one bit and why those same two movies are probably loved by someone on this planet.
I think the first hallmark of a bad movie is the lack of universal appeal. You have to make your characters interesting people that audiences can identify with. While nobody can identify with being hunted down by a killer cyborg from the future (“Terminator”), everyone can relate to the fear of being stalked by a relentless foe, even if you’ve never had any experience remotely similar to that.
Blake Snyder (“Save the Cat”) covered this topic best when he said that movies need to be primeval. In other words, can a cave man understand it? A cave man can understand being attacked and trying to survive (“Terminator”) but a cave man probably wouldn’t understand the problems in “Married To It” or “The Sheltering Sky.”
You have to make your character’s problems so primeval that they appeal to our reptilian brains that only know about survival. Something big has to be at stake in your character’s life. Survival, fear, loss of love, loyalty. Anyone can understand being attacked by a man-eating creature (“Jaws” or “Jurassic Park”). People can also understand the feeling of being an underdog and wanting to come out on top (“Rocky” and “Thelma and Louise”). What audiences can’t understand are stories that don’t tap into our primeval fears and dreams, and this is what makes a bad movie.
Some movies are purposely bad because the studios are trying to cram crap down our throats for a quick buck. Many movies based on video games unfortunately fall in this category along with movies starring Paris Hilton, Pauly Shore, or some other goofball who happens to be popular without having the talent to back it up. These movies are bad because they simply tell a story poorly. The main character’s life may be in danger, but things are so unbelievable or disconnected that threats seem to come out of nowhere and it looks like the director and actors just made up the movie as they went along. There’s no structure or focus, so the movie seems aimless and substitutes story and character development for cheap comedy, special effects, or half-naked women.
Bad movies either create characters that nobody cares about or tells a story so sloppily that it destroys your sense of involvement and makes you feel as if you’re just sitting outside, watching without really experiencing from within.
When you watch a good movie, it draws you in and makes you feel as if you’re experiencing the same thrills that the main character is facing. When you watch a bad movie, it just feels like you’re watching something disconnected from yourself behaving in peculiar ways that hold no meaning to you.
The easiest way to find a bad movie is to look for sequels. Where the original movie might have been popular because it created characters you cared about, sequels often substitute more action and more special effects in place of telling an interesting story. Think of “Babe” and “Babe: Pig in the City” where the focus is on more talking animals and wild special effects at the end without any meaning behind it beyond just having more and wilder special effects.
Ultimately, the story and characters are what carries a film. To write a bad movie, ignore your audience and tell a story with scenes that have no relation to any other part of the movie. To write a great movie, every part of your screenplay must work with every other part in an organic whole.
Sometimes bad movies come from great scripts and actors, but more often, a bad movie begins with a bad script. If you can write a great script, you might still wind up creating a bad movie, but it’s the best you can do, so always strive to create the best screenplay you can possibly create at that moment. You really have no other choice.