Every great movie is more than just action. “Titanic” wasn’t just about a sinking ocean liner. “Terminator 2” wasn’t just about a killer robot stalking its prey through today’s world. “Citizen Kane” wasn’t just about trying to understand a rich old man’s actions. Every great movie is about an acton and a behind-the-scenes emotional impact.
First, the action defines what the story is about. “Titanic” is about people trying to serve the sinking of an ocean liner. Yet what makes “Titanic” so appealing is that it’s more than just mere action. You can only watch a body fall and hit a propeller blade and land in the ocean so many times. Nobody wants to see people drown. What people want to see is how the action highlights the emotional story.
The real story behind “Titanic” is a woman who feels trapped in life and thinks the only way out is suicide. Through the sinking of the Titanic, this woman learns to stand up for her dreams and fight for control of her life. Not surprisingly, the emotional drama behind her change into a better person exactly mirrors the physical action of being trapped on a doomed ocean liner and trying to find a way to survive.
All action is designed to support the emotional story. In “Die Hard,” the action is about fighting terrorists, but the real emotional story is about getting back with his wife and doing whatever he can to get back with her. The action merely y makes the emotional story more visible.
Watch a bad European movie and you’ll notice that they tend to go overboard on the emotional story to the point where the action is nearly non-existent and boring. Then watch a bad American movie and you’ll notice that there’s plenty of action but not emotional story. Great movies blend action with emotion. Bad movies emphasize emotion or action at the absence of the other. That creates a boring movie.
Action always dramatizes the hero’s emotional dream. In the horror film “Don’t Breathe,” the hero is stuck in a home where her mother verbally abuses her so she feels trapped. Because she feels trapped, she eventually gets herself trapped in a boarded up home where she’s being hunted by a blind psychopath.
Notice the hero feels trapped emotionally and physically? That balance is what makes a great movie. If your story is all action, look for the emotional story behind it. If your story is all emotional, create action that visualizes that emotion.
Action and emotion go together. Omit one and you don’t have a story at all.