The Art of Convention


A lot of movies that we watch here at Save the Movies have stories that are predictable. Often that description would be considered an epithet, especially when applied to a story or movie, but being able to guess the beats a story will hit doesn’t mean we won’t enjoy it.  We’ve watched and enjoyed movies like Speed Racer, even though about 15 minutes in, most people could probably make an outline for the rest of the movie that would be pretty close to the actual script. Spoiler alert, Speed Racer wins the big race!

It’s not a surprise to anyone watching, but that doesn’t stop it from being an entertaining movie. It doesn’t matter that we know where Speed Racer is going to end up, the ride is a lot of fun. Looking at our uploads so far, the majority of movies that we’ve talked about fit into conventional themes, which makes sense. A good twist can be difficult to pull off.


On some level humans crave the familiar. Hollywood can remake old movies over and over because audiences will pay to see the same story over and over. A familiar story gives people a reference point in either their own experience or by simple virtue of having heard the story enough times to know it well, and it’s comforting to know what’s coming won’t challenge your worldview. We know that watching the latest re-imagining of King Kong is not likely to inspire much cognitive dissonance. On the other side of the coin, we describe things that defy convention with words like ‘challenging’, ‘defiant’, or ‘bold’. Many movies that deal with the unknown are considered horror movies, because people fear the unknown. Familiar stories reassure us that all is right with the world.

That doesn’t mean that a movie that we think of as adhering to convention can’t have ups and downs. The hero must encounter difficulties. Otherwise there’s not much of a story to tell. Some of these difficulties can be plot twists, but most of these plot twists will fall within certain guidelines. It’s a rare movie where the protagonist of the first act dies or becomes the villain. There’s a good chance that the girl who catches the hero’s eye will wind up with him (or vice versa, but let’s face it, usually him) by the end of the movie, and these relationships are almost exclusively hetero-normative. Our plucky hero will almost certainly be down and out at some point, but we expect that to happen.

Famous plot twists in movies are famous because they’ve gone outside these conventional set of story telling devices. Darth Vader being Luke’s father was surprising because it blurred the lines between good and evil that Star Wars had gone to pains to establish. We’re amazed to learn that Bruce Willis had been dead the whole time. M. Night Shyamalan doesn’t know when to quit apparently, but that’s a different rant…

Subversions of expectations make us sit up and take notice, and by drawing the viewer’s focus, they can cover for weaknesses elsewhere in the picture. A movie that follows convention must be more well-crafted in its basic elements than a ‘big twist’ movie needs to be, because a conventional movie doesn’t have a shocking surprise to draw attention away from those basic elements.

If Deep Blue Sea hadn’t had a twist at the end, I doubt we would have remembered it well enough to put on our list of underappreciated movies. It was a decent monster movie, but the subverted expectation made it relatively unique. Movies like Speed Racer, Sky Captain, and Killer Klowns, on the other hand, are highly polished works of craftsmanship. The writing holds up in Killer Klowns, and is fantastic in Sky Captain, and acting, camera work, editing, directing, pacing, and visuals are wonderfully done in all of those movies. If the dialogue in Sky Captain had been poorly written, it wouldn’t be nearly as high up on my list of favorite movies.

That doesn’t mean a movie can’t have both a subversion of expectations and excellent construction, it just means that the unusual movie can get away with more. Tucker and Dale vs Evil is a great movie that plays with normal horror movie roles, and still has excellent production values, while Anacondas: Hunt for the Blood Orchid (coming soon!) just barely made the cut for us partly because of some unusual casting and plot choices. A good conventional story takes a craftsman to make, and a good conventional movie is all the more impressive for requiring the work of dozens of individuals to mesh together.
That’s all for now super savers. See you next blog.

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