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Five Good and Bad Movie Cliches
The challenge for a screenwriter nowadays is to try and come up with a movie premise that is both unique and original, but unfortunately in this day and age that challenge is more like trying to run through a brick wall. With most plot devices being used up as years go by, it has meant that familiar tropes in films become more and more apparent, leaving many films ridden with clichés. We all know a cliché: the reluctant hero, the antihero, the cop who says “bingo” when finding evidence in an investigation, and the bomb that is defused with just two seconds to go! Most of them are plain annoying and bad, but sometimes there are the odd “good” cliché. While, I must say clichés can’t really be “good” in a film’s script, there are some, however, that can be spun into something new and fresh. For instance let’s take a look at the “it was all a dream” cliché, which was turned into a seemingly new device with David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive in 2001. Lynch used surrealism, and abstractions to get his message and theme across to the viewer about a Hollywood actress’s nightmarish time in the movie industry. A bad cliché turned into a good one.
So, what are my top five good and bad movie clichés? Check them out below, starting with the good ones:
5. Good cop/Bad cop
This one never lets the detective genre down. The cop who stands in the corner of the interrogation room, arms folded, listening to his more aggressive partner rip apart a murder suspect with carefully chosen swear words, while also occasionally going in for a hit around the back of the head. Good cop, bad cop, its one we’ve seen time and time again, but at one point it was in danger of turning into one of those bad clichés; however, in recent times this trope has proven to have many variants.
It creates room for both characters to be pushed to their limits by their uneven partnership. “Bad” is a broad term, it gives better writers a chance to use this cliché and turn it on its head, just like what Nic Pizzolatto did with his hit HBO series True Detective. Giving the good and bad cop rich and deep personalities, while exploring how the bad cop can change the personal life of the good cop.
“Bad” as a term can also give the detective genre a different viewpoint with the bad cop being bent, meaning he might mix with local mob figures, or drug dealers. All in all, it gives a different perspective from the other side of the law. It’s an interesting cliché that keeps on reinventing itself for us.
In almost every gangster movie there’s always one character in the crime family who can’t be trusted, usually the most annoying character, but we don’t refer to him as annoying, we call him or her the “rat.” The rat is someone who might be working with another business, be it cops or another crime family – he’s a rat either way. It’s no surprise gangster movies have a rat, as their films often deal with the themes of loyalty and trust.
As I said, it’s usually the annoying character. However, in the more complex gangster movies the rat has been used to create tension, and mystery, as the viewer is watching the film from the perspective of the rat. Just look at films like Donnie Brasco, Johnny Depp’s the rat; The Departed, Matt Damon and Leonardo Di Caprio are both rats. It’s a predictable cliché that when it’s used right, can be mighty effective, and more effective than the amount of times I’ve said “rat” in this piece already.
3. Apocalyptic wastelands
The future is always full of dusty roads, dirt, motorbike thugs with elaborate beards, dust, poverty and a little more dust; this time the dust is imbedded in the cracks between the main character’s facial wrinkles. This apocalyptic future has been a fan favourite for a long time for its action packed battle grounds for movies like the Mad Max franchise, Planet of the Apes, District 9, and Terminator. While they were entertaining, this world has become an overused cliché in fiction, films like Elysium and Book of Eli, are examples of these types of films which could only be described as generic and a little cliché-ridden.
However, this apocalyptic landscape has still got juice left in its tank (and some dust) as The Walking Dead has proven, great characters and original story lines are still there to be written in this old land. Viewers love this type of setting, it just needs a little revamp, and with films like The Rover and the Mad Max reboot coming soon, the dusty roads could soon be fun again. It’s an old cliché that just needs a little love, care and polish.
2. “I need to reload!”
No, not really, I’ve just realised I’m in a movie.
Yep, it’s the infinite ammo cliché almost every action movie or shootout has. We see films like Predator, Rambo and Heat all pull off amazing set pieces with clever gun choreography, but the viewer is smart, and smart enough to think: surely one of these guys is in need of a new mag?
Not in the world of movies, and I know it could be a bad cliché, but the pros are we don’t have to watch characters fumble around with new ammo, meaning the gun fights will be non-stop, keeping the brain numbing entertainment going. The other pro just being that this one off movie shootout in the Coen brothers, Miller’s Crossing, where they take a subtle dig at these type of action films is something rather special indeed. Check out the video in the link.
Just for that scene alone, this cliché deserves a medal.
1. “I hate you mom, and I hate you too dad.”
Yes, where would the world be without a film or show using family problems as a plot beat?
I’m not sure who likes it, you know, the movies where you’ve got the melodramatic family issues, which consists of a stroppy teenage boy, and the daughter who has had more break ups than Henry VIII by the time she’s just thirteen, a mother who’s on the edge, and a father who is more interested in money.
It’s never particularly enjoyable viewing; however, when mixed with a different genre like crime that is where this potentially bad cliché turns good. Think back to The Sopranos and Breaking Bad, they both have their lead character turn to the wrong side of the law, which leads to family issues that are a repercussion of their actions. The two TV series showed gritty realism, with smart dialogue and well written teenage and wife characters that make this well worm cliché not so tiresome. It’s a cliché a lot of viewers can also relate to, as many people unfortunately do not have such great family environments.
Now let’s move on. It’s time for the bad clichés time in the spotlight.
5. “I’m bullet proof”
We know now, thanks to the movies, that if your name is Liam Neeson, Bruce Willis, Sylvester Stallone, or any other action hero, you are bullet proof and can kill enemies with a little pinch on the neck. Indestructible characters is quickly becoming a cliché, we see it with almost every superhero/action hero movie. Just take a look at Taken, where Liam Neeson takes on what feels like the whole underworld of Paris, where enemies can’t aim, and can’t punch, while letting him destroy them with a light tap of the shoulder.
It’s all well and good having these action sequences, but if only directors would make these characters a little more vulnerable, which would raise the tension for the viewer, because then, they might actually fear for the main characters’ life!
Make the enemies a little tougher and smarter, because where’s the tension in the main character being tougher than the villains?
There isn’t any. I’m pretty sure John McClane from Die Hard would be dead by now, I mean “how can the same thing happen to the same guy so many times?” words spoken by Ben Stiller in his spoof of Die Hard years ago. This cliché needs to change, because at the moment, it’s a bad one.
4. Precise timing
This is another pointless cliché to tick off the list for the lazy screenwriters and directors out there. You know the one, where in a high suspense moment in a horror film, the camera shows the hero hiding behind a wall while the villain stands directly around the corner, only to have unnecessarily loud music climax with the hero’s amazingly precise timing to look around the corner at the exact moment the bad guy disappears.
Why does this happen in almost every horror movie? We know exactly what’s going to happen. It’s just a cliché that needs to go, it is so easy to get rid of, but writers are afraid to write it out of the script, but why?
Well, probably because if the hero did look around the corner at the moment the bad guy is there, then it would require a chase scene, where the hero who is a store clerk suddenly remembers all the years he was trained to be a killing machine by the CIA, which means a quick montage of flying arms and legs, all resulting with the bad guy being incapacitated. Maybe just leave the whole hiding around the corner thing out entirely.
3. The final battle, beginners luck
This cliché is more predictable than the rest, with it probably being one of the oldest in the book.
If you picture the final scene of a thriller, where the supporting character or “weaker” character has been knocked out by the villain and the main character is on the ground helpless, and wounded. The villain walks up to him, knowing full well nothing can stop him now. He gives a long monologue on how he dislikes the hero, while also referring to a traumatic childhood, probably because “I was different.” Then he lifts up his weapon into the air, higher than necessary to kill the hero, high enough to break through a damn brick wall, then BAM, you guessed it: the villain, mid-swing is shot in the back of the head by the supporting character we all thought was knocked out! My mind is blown.
A cliché that never dies, one which is even used in high quality dramas today, such as this year’s (SPOILER ALERT)
Shame, hopefully one day this final scene cliché might be changed up a bit.
2. “I’m a cop, who hates being a cop, but I’m only a cop because getting suspended gives me chance to drink like a cop.”
The Bad attitude cop cliché. It’s as bad as they come, but as popular as they come.
In almost every novel, or film, if the cop is the lead character, you can almost bet your house he’s going to have a drinking problem, a wife who’s left him, possibly a drug problem, and he’s going to swear a lot. All these ingredients put together leave him just lying in a pool of his own vomit, ready to get his redemption after being fired by his abrupt police boss. The redemption will probably come in a two hour bullet fest, with a young boy or girl to save, which will make him a “good” man at the end of it.
I did say earlier that the good cop/bad cop is sometimes a good cliché, but when it’s just the bad cop we see, and it’s written by someone who wants to write the same movie everyone’s seen a million times already, then this cliché turns into a bad apple.
Don’t worry though; this cliché will be here to stay for many more years to come.
1. Why always the kid?
Yes, at the top of my list and beaten by no other cliché, is, of course the creepy little kid in a horror movie. You know the one who can always speak to little ghosts but he doesn’t just speak to them, they’re his friend too because they both relate to each other. They’re his friend even when the ghost is spooking the parents, and trying to kill them. Also, the creepy kid can sketch scary drawings, or foreshadow something in the movie, but the parents ignore them because, well, “they’re just a kid” and that is exactly what the writer is hoping the audience will think, “the least likely to commit these acts is a kid, so it must the creepy landowner.”
It’s like in horror movies nowadays everyone’s gone all Benjamin Button, and the kids are the smarter ones and the parents are the weak and non-intelligent characters. Some movies which use this cliché are Sinister, The Ring, Paranormal Activity, The Sixth Sense, and The Shining. While the latter two were exceptional movies, this trope has become a relatively new cliché, but it doesn’t stop it from being one of the most annoying and predictable, because if anything it’s just insulting the viewers’ intelligence now.
So scary kids, doing not so scary things is the number one bad cliché.
Right, that’s it, I’m fully aware by this point in the article you’re bored of me saying cliché, as over the course of the list, saying that word has become a cliché itself. Anyway, let me know if you agree with any of these, and tell me what clichés you don’t mind, and which ones you despise in the comments section below.