What Makes a Movie Good?
by Alex Hamilton
People often ask me the question, when we’re discussing some of my favorite films, “What makes this movie so good?” In the past I have struggled to answer this question in a uniform fashion. Each movie is great for different reasons, I’d think. But people weren’t satisfied by this response, and I’ve come to discover that I’m not satisfied with it myself. Movie production consists of vast collaborations between multiple fields of art, so the number of variables people use to determine movie quality can be equally vast and widespread. Determining a small metric for movie greatness is difficult, but after much contemplation—and with the help of Josh Keefe—I believe that I have found some solid ground in the seemingly unstable terrain of movie reviews. There are two sturdy points to stand on: a film’s ability to stay with the viewer beyond the theater and its success in following the rules it set for itself.
Josh Keefe is one of my favorite YouTubers, known for his video essays on films and film theory. As Keefe describes them, a movie’s “rules” refer to the restrictions of the universe in which the movie is set. Take this hypothetical scene: a helicopter appears over a tropical rainforest with napalm blazing in the background. The scene is not simply there to show off a cool helicopter. Rather, it lays down the rules that the movie will follow: this napalm explosion reveals the limitations of a world set in the time of the Vietnam War. Anything that pushes the physical limitations of what humanity was capable of in the Vietnam War would be breaking the movie’s rules. Within the rules of this film, no soldier should be able to fire an almost endless amount of bullets from a pistol made in the 1960’s. No soldier should be able to run out from cover and fire blithely at an enemy in an open field without getting shot—a scene all too common in action movies. Rule-breaking is, as I often say, a cheap way to write around conflict, making the movie hard to enjoy. What makes or breaks a movie, in regards to entertainment, heavily depends on its ability to operate believably in its universe. Though variables such as color scheme, costume, music score, editing, and acting are important factors, none of those variables matter if the director does not follow the established rules; thus, the more complex a movie's rules are the more impressive the movie is when it sticks to them. To visualize this concept, imagine a beautiful piece of architecture, but one that crumbles due to cracks in its foundation. No matter how amazing a movie may appear, it cannot stand without following its established rules.
Though, in an earlier review, I gave Tenet a 5.5/10, it is a fitting example of a movie that clearly states its rules and follows them to a “T” while also surprising its audience in the boundaries of those rules. In the very beginning of Tenet, Christopher Nolan shows his audience both the source of conflict and the solution to the conflict, inverted entropy. Nolan, as he does in all his movies, shows the audience a square foundation with no room to expand but up. However, within the confines of this square, Christopher Nolan creates a structure that no one could have imagined. Simply put, it is a task that requires creativity that the average moviegoer does not have—and quality entertainment is watching something which the everyday person cannot find anywhere else. In Nolan’s cinematic world, theoretical science must explain every action, which is a very small square to work in. Despite the limitations of Nolan‘s work space, the movie was unpredictable and, in result, entertaining. The ability to reach a surprising and entertaining destination within the confines of the rules is what made Tenet entertaining. It is comparable to watching a professional athlete dominate a sport. The athlete is only impressive because they dominate while following the rules: no one appreciates, nor are they impressed by, an athlete who cheats. If there is no need to follow the rules of the game, then there is no game. So why watch?
Though Tenet impresses me, people can easily leave it in the theater—once, of course, they understand the plot of the movie. Tenet has a sturdy foundation, but the building constructed on that foundation only serves the practical purpose of entertaining an audience. Genuinely great storytelling (something that might be ranked a 9 or a10) challenges its audience by requiring growth to fully understand the experience. Take Moonlight, for instance. Moonlight is one of those movies that has greatly impacted my life, but the first time I watched it I took it for granted. I had neither the experience nor the understanding to fully appreciate what I had seen. Only with age and education and relationships (conversations with friends who were black and gay, or friends who came from a similar background as did the characters in Moonlight), did I better come to appreciate this movie. I didn't grasp much of it at the first watch, though, Moonlight is a movie that lingered in my mind. It was unsatisfactory in a way that made me feel like I had missed something; I was left with a feeling that I was the one at fault for not understanding. Essentially, I was being challenged by the movie to go deeper, to see beyond my circumstances. But what was I missing? I was missing empathy for a marginalized people group of whom I had no understanding. Yes, Tenet entertained me, but I cannot say it has changed the way I view the world and people around me. Moonlight, on the other hand, opened my eyes to the struggle of my fellow man, something I would have never seen on my own. I know I would be a different person today if I had not seen that movie when I did. Can anyone really say that about Tenet?
I imagine right now you might be thinking, ”But I really just don’t connect with those so-called ‘artsy' movies.” In response, I would say that most people don’t fully appreciate movies like Taxi Driver, American Beauty, Moonlight, etc., the first time around. I certainly didn't. Films like these take a bit of effort; they ask something from the viewer that cheap, easy entertainment movies don’t. I challenge you to wrestle with these, though, because what you will find is worth it. This is not to say that movies like Tenet aren’t worth seeing—they are. They just fall lower in the a hierarchy of movies: above “bad movies” but lower than “good movies” . . . more around the “entertaining” category. As I have said, movies like Tenet are impressive, but there are other things in the world of film that are so much better than just entertainment. I hope you explore it.