terminatorCredit: anaheimcalling.com

A masked, knife-wielding killer pursues a frantic bosomy teenager through the woods in the dead of night. The teenager frequently peers back over her shoulder as she tries to negotiate off screen obstacles. And then it happens. Her legs give out and she face-plants onto the forest floor. We slouch down in our chair, roll our eyes and groan.

We know where this is headed. She might get back up once or twice, but it doesn’t matter. He will catch her. We have been conditioned through years of cinema to understand this. Smile, you’ve just been clichéd.

However, before we get too judgmental, let’s remember that before they were clichés they were innovative story-telling techniques. In fact, they were so good that they were used over and over. So our gripe is not with the cliché itself but rather the lack of suitable substitute, something new that serves the same purpose.

But what if I told you that some clichés are not so easily replaced? A lot of effort goes into trying to tell a complete story in a two-hour time frame. Movies don’t have the luxury of long periods of character development. Writers have to contend with ever-shortening attention spans. Audiences have the ability to follow multiple plot lines with ease and come to expect them.

With this in mind, let’s explore some movie clichés that may be harder to replace than we think.

1. The Beautiful Ones


This phenomenon occurs where the story features people in everyday roles, however they are all more attractive than normal people. While this might be more feasible in places with affluence like Beverly Hills, finding entire communities of people in Washington State or the bayous of Louisiana with chiseled bodies, perfect teeth, and heads full of luxurious hair is a bit of a stretch.

Why it may be necessary:

Bottom line, there’s a certain level of escapism that people come to expect in their movies. People find more enjoyment in identifying with a more perfect example of life than one that more accurately reflects reality. (Let the art-imitates-life-imitates-art debate start right … now.)

2. Evil Boss Suddenly Become Match for Unbeaten Hero

EqualibriumCredit: anotherplotdevice.com

There is a certain unrealistic symmetry that accompanies vigilante-type movies. The hero proceeds to effortlessly dispatch legions of henchmen and sub bosses, only to find that the guy in charge of it all is his butt-kicking equal. Apparently 20 years of running a criminal organization endows one with ninja-like fighting skills.

Why it may be necessary:

Remaining mindful of the context, I’ll tell you nothing beats a good climax. It’s the crux of the entire story. It validates everything that precedes it. In this sense, if the next fighting event is less spectacular than the one it follows, there’s a bit of a letdown which can affect the viewer’s feelings about the whole story.

Ironically, this cliché is so prominent that when it’s ignored it sometimes comes across as clever. Examples of this can be found in the India Jones scene where he shoots the swordsman and Steven Segal’s Under Siege.

3. The Scooby Doo Effect

scooby doo

For those who aren’t in the know, this is the phenomenon where letting the audience know the particulars of a plan almost ensures that it won’t be successful. Conversely, if a film shows someone saying “I have a plan,” and then it cuts to the next scene, more than likely it will be successful. This was a mainstay in the classic Scooby Doo cartoons.

Why it may be necessary:

This is a key, almost unavoidable tool in creating suspense. Consider the alternative. A group discusses an entire plan and then executes it exactly as predicted. By default this renders showing the discussion of the plan useless. There are two things that are emphasized in writing a good story. The first is “show, don’t tell.” The second is to make sure that each scene is necessary toward moving the story along. This would break both of these rules.

4. Stupid Parents, Smart Kids

Stupid parentsCredit: shadowlocked.com

Many kid-centric movies feature intelligent children using their wits to save the day from evil forces that severely underestimate the kids’ resourcefulness (sometimes the parents are the evil forces.) Additionally, all of their parents just so happen to be as dumb as a snow cone and never have any idea what their children are really up to.

Why it may be necessary:

This is a case of knowing your audience. Although these films do a good job at throwing a little adult humor in to keep the chaperones entertained, they’re designed mainly to appeal to kids. The whole premise that children can perform these dangerous heroic feats within the confines of the adult world already requires a large portion of suspension of disbelief on the viewer.

In other words, in order to enjoy the movie, one must temporarily buy into the fact that although this couldn’t really happen, this could happen. So any prolonged dose of reality, like parents being firm and forcing the heroes to do trivial things, could break the illusion.

Perhaps parents don’t have to be portrayed as drooling idiots, but they cannot be seen as more clever than the children or the whole thing doesn’t work.

5. For Every Sidekick There is an Equal and Opposite Sidekick.

Fast and FuriousCredit: universal.com

The hero proceeds through his adventure with the aid of some helpful yet less powerful friends. If he brings any of these friends with him to the final encounter, rest assured there will be evil counterparts for them to fight. If the hero’s sidekick is a girl (or a computer geek), you can almost guarantee the evil boss will have a girl on his staff up for the challenge.

Why it may be necessary:

There’s a good mockery of this cliché in Fast & Furious 6. Symmetry aside, this is partially another climax issue. As viewers, we become invested in the plight of the main character, especially if something bad happened to him or someone he loved died at the hands of an evil boss.

Yes, in real life it’s quite possible the sidekick could empty a clip into the evil boss as he tries to flee. However, without the closure and validation of everything we’ve gone through with the main protagonist, the viewer is sometimes left with a sense of being cheated. The boss has to die at the hero’s hand.

Also, we have to keep all characters in the story engaged somehow. If we bring our sidekick, he/she can’t just sit there while we kick butt. Evil counterparts take care of this problem nicely.

6. Frozen in Fear

austin powers

The protagonist or a member of his entourage, while investigating the cause/cure/reason for their current predicament is suddenly confronted by the killer or monster. High-pitched violin strings echo in the background as the wide-eyed victim just stares at the attacker. Sometimes, after a couple of seconds, someone actually has to yell “run” before he attempts to flee. Charles Darwin rolls over in his grave.

Why it may be necessary:

I am one of the many people guilty of cussing out these types of people on the screen. However, we have to remember that in horror movies, it’s about moments and setting them up. The same reason that the potential victim stays put is the same reason why the killer often does not instantly attack him. You are meant to take in the moment before the ensuing action. This technique has been very effective in creating lasting memories.

Normal human reaction to these types of events is not conducive to this. Within a split second, your body tends to lean away from the danger and you instantly start putting distance between yourself and the threat. There’s a great Brazilian Child’s Play prank video circulating the net if you want to see more authentic reactions.

7. No Children Were Harmed in the Making of this Apocalypse

Walking DeadCredit: hollywoodreporter.com

Hoards of vampires terrorize towns and cities. Legions of zombies feed on the populace. Deranged psychopaths prey on unsuspecting citizens. And except for a few isolated incidents, nowhere in this carnage do you find masses of children being turned or falling victim. With an estimated 2.2 billion children in the world accounting for approximately 30% of the world’s population, where are they hiding?

Why it may be necessary:

The most obvious answer is that we are a culturally conservative country, and the harming of children is taboo, even in the world of artistic expression. We recognize it exists, but it’s difficult to process.

However, sometimes its absence is conspicuous in the grand scheme of a story. When it’s necessary to address it, directors tend to use symbolism to show that the violence happened off camera. (Example: a toy or shoe falling to the ground in slow motion.)

Even if a film were to be so bold, CARA (The Classification and Rating Administration), which is part of the MPAA, would more than likely hex it with a NC-17 rating, thus limiting its exposure.

In conclusion, while we say we like our movies to be as realistic as possible, certain media have inherent limits to what they can do in order to maintain the integrity of the story. Until writers can find new techniques to accomplish the same task, we may have to accept these types of clichés and look for innovation in other areas. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to check the children.

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