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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

what cinematic cliches would you eliminate?


Last week we had some fun eliminating certain sequels from cinematic history. Let’s continue slashing away at Hollywood:

What cinematic cliches would you eliminate?

Amnesia as a plot point? The slo-mo walk away from an explosion? A bag of groceries with a baguette sticking out of it? Villains who monologue their evil plans? Ticking countdowns?

(If you need some inspiration, check out The Movie Cliches List.)

Mine: any noise in a vacuum. I know the reasoning is that battles require explosions to be exciting, even in space, but not only is there a certain drama in total silence in the face of massive destruction, but it’s simply not realistic, and it’s going to seem increasingly ridiculous as more people get experience in a vacuum. There’s only a few people now who can say that, but a hundred years from now, noisy space explosions are going to look as absurd as, say, throwing a ball and having it fall up would look.

Your turn…

(If you have a suggestion for a Question, feel free to email me.)

  • RogerBW

    In a vacuum, you can still have dramatic music, and the sounds made in an individual vessel (both the structure of the ship and any audible warnings). That ought to be enough, I suspect. (Seen the trailer for Europa Report?)

    I think I want to get rid of the female scientist (or other “non-nurturing” career) who’s only doing it because of Daddy Issues.

  • Gnu Webster

    My pet hate is the narrative misuse of head injuries- so convenient, temporary and harmless! Not. This is absolutely everywhere in film and television.

  • Isobel_A

    The English baddie, or the whole English people are either Hugh Grant or Cockney thing, and nothing else exists. Is boring. Can we do something else, now?

  • RogerBW

    Oh, that’s easy. The hero only has to look like a slab of beef; the villain needs to be played by a real actor. :-)

  • Misuse of “in media res” You jump into a huge action sequence and something shocking happens. Then the chiron “36 hours earlier” appears and you go back to show how you got there. It’s lazy and a cheat of the “in media res” technique of jumping into the action. Better writers would then backfill the situation as the story progressed.

    The flashbackfill has been used effectively but it is more often than not just used as hack technique and I’m tired of it.

  • RogerBW

    The otherwise very good series Flashpoint did this rather too much for my taste; I took to skipping over the first few minutes, particularly as they would usually show the same footage later anyway.
    (And who else remembers the Chyron Corporation?)

  • Brian Baier

    re: Noise in a vacuum. The first time I saw this done with some care for realism was in 1989’s Robot Jox, where they used music and interior sound effects to offset the silence of space battles:


  • Isobel_A

    I think BSG was fairly good with it (with some exceptions – I seem to remember the raiders always making that whining noise)? Perhaps I’m remembering wrongly. Of course, it’s a bit later than 1989!

    I think there may have been explosions heard by pilots in cockpits, and I wondered how that was supposed to work – sure, the cockpit has air, but how does the sound travel through space from the explosion to the cockpit!

  • I also don’t like the theatrical depiction of head injuries. Or slowing some one down by a powerful punch to the face, after which the victim falls over, incapacitated for the perfect amount of time, but perfectly fine afterwards, and most likely good-natured about the whole thing.

    Also, amnesia. Any show with amnesia makes me groan and think less of the show.

    I also don’t like the common portrayal that people who are disabled or have physical disabilities are baddies. For example–In Skyfall, the baddie had a facial disformity that he was hiding with a prosthetic. Another example is the wheel-chair bound villain Professor Lumic in Doctor Who.

    I want to see gay people in roles that are not about being gay. Like, the main character has two mothers, and this isn’t a plot driver that makes them seek out a daddy-figure or something, but is just a fact that has nothing to do with the story. The two mommies don’t have to be there for comical relief, even. They just are the character’s parents. Come to think of it, I want the same thing for actors with disabilities and actors who are not white. I want to see them in roles that are not defined by their differences. Where their race or disability does not have any feature in the plot.

    Okay, I wrote more than I expected here.

  • Isobel_A

    That was one of the great things about Caprica (I’m still so sad that was cancelled). Sam Adama is married to a man and it’s completely normal – his being gay is there, but it’s not special, it’s just him, and how he lives – now we just need to see it outside of sci-fi!

  • beccity98

    Speaking of space cliches, what about explosions in space? Though I really liked how they put out the fire in the Firefly episode ‘Out of Gas.’

    I’ve always wondered why space fight are always linear. All the ships are all facing the same way, like they’re sitting on a road. There’s no gravity in space, so why not have some of the ships ‘upside-down’? Or one perpendicular to the others?

    How about bad guys being such bad shots? Or during a martial arts fight, breaking a large vase over the head, or wrapping the head in a conveniently located long curtain and punching the enemy in the stomach?

  • Danielm80

    When you meet an attractive person, you know immediately that he or she is the love of your life after just a few lines of conversation, and you would do anything for that person (for example, save them from giant alien robots).

  • RogerBW

    …and when you think this, if you are a man, you are never wrong, and it’s just a matter of persisting until she agrees.

  • Accounting Ninja

    I’d love to get rid of the whole “extreme persistence is romantic” thing altogether.

  • MC

    When slow motion walk away from an explosion comes up, I always think of this scene from The Other Guys:


  • Danielm80

    It would be hilarious if John Cusack held up his boom box under someone’s window and got arrested for stalking and disturbing the peace.

  • teenygozer

    Your complaint about noise in a vacuum reminded me of that old Shirley Temple movie, “Little Miss Marker”, wherein the titular heroine sustains an accident and has to be operated on. All the surgical doctors and nurses in the operation montage have their noses hanging out of their face masks, which only cover their mouths and chins. Nobody in the 1930s knew what an operation looked like, but we all do, today.

    I have always hated the “I can use my laptop with its mighty earth-software to destroy alien computers” cliche, which is, itself, a particularly nonsensical subset of the tired “easily thwarted (unstoppable) alien invasion” cliche.

    I get that alien invasion movies are meant to be fun brain candy and we don’t want that downer ending that would undoubtedly happen if highly technically-advanced aliens came to evict us in the real world, but really? You destroyed the mothership with your Apple computer, with its incompatible programming? What if the aliens were using, I dunno, Linux?

    I’m waiting for the inevitable movie where someone uses a smartphone to do the job.

  • Der Bruno Stroszek

    The serial killer with an abusive childhood. There are a few, rare examples of it being done reasonably well, but usually it’s doubly offensive; it offers too much sympathy to serial killers and it unfairly stigmatises child abuse survivors as being bombs waiting to go off.

  • Joss Whedon avoided the ‘sounds in space’ cliche for “Firefly”… but I think Universal ‘encouraged’ him to do it for the film spinoff Serenity.

  • Wait, wait, WHAT? Europa Report? How the HELL did I miss that movie?

  • RogerBW

    It’s getting no buzz at all in most places I read, but Charlie Jane Anders at io.com mentioned it recently. Maybe it’ll be actual thinky sci-fi, maybe it’ll be a higher-budget rerun of last year’s Apollo 18. Too early to tell.

  • Patrick

    Can all young male protagonists in action, comedy, and genre movies stop being:
    A) A frat boy or borderline frat boy?
    B) Personality-free eye candy?

    Technically, this is not *in* the movie but, can we have some variation in our theatrical trailers? They’re editing 99% the same. Almost all have that long silent pause with the jet engine build-up for the next scene with sound. Once upon a time, theatrical trailers used to be as much an art form as the movies they were advertising.

  • Jurgan
  • Not every abused person becomes a serial killer, true, but way too many serial killers have that personal history, so removing that as an overused trope won’t be easy.

  • The problem with Brits playing evildoers is that there are a good number of Brits who enjoy playing villains. There’s something Shakespearean about it (Brian Cox I think once said how the villain can be a more complex, meatier role than the hero).

  • I’m partial to getting rid of ticking countdowns. A clever mad bomber would mock the hero attempting to defuse it by setting the bomb to go off while there’s 3 minutes 14 seconds left on that timer.

  • Der Bruno Stroszek

    That’s certainly true. The problem I have is when it’s an explanation rather than a character point – you know, the films where you’re meant to go “Ah, they were abused as a child – that’s why they have that basement full of skinned corpses!” The end of One Hour Photo, for example, undid a fair bit of the film’s good work by using that as the sole explanation for why its villain was the way he was, and it felt both facile and less interesting than speculating on it yourself.

  • David N-T

    I’d like for the big battle at the end of the movie to actually take point mid-point in the movie, with the remaining battles in the movie essentially consisting of mop-up work.

  • PJK

    All of Michael Bay’s tricks:

    – The SloMo Heroes walk
    – The circling camera shot (most annoyingly used in Transformers 2, when the camera circles around Shia LaBeouf and Megan Fox during an emotional moment. Whyyyyyyyyyy?)
    – The In Your Face(tm) action set pieces, where you can’t even tell anymore what is happening (though this one seems to be used by a lot of hollywood directors).

    There’s probably more, but these are the most annoying ones

  • ohiopokey

    speaking of grocery bags, …People carrying photogenic paper grocery bags, not the unavoidable plastic, and the bags look full but seem to weigh 8 ounces. And then characters effortlessly carry them up flights of stairs. “I’m making dinner for *you* tonight!”

  • ohiopokey

    One more: the frenetic hammering at the computer keyboard in order to hack, frequently followed by “I’m in!”

  • singlestick

    A variation on the commenter who noted: I think I want to get rid of the female scientist (or other “non-nurturing” career) who’s only doing it because of Daddy Issues.

    It’s more TV than movies, but I would get rid of every female cop or detective who is doing the job not because she believes in law and justice, but because of a personal trauma or the death of her father or mother.

    I am also tired of the cliche of (male and female) detectives who are good at their job not because they are hard working, sharp thinking individuals, but tortured, mentally disturbed geniuses who depend on instinct and magically getting inside the mind of their adversaries.

    Oh, yeah, and no more running from explosions. Ever.

  • singlestick

    Can’t we just ban Michael Bay from making movies?

  • LaSargenta

    Slow death scenes unless it is truly someone bleeding to death. Seriously, guys, you shoot someone in the head or chest, they drop. At the speed of gravitational acceleration. They don’t sink to their knees and burp gore.

  • ohiopokey

    ah haha, paragraph 2, you’ve got it. In some cases it ends up being a lengthy sub-plot that isn’t even interesting.

  • Isobel_A

    Heh, Castle, anyone?

  • The stupid father. Or the father who has no clue how to parent. Between my wife and I we actually agree that I’m pretty awesome at this Dad thing, and am the better parent overall.

    I agree with almost everything else posted. The only other thing I would add is all those ridiculous horror movie cliches. Cabin in the Woods kicked those to the curb, though.

  • Danielm80

    I think every parent feels like a stupid parent at some point. Movies allow us to laugh at it. It’s collective therapy.

    And because we live in a ridiculous society, the filmmakers break it down along gender lines.

    Men are allowed to look stupid when they take care of children, because men aren’t supposed to be nurturing caregivers. Women, on the other hand, are expected to be good mothers, because what else would a woman be doing in a Hollywood movie if she’s not raising children or falling in love with the hero? Or getting kidnapped by aliens?

    And that’s why we have stupid fathers in movies. Also because people are idiots.

  • ohiopokey
  • mortadella

    When people pick up shards of glass to defend themselves — but they never seem to slice the tendons in their fingers. Mentioned already, I’m sure — women falling in love with stalkers.

  • Look at it as a symbol of that bomb. I’m curious about that

  • David N-T

    I’d like for so-called romantic comedies to stop having idealized women falling in love with a man-child. It’s not healthy, and it wouldn’t be a healthy dynamic.

  • mortadella

    “…the cliche of…mentally disturbed geniuses who depend on instinct and magically getting inside the mind of their adversaries.”
    Oh man, is Hannibal ever guilty of this. The Will character’s “talent” is boderline absurd. He goes to a crime scene, looks around for a bit, and then does it — the magical insight thing, while his co-workers look on in silence. He not only manages to pick up exactly how the killer killed and why (in mere moments!), but also crazy details, like what the killer likes to eat for breakfast, if they own a dog or if they have a peanut allergy.

  • Kirk Aplin


  • Cata

    sorry if this is too long the more I type the more I remember.

    Women who throw up are always pregnant and when they accidentally sip an alcoholic drink, must spit it out like they are about to swallow poison, sometimes on someone else.

    Two people in a romantic comedy who must end up together just because the scrip says they do even though they have no chemistry or anything in common (this applies to television too, where two people who work together as partners are usually expected to end up together), the man-child and the nagging wife and all the other stereotypical gender crap.

    People who are atheists having someone tell them something they could not know about unless it was by supernatural means, in movies that are not supposed to be about the supernatural.

    People beating up other people and just walking away without being arrested for assault unless, again, the writers needs them to be arrested (this usually happens in comedies where we´re supposed to laugh at the victim).
    Women wearing really high heels and tight clothes for jobs that don´t require them to, while the men just walk around in jeans and a T-shirt (or at least not as formal).

  • David N-T

    Oh god, the whole faith vs. reason trope just bugs the living crap out of me too. I mean, it’s okay to have it in and of itself, but the way it’s usually done in a manner that tilts the tables in favour of faith in a manner that I find intellectually dishonest and intelligence insulting.

  • Rod Ribeiro

    All women characters being played by super thin actresses.

  • Tee-hee

    Escapes: Have you ever noticed that women always fall down when running away? Always. Stoopid girls. Also, people who are being chased by dangerous creatures or villains always look over their shoulders–usually more than once. Let us not forget: when being chased by a car or a low flying plane, actors almost always run away from them in a direct line. They never bother to turn to the right or left. That would be too smart!

  • RogerBW

    The extreme example of that last one is probably in Prometheus.

  • Look at it as a symbol of that bomb. I’m curious about that

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