Whether it relates to the plot, characters, or the world a movie inhabits, “It just wasn’t realistic” is a complaint I hear far too often when it comes to movies. I talk about it on a constant basis both online and in real life, but there’s a certain toxicity to the idea that a movie needs to adhere to our version of reality. As movie lovers, we should never tell a movie what to do. We can discuss whether or not elements of the final product came together in a cohesive manner, but there’s a reason why our site exists. We talk movies. There’s no reason to pigeonhole an entire medium into any category we deem worthy. Granted, if a movie wants to strive for strict rules of our reality, more power to it. But what qualifies as realistic? Sometimes life itself doesn’t feel “real” on our own terms.
I’ve also discussed on multiple occasions why The Dark Knight is a pretty good movie and none of it has to do with “it’s grounded!” because it’s totally not. It only feels grounded. We believe in this world, these characters, and expositional speeches because Christopher Nolan believes it. He brings as much spectacle to characters like Steven Spielberg brings a sense of wonder to his movies (See: Spielberg filmography).
It works wonders for a movie if you can learn to care about a character before the apex of the movie’s story begins. Last year’s John Wick is an example as good as any. The opening of the movie shows John burying his wife, who happens to be the reason he left a life of crime. Her final act in this world is to leave John with a puppy so he can move on with his life once she’s gone. When the dog is beaten to death by Theon Greyjoy and his goons, John springs into action because they took more than just his dog, they took his future. It’s a simple, economic setup for sleek action movie that is sure to entertain. That’s not to say it’s perfect (last 20 minutes sort of drop the ball) but the issues do not correlate to how it represents real life.
One of the biggest issues with the finale of John Wick is that it doesn’t make sense for the character to throw down fisticuffs after having spent the previous hour plugging people full of bullets. It feels unjust, after his character also ends Theon’s life mid-sentence with a bullet to the head. If he was willing to do that for the initial primary villain of the movie, why not extend that same courtesy to the final showdown? It doesn’t fit the character motivations. And that’s where I think movie logic comes in.
Mud is a lovely little movie. It happens to take place in our reality but it doesn’t need to strictly adhere to it because that’s not what the movie is about. It’s a small coming-of-age tale in the vein of Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn stories (with way less racism). It wouldn’t have made sense if the finale involved Mud being saved by an alien spaceship to become king of the planet of the apes. If the story was more science fiction heavy with an exclamation on random plot assessment, we might have gotten something like that.
Every movie should be a different experience or exercise. I’ll even take a franchise with entries of varying quality if it means the tone and aesthetic change to a varying degree, as long as the character work and such is in the right place. Yes, I’m talking about the Alien franchise again. No, I’m not sorry.
For more modern purposes, Marvel Studios productions seem to just be getting it right. Iron Man comes from traditional superhero franchise, Captain America is an old-fashioned adventure hero, Thor is a fantasy warrior, Hulk is a Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde story, Guardians of the Galaxy stem from space opera. Iron Man and Captain America were lucky enough to evolve into wholly different genres with their last movies, Iron Man 3 is an 80s action comedy and Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a 70s political thriller. None of these movies are in any shape realistic and it doesn’t stop them from being great movies (fully acknowledging there are a few duds, the series is a consistently good time at the movies).
Guardians of the Galaxy in particular makes no attempt to bind itself to our Earthly tethers on a physical sense. It uses our relationship to Earth through Peter Quill to invoke an emotional response. There was a craze on the internet last year to determine how: a) Quill survived in the vacuum of space with only a mask on b) where did he get batteries for his Walkman? The answer is: because it’s a movie. Neither of those criticisms have anything to do with thematic core of the movie itself. It’s surface texture that adds some flavor to the proceedings.
Let’s take it back to the past one more time by looking back at any of the great science fiction movies: many of them take place in a far off future or a galaxy far, far away. Blade Runner takes place in Los Angeles of 2019. Star Wars apparently takes place in the past. Khan Noonien Singh from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is a superhuman who spawned from the Eugenics Wars of the 1990s. None of these things actually occurred. That doesn’t make the movies any less impressive in their accomplishments.
And finally, let’s talk about coincidences in movies. Often times in film, the random course of the universe sets a group of characters on a collision course with one another to create a conflict. Not every movie does this but it helps kickstart a plot for our characters to follow. As long as they remain in character with their decisions, what’s the problem here? Something as wondrous as Jurassic Park can still receive a bad rap for a minor quibble such as, “You’re telling me he just decided to steal the dinosaur DNA at the exact moment when everyone was busy exploring the park?” Well, yes. There’s usually a simple answer to these things like “Dennis just used it as a distraction so he could escape before getting himself eaten” but the simpler truth is without this, there would be no movie. It’s that easy.
If a movie needs to be on your particular spectrum of reality so you can determine its worth, that’s not a problem with the movie, it’s a problem with you. I’m not saying that is an inherently bad thing, I’m not saying it’s not. I’m only suggesting movies and the people behind them have enough to accomplish on their own terms. Whether you spend time wondering the logistics of space travel in Star Wars or marvel at the quiet moments of Short Term 12, there’s no logic a movie should follow beyond its own.