Films depend on formula. The formula familiar to modern cinema-goers (who like big bangs for big bucks) was devised by Joseph Campbell, an American mythologist, who used the term “the hero’s journey”. Off goes the hero into some strange, wonderful place, he or she is faced with obstacles that are eventually overcome, and return laden with fortune and glory. Like Star Wars. Such stories are divided into the introduction, the confrontation and the resolution, the familiar three-act structure. But having watched a shed-load of movies – thank you Netflix – we reckon that a perfect movie requires nine key scenes. Here are our tips…
1/ How To Start: Raiders of the Lost Ark (1982)
“I’m making this up as I go,” quips archaeologist-adventurer Indiana Jones. But from the off, this is highly structured film-making: set-up serves pay-off. In the never-bettered opening sequence, Indy first overcomes an assassination attempt – using a whip of all things to disarm a traitorous ally. Then he traverses the trap slowly, surely: tarantulas, deadly spikes, a bottomless pit, poison darts, only to tackle them all in reverse at full pelt to escape with a gold idol. Oh, but there’s a few choice extras: a giant rolling boulder, a better-prepared rival and a tribe of angry Peruvian Indians. With our hero’s safety assured, in the form of a handy seaplane, time for his triumphant theme tune. Duhn duh duh da, duhn duh da.
2/ What Is This Place: Avatar (2009)
Avatar has a poisonous philosophy: that supersized smurfs on dragons can overcome the American military might, that a primitive return to our cultural roots has any hope against the cogs of modernisation, and that nature can prevail over technology. But Avatar’s sense of place and technical prowess are without equal in modern cinema. And, shockingly, it’s not a sequel or a remake (well, a retelling of Pocahontas). Here we have this world, Pandora, and these people, the indigenous Na’vis, who are beautifully rendered and real, yet alien. The film has genius shifts in reality, from the cold grey world of the soldiers to the avatar world of brilliant blues and greens. We know exactly where we are at all times. And these contrasts serve the story. Of course we want the magical natural world to win, for love to blossom, for our broken hero to transform. Because in real life, those blue fellas just run casinos and herd alligators.
3/ A Villain Rises: The Dark Knight (2008)
“I believe whatever doesn’t kill you, simply makes you… stranger.” Cue one of the most destructive villains known to Gotham City. The character of the Joker has been inhabited by many actors, but the late Heath Ledger did it best, so well in fact that it killed him. Why is he terrifying? Sure, he’s absolutely bonkers and – hey! – a psychopath. But there’s method in his madness, which is perfectly exemplified in his introductory scene. He’s able to pull off a bank heist using a group of thugs that all somehow end up dead at the end of the scene. Bank hostages holding live hand grenades, police arriving too late, Batman arriving waaay too late… We see that the Joker’s true talent lies in creating pure chaos. Now smile for me and let me show you how I got these scars.
4/ Mounting Tension: No Country For Old Men (2007)
Javier Bardem plays the coldest of cold-blooded killers in modern-ish Texas. In his opening scene he strangles a cop while handcuffed, his face a rictus of maniacal glee. He’s chasing a cowboy (Josh Brolin), who’s absconded with a suitcase of found drug money. Cowboy, holed up in a hotel room, finally figures out why the killer’s been hot on his tail: there’s a transponder hidden in the loot. And then he hears a noise in the hall. He calls reception and gets no answer. He listens at the door. He pulls his shotgun. He turns off the bedside lamp. He waits in the dark. Footsteps approach and feet are silhouetted in the light under the door. Josh cocks his gun. The feet move away. The light in the hallway goes out… We know what’s out there and we’re scared shitless.
5/ The Love Scene: The Terminator (1984)
There is no greater love scene in an action movie, possibly in any movie. This is a scene that really means something, not just the union of two characters, not just the chance to see a lady’s breasts. This fuck is vital to the plot. A cyborg is sent back in time to kill Sarah Connor, a scatty waitress, whose future son will lead a rebellion that ends robot rule. The son’s most trusted soldier, Kyle Reece, is sent back to stop the titular Terminator. Kyle’s a fighter, but he’s just a man. The love scene begins emotionally with two confessions, that Kyle is a virgin and that he fell in love with a picture of Sarah given to him by her son. Not unknown to men, Sarah is in a position of strength for the first time. She takes the lead, and they have proper sexy sex. Later, Kyle is killed. But Sarah is pregnant. Their son will lead the rebellion.
6/ The Musical Interlude: Ex Machina (2015)
Like The Terminator this film has robots and tits. Unlike The Terminator, Ex Machina has a full throttle, bug-out dance routine. Dance delights: whether it’s twisting at Jack Rabbit Slim’s in Pulp Fiction or the awesome moment in Ex Machina where the smoking hot Asian housegirl gets her groove on with social media genius and robot builder Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac). “After a long day of Turing tests you’ve got to unwind… I’m going to tear up the fucking dance floor dude, check it out.” He’s not wrong. But it’s a sinister scene, too. If you think the guy is batshit crazy, you’re not wrong either.
7/ A Hero’s Return: The Bourne Supremacy (2007)
A bomb goes off in Tangier and Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) is blasted against a car, apparently dead. His assailant leaves to kill Jason’s ex. Dying and coming back from the dead is a cornerstone of myth and the get-out of every fan-tested movie on the slate. Marvel is always pulling this shit, from Nick Fury to Loki. Anyway, Jason Bourne, having none of death, dusts himself off, evades the police in a rev-tastic motorcycle chase and morphs into a full-blown but somehow very real superhero – leaping from rooftop to rooftop and finally through a fucking window. There, he’s immediately plunged into close-quarter kali fisticuffs with a younger, faster assassin… who he beats up with a copy of the Quran and strangles with a towel. Which keeps the girl safe, and that’s what matters.
8/ The Climatic Shoot-Out: The Good, The Bad And The Ugly (1966)
Every movie in the Dollars trilogy ends with a single gunshot. In The Good… Clint Eastwood does the shooting – twice. A three-way standoff unfolds in a circular graveyard, the gunmen evenly spread. It should be carnage. The build-up is Ennio Morricone’s blaring score over what is little more than a series of still photographs: the faces of the men, their hands on the guns, squinting eyes. Bang! – Clint shoots villain Lee Van Cleef. The movie ends with that other single gunshot. Eli Wallach’s belligerent, ratty Mexican bandit Tuco is hanging from a rope around his neck, feet balanced on a wooden grave mark. Clint has ridden off but stops to shoot him down – from about half a mile away and on horseback, mind you. Tuco crashes into his sacks of gold, but scrambles up to scream at Clint: “You dirty son of a … [cue theme music].”
9/ Denouement: Pulp Fiction (1994)
Pulp Fiction is a deeply moral movie. Bad guys are killed or ass-raped. A drug-abuser overdoses. Good guys head off into the sunset. Jules, played by Samuel L Jackson, is the moral centre and a bad motherfucker. It’s that kind of film. Pulp Fiction continually asks what is good, what is right, what is the best: bacon, burgers, coffee, milkshakes, foot massages, heroin, dating the boss’s wife, coolness under pressure, the way of life. Jules is the hero because he changes. He dodges death and it has an effect, affords him a moment of clarity. He starts to see a path where he ceases to be the “tyranny of evil men” and can become a shepherd to the lost. He quits shooting people after quoting the bible. He is redeemed. Roll credits.