Remember when The Big Bang Theory ruined Raiders of the Lost Ark by pointing out the “glaring story problem” that the iconic hero Indiana Jones has absolutely no effect on the outcome of the story? None at all.
At those words, millions of fanboys cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced. And I’m here today to rub another gallon of salt in that wound by sharing 10 more films with heroes who play no role in how they turn out. Let’s get right to it.
It’s hard to say who is the main character of Watchmen, but I’ll split that honor between Dan Dreiberg and Rorschach since we seem to spend the most time with them. They spend most of the movie trying to unravel a mystery, but their investigations prove fruitless. During their big fight with the main villain in the end, it turns out the villain is just toying with them because he already carried out his scheme long before they arrived to stop him.
For better or worse, Dan and Rorschach are completely ineffective and don’t contribute to or hinder the conclusion of the story. Sure, Rorschach’s journal survives and it could lead to the unraveling of the villain’s master plan, but that’s pure speculation and the film ends on a purposely ambiguous note to highlight that point.
2. To Kill a Mockingbird
Atticus Finch has been hailed to high heaven as one of the best protagonists ever. And yet if you removed Finch entirely from the story of To Kill a Mockingbird, nothing would change. He didn’t prevent the townspeople from coming to the jail and killing an innocent man; his daughter did. He didn’t save his daughter from certain death; Boo Radley did.
And despite his stirring defense in the courtroom, the jury still convicted Tom Robinson of a crime he didn’t commit, and a group of people killed him later that night. Finch didn’t change anyone’s mind or actually accomplish anything in the whole movie. The only thing he did was kill a rabid dog, which anyone else with a gun could have done.
3. Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines
In the first two Terminator films Sarah Connor is squarely at the center of the story, and she has a big role to play in the outcomes of those films. In the third film, John Connor steps into Sarah’s role, but he doesn’t affect the War of the Machines the way the first two films did. In the end, John’s survival appears almost trivial when compared to the worldwide nuclear destruction taking place.
The Terminator may have saved John from dying, but the bigger picture is that neither John nor the Terminator did anything to prevent war from starting. I suppose that John’s birth would have been a paradox if SkyNet didn’t exist, but that doesn’t change the fact that he has no impact on the horrifying conclusion of Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines.
4. Star Trek V: The Final Frontier
It’s a fitting irony that William Shatner’s love letter to Captain James T. Kirk made that character completely irrelevant to the story. Think about this for a minute: In Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, Sulu pilots the shuttlecraft into the Enterprise, Sybok brainwashes Kirk’s entire crew to do his bidding, Scotty breaks Kirk, Spock, and McCoy out of prison, Spock finds retrorocket boots to propel them to safety, Kirk fails to stop Sybok from reaching the center of the galaxy, Sybok sacrifices himself in a fight against “God,” and Spock destroys the monstrous would-be deity. At no point does Kirk actually do anything that affects the story. He is a passive participant in the events of this film.
Even if none of the Enterprise crew members were involved, the story wouldn’t have been affected. The Klingons would have gone to Nimbus III whether or not Kirk went just to escape the doldrums, and they probably would have been in a slightly better mood without his involvement. We already see in the film that the Klingon Ambassador easily persuades the Klingon Captain to make Spock his gunner, so it’s not hard to believe he could make the captain beam any Vulcan “prisoner” onto his ship, and then allow Sybok to brainwash his crew to go through the Great Barrier. Sybok would still have a confrontation with “God” and one of the Klingons would point out how idiotic it is that a deity would need a starship to travel, and then the Bird of Prey would blow it to bits. The end.
5. The Polar Express
The main character is so forgettable in The Polar Express he’s never even given a name. I’ll just refer to him as the boy. Honestly, he’s just along for the ride in this film. Whether he boarded the Polar Express or not, it would have reached the North Pole with all the other children aboard and they would have gotten to meet Santa Claus.
This movie is all about the journey. It tries to find all sorts of ways to spice up a pretty straightforward, conflict-less story. If you take the kid out of the story, the girl’s ticket wouldn’t have flown out into the wind and the conductor would have gotten them to their destination unscathed. Sure, Santa wouldn’t have given him a bell for Christmas, but the boy lost the bell anyway, and he might have gotten it for Christmas, even if he hadn’t first gotten it at the North Pole. Maybe his parents are really into giving oddball gifts for Christmas.
6. Marathon Man
Poor Dustin Hoffman. His character gets tortured in the film’s only memorable scene, and it turns out to be completely pointless. He doesn’t know anything. He’s not involved in the story, except as the paranoid villains try to involve him in it. Remove him from the story and nothing would change. The villain would still unsuccessfully try to peddle his diamonds and get caught and sentenced to death, especially after slitting a man’s throat on the street in broad daylight.
Even if he did get away, the greedy double-crosser Peter Janeway would probably betray him and kill him for the diamonds. Either way, the titular character of this film is completely uninvolved in the plot, and Marathon Man’s ending would not be changed much by his absence.
7. Heaven’s Gate
Heaven’s Gate gets a bad rap, but it really is quite an intriguing experience to watch. Sadly, main character James Averill contributes virtually nothing to the story. He makes a half-hearted attempt to stop some barons from hiring killers to drive a bunch of immigrants from their land on the American Frontier, he tries to persuade his girlfriend to leave to no effect, and he tries to defend the immigrants, who still wind up being brutalized and slaughtered by the dozens.
In the end, all of his friends and enemies die and he alone lives to tell the tale. The U.S. government orders the killing to stop, and there was nothing Averill did to get that last-minute rescue. He’s simply a witness to the horrors of this particular tragedy, nothing more.
8. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
Harry Potter does a lot of growing in the first film in his series, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, but he accomplishes little else. Snape does most of the work, and he suspects Professor Quirrell almost the entire time, with no help from Harry. In the big finale, Harry and his friends go through several deathtraps to try to protect the Sorcerer’s Stone from being stolen by Voldemort, but what they don’t know is that the stone is perfectly safe. It can only be obtained by someone who wants it without wanting to use it. Voldemort could have stared into the mirror for hours until Professor Dumbledore arrived and he wouldn’t have been able to touch the stone. Harry managed to put it in more danger by showing up than if he had done nothing. Quirrell still would have been discovered by Snape and likely killed by the Dementors.
The only things you could argue Harry actually accomplished were to win a Quidditch game, save Hermione from a troll, and win the House Cup for Gryffindor, none of which has any effect on the larger story of stopping Quirrell.
By the way, you could almost say that Harry was completely superfluous to the story of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, too, except for the fact that Harry does convince Professor Slugworth to come to Hogwarts, and he proves valuable in explaining the nature of Horcruxes. Other than that, Harry doesn’t affect the story much.
9. Donnie Darko
Donnie Darko is a high-school student who gets saved from a falling jet engine by a human-sized, demonic rabbit. Donnie then proceeds to have all sorts of strange things happen to him. He shoots a man wearing a rabbit costume, exposes a motivational speaker as a pervert by burning down his house, and does all sorts of other bizarre things to shake things up around his town.
What is all this building toward? It turns out that Donnie actually died in his bedroom when it was hit by the jet engine, and all of this was some kind of hallucination, wormhole, or something else never fully explained. So Donnie was going to die no matter what he did with the short time given him. What is this movie about, again?
Jake Gittes is a Los Angeles private investigator who is hired by a mysterious woman to investigate a possible affair her “husband” is having. The plot only gets more complicated from there. After an unfortunate incident with his nose and a knife, a lot of investigating, and some other twists and turns, Jake learns the ugly truth… just in time to be too late to do anything about it.
“That’s Chinatown, Jake,” is the film’s final line. It captures the sense of powerlessness of the proceedings of the film Chinatown. What was happening was too big for one man to fight, like trying to stop an oncoming river with your arm, as Jake unfortunately learned. Whether or not Jake succeeded in his investigation, the villain would have won. He had already done so much damage before the film even begins, it was impossible to stop him from the start. The point of the film is coming to grips with that fact.
In Good Company
Raiders of the Lost Ark is in good and bad company with this collection of films. Each of them has a protagonist who failed to accomplish anything in terms of changing the direction of the conclusion of the story. That’s not to say these are all terrible films. Many of them are undisputed classics. But now you have a more complete perspective on each of them.
What are some others you would add to this list? Dr. Strangelove (Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb)? Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer? I’d love to hear your ideas in a comment below.
This is the Deja Reviewer bidding you farewell until we meet again.
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