What do Apollo 13, Ghost, and Rudy have in common? Sure, they all came out in the 1990s, but I posit that they share something more substantial than that. They’re all problem-solving movies.
What is a problem-solving movie and how does it differ from other movies? When you boil these three films down to their essence, they are films about people learning to solve very specific problems that would otherwise prevent them from their ultimate goal. Each problem that they solve leads them to another bigger problem and so on until they have overcome so many odds that to fail is simply not an option. Apollo 13 is about survival, Ghost is about becoming more than a noncorporeal entity, and Rudy is about getting onto Notre Dame’s football team.
I love problem-solving movies, so I’d like to talk about why it’s so fun to watch the heroes of these three films overcome their numerous problems.
Apollo 13 has a straightforward problem to solve: Get three astronauts on a crippled spacecraft back to Earth alive. The story is brilliantly told. It sets up the situation perfectly. I saw the movie in theaters as a child and even I understood pretty much everything that was going on. At the start of the suspenseful master alarm sequence, Jim Lovell succinctly tells NASA and the audience, “Houston, we have a problem.” Problems seem to be piling up all over the place until the dialogue becomes jumbled and we’re close to getting lost in the chaos. That is until Lovell looks out the window and sees his ship’s oxygen venting into space. Suddenly it all becomes real and comprehensible. From then on, the astronauts and the experts back at mission control go from one problem to the next, solving each one as it comes up. They try to stop the leak, but when that fails they have to power up the lunar module in record time. Once that’s accomplished they have to relearn how to fly a spacecraft that wasn’t designed for that type of space flight. Then they have to figure out the best way to slingshot themselves back to Earth. Then they have to conserve power. Then they have to figure out a way to make a square cartridge fit into a round hole to keep the air from becoming saturated with carbon dioxide. Then they have to do a short burn to fix their trajectory. Then they come up with a plan to find just enough power for the computer and parachutes.
Every time they complete a nerve-wracking task, they (and we) take a moment to celebrate their victory. They’re that much closer to getting home. The only part that they’re not able to be in control of is the very end when they realize that their heat shield could have been damaged and their instrument panels could short out because of all the condensation on them. There’s nothing they can do about those things, however, so they simply have to strap in and pray that all of their heroic efforts up to that point have not been in vain. Hearing Lovell’s voice at mission control announce that they’re safe and sound is one of the most triumphant moments in movie history. We feel like we’ve been trapped in that spaceship with the astronauts for several days, and we breathe a huge sigh of relief at their safe return to Earth.
Ghost is such a satisfying movie. The reason for this isn’t just because the good guy wins and the bad guys literally get dragged to hell. It’s mainly because of everything that Sam Wheat learns along the way. When he first becomes a ghost, he can’t touch anyone or anything. He’s even afraid of passing through solid objects because he has to see every molecule in them as he passes through them. Basically, he’s thinking like a mortal, and he’s letting himself be really limited. What he learns to do over time is to overcome his lack of a physical body by using his mind. He realizes that animals can sense his presence, and he uses this fact to his advantage at a moment when Molly, his still-living fiancé, is in danger. Jumping through a door lets him get through it without experiencing any fear or pain. He finds a spiritual medium who can hear him and obliges her to do his bidding and help him communicate with Molly.
Eventually, he reaches a plateau where the medium abandons him, Molly doesn’t think he’s real, and it looks like the bad guy is going to win. But just when Sam feels completely powerless to do anything else, he suddenly manages to touch something. He can’t recreate it, though, so he has to ask another ghost to teach him how to focus his emotions in order to touch anything he wants. Once this happens, he is giddy. He wants to touch everything he sees, and we are so excited to see him take that huge leap. From then on, the film has earned the right to have a little fun and indulge itself. We want to see Sam do everything he couldn’t do before, and he does. He even goes so far as to taunt his enemies by writing messages to them and pushing them around.
When the time comes for Sam to go to heaven, we can’t help feeling he’s earned it. He’s grown so much and we’ve been right there with him at every stage of the learning process that we’re excited to see him leave his friends behind and go to a place where he’ll be happy.
The titular character in Rudy has one main goal in the film: Earn the right to play on Notre Dame’s football team. To do that, he has to reach quite a few secondary goals, like saving up enough money to go to college, getting good enough grades in another college to transfer to Notre Dame, getting a date for his tutor, finding a place to sleep at night, and making the cut at tryouts. We understand his anxiety about leaving home to pursue his dreams, but we cheer as he refuses to give in to fear and takes a bus to South Bend. We feel his frustration as he gets rejected time and time again by Notre Dame’s admissions board until all his hard work finally pays off and he sheds tears of joy as he is accepted. Then we root for him as he goes up against players twice his size vying for a spot on the football team. We are moved when every single one of his teammates offers to give up their spot in the final game of the season to let Rudy play in just one game. And we share in his triumph as he gets his one and only chance to participate in a play, and he sacks the quarterback.
More Problem Solving
Another film I just realized falls into this category is Predator. That film is all about an elite team of soldiers forced to fight for their lives against an alien that wants to hunt them for sport. I could even include The Pursuit of Happyness in here, as well. What are your favorite problem-solving movies?
Next week I’ll talk about some problem-solving movies that don’t really work all that well.
This is the Deja Reviewer bidding you farewell until we meet again.
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