As I noted last week, I love problem-solving movies – when they’re done right. Unfortunately, every now and then a movie comes along claiming that it has some great puzzle to solve, but it turns out to be just an endless series of frustrating problems, leading to an unearned happy ending.
There are two films, in particular, that I think of as truly awful problem-solving movies, both of which came out in 1998: A Civil Action and Armageddon. I saw both of these films in theaters, and I couldn’t wait for either of them to end after about the halfway point. Let’s talk about these two films to shine a spotlight on why bad problem-solving movies are so frustrating. I’ll even compare them to better movies that take a similar concept and succeed where these ones failed.
A Civil Action
A Civil Action is a movie about an attorney, played by John Travolta, who takes on a hopeless case because he has a gut feeling that he can win it. And before you know it he spends himself into the poorhouse, drives away all of his firm’s partners, and loses the case. I’m not saying every underdog story has to be a feel-good film, but there should be some kind of point to it all or some lesson learned. I wrote an article about this, entitled “5 Inspiring Films That Show Winning Isn’t Everything.” A Civil Action is just one blunder after another. Some of them are rather interesting, like when Robert Duvall’s character gives a speech about never asking a witness a question you don’t already know the answer to. And then Travolta does just that and we get to painfully learn the consequences of that brash act. I have to admit I thought that moment was quite clever.
The film is a giant, crumbling structure. We’re supposed to root for Travolta because he’s fighting for victims of a terrible crime and he’s attempting to do something noble in their defense. But he’s incompetent. He’s unequal to the task, and the burden he assumes so recklessly winds up crushing him. In fact, he’s so poorly suited to the task that in the end he has to hand off the case to someone else and beg them to continue on where he failed. And they do. Another law firm takes the case and proves something that Travolta had been unable to grasp about the case until the very end. We’re supposed to be glad that the case was finally won, but it feels like a hollow victory after all of the needless suffering that Travolta endured without seeing the fruits of his struggle.
Compare this to The Pursuit of Happyness. In that film, Will Smith plays a single father struggling to care for his young son and earn a high-paying job while also barely staving off homelessness. There are all kinds of miseries along the way, such as the moment when he gets evicted and loses all of his money and when he’s forced to sleep in a subway bathroom. But also sprinkled through the film are moments of triumph, like when he is able to prove his intelligence by solving a Rubik’s Cube, as well as small bits of tenderness with his son, and his perseverance in selling every single one of his bone-density scanners. This movie earns its happy ending. It pursues it and completely exhausts the viewer, but it’s worth it to see this father embrace his son in the end and finally be able to give them both a better life.
I didn’t understand what a Michael Bay movie was nearly two decades ago when I watched Armageddon. All I knew was that I hated it. It’s a film that has to keep coming up with new problems purely as delaying tactics to get us to the big finale.
Here are all of the pointless and silly problems the film keeps throwing at us. The night before heading into space, several crew members get in trouble with the law, but they show up on the launch pad the next day all the same. It’s not exciting enough for the crews to rendezvous with a Russian space station to refuel. They have to accidentally blow up the space station and barely escape with their lives. They take two shuttles so that one can be violently destroyed and demonstrate what a dangerous mission it is to the audience and the surviving shuttle crew. They don’t land on the right area, and so they’re forced to drill through a much harder surface than they were expecting. This leads to technical problems and equipment failure. The officials in charge of the operation on Earth panic when the drilling takes too long and they begin a countdown to blow up the bomb, even though it’s nowhere close to how deep it needs to be inside the asteroid to destroy it. But this proves pointless because they just stop the countdown eventually. One character randomly decides to start shooting the asteroid with a gun, causing pandemonium before he gets tackled and relieved of duty. And then some equipment gets damaged so someone has to stay behind to trigger the explosion.
This is madness. Every character feels incompetent and every situation feels contrived.
Compare this to Deep Impact. Admittedly, that other 1998 asteroid (or comet) movie has its share of problems. But at least the characters are likable and their actions usually make sense. We don’t spend the whole movie with the astronauts. We spend a good portion of it with a teenager trying to rescue his girlfriend and her family from the impending tsunami. We also get to see a tough-as-nails reporter break down and return to a vulnerable state with her estranged father. We understand why the U.S. president is doing what he’s doing. And yes, we like the astronauts and want to see them safely return home. Their story is just one of many, so it never gets stale. The problems that arise feel natural and actually move the story along instead of impeding it. If you have to do a big, expensive action movie about the world on the verge of ending, that’s a better way to do it.
Problems for Problems’ Sake
The main issue I have with A Civil Action and Armageddon is that they seem to keep coming up with pointless problems for the heroes to muddle through. And many times those problems are caused by the heroes themselves. This makes them look really foolish, and it keeps me from caring about them. Why should I worry about people who seem intent on bringing about their own destruction? Do you see why I call this type of movie frustrating? Problems for problems’ sake get tiresome fast.
Another example of this kind of self-destructive problem-solving movie is The Money Pit. If you ever feel like punishing yourself for 90 minutes, take a gander at that 1986 comedy. I don’t like being too negative, so I hope it’s not a problem if I just end it here.
This is the Deja Reviewer bidding you farewell until we meet again.
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