Why Most Movies Are Just Okay

My BFF doesn’t actually like me, a story in 4 acts. Screengrab: The Epidemic of Passable Movies
My BFF doesn’t actually like me, a story in 4 acts. Screengrab: The Epidemic of Passable Movies

Movie quality falls along a bell curve: plenty of shitty Mall Cop and Saw movies, far fewer stellar hits like Mad Max or Spotlight get easy Oscar praise. The overwhelming majority will just be standard, two-unremarkable-hours-of-easy -consumption fare. Why do so many movies fail to make an impact, either good or bad, on viewers?

In his latest video, Nerdwriter has an easy answer:


As Nerdwriter explains, a really good movie will look at something in the human experience (loss, heroism, romance) and approach it with complexity and empathy. A bad movie will approach it in an overly simplified and ham-handed way. Like in Saw where people are tortured half to death because they’re drug dealers or deadbeat dads. But a passable movie will look at something, then approach it in terms that the audience is already familiar with from watching other movies, using cliches as a shortcut to say something deep:

When passable movies observe human experience, they observe it not through the lens of real life, but through the lens of other movies. There is this huge library, this huge vocabulary of actions built up over the years that people you know don’t really do, but which happens so often in TV and movies that they’re familiar enough to an audience that they become, well, passable for human motivations.

So if you’re watching a decent, docile movie chances are it’s just a hodgepodge of movies you’ve already seen, checking off all those little boxes needed to be decent. And nothing else.

Of course I have pages. I had pages five years ago. How anyone can believe I don’t defies belief.

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Isn’t this true for every subjective valuing of items in a category? Most hamburgers are just okay. Most days are just okay. Most books are just okay.

It’s absurd to complain that most things aren’t great, because then they wouldn’t be great. Greatness is in the rarity. If you took a mediocre movie and showed it to an audience 75 years ago, they’d marvel at the spectacle of it, even if it was a terrible Asylum production.