Posted by: travishawkins | April 27, 2008


I recently watched Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End.  Let me first offer my apologies for what follows to those of you who liked this movie.  I thought it was bad.  I thought it was really bad.  I thought it was so bad that it got me thinking about what makes a movie truly abysmal.  In the list below, I use At World’s End as an example.  All in good fun, of course.

In order for a movie to be truly abysmal, it must:

1) Be boring.  That may seem obvious.  But there are many “bad” movies that redeem themselves because they’re so funny (Plan 9 From Outer Space, the Godzilla movies).  An abysmal movie has no such entertainment value.

2) Undermine itself with ludicrous stakes.  In the first Pirates movie, we have an undead pirate crew who are brought back to life.  In the second movie, Jack Sparrow willingly sacrifices his life by entering Davy Jones’ Locker, from which he is rescued in the third movie.  If life and death have no meaning, as clearly they do not in this trilogy’s universe, who cares what happens to the characters?  If they die, oh well, there’s probably some magic talisman or map that will bring them back.  This is the problem with Superman.  If he can reverse time by changing the rotation of the earth, why bother to stop the bank robbery?  He can always fly around the world again and take care of it later.

3) Present a constant barrage of narrative.  This is my problem with the Harry Potter movies.  I make no judgment about the books, which I have not read.  But watching the movies is like reading Cliff’s Notes.  “We’ve got a lot of information to get through here, so let’s blaze through it as fast as possible.”  With movies like At World’s End, it’s always “we have to get this jewel so we can get that ship so we can rescue so-and-so so they can do thus-and-such” and then the movie is over.  Is there ever a doubt that the characters will be able to pull it off?  That’s assuming that you care about the characters, which you do not, because they are so two-dimensional.  How could it be otherwise in a film so obsessively plot-driven?  It has all the appeal of watching someone check items off their grocery list.

4) Be formulaic and predictable.  There is a scene in At World’s End where all the pirates are fighting, at which point I began to count the seconds until someone fires their flintlock in the air and all the pirates fall silent, mid-punch, as if they had never seen a gun before.  Why not throw in some dialogue like “that was easy!”  “Yeah…too easy.”

5) Waste a lot of money, talent and resources.  As C.S. Lewis said (I’m paraphrasing), “it takes a great man to go truly wrong.”  It is hard for a low-budget movie to be truly abysmal, because your expectations are so low.  If the movie is good at all, it is a happy surprise.  But when you dump millions upon millions of dollars, excellent actors, and fantastic special effects into a movie and it is still bad, then you do not have a disappointment on your hands, you have a tragedy. This is the key characteristic of an abysmal movie: it must have promise.  Which At World’s End has in spades.  What a wonderful character Davy Jones is!  Sadly, he finds himself sabotaged by market-driven filmmakers and cast aside creatively, as surely as he is cast (warning: spoiler ahead) into that whirlpool near the end of the movie.

…Which is perhaps an excellent metaphor for this aberration of a film: a giant whirlpool, drawing cast and crew into its bottomless maw, with a loud sucking sound.  I know what you’re going to say.  “It’s just a movie!  Relax and enjoy the ride!”  Well, I feel I am a pretty forgiving audience member.  There are a lot of flawed blockbusters that I enjoy (Transformers, for instance).  A film may contain one or more of the above characteristics and still be enjoyable (see Superman).  But when all of them are present, what you have is an entertainment abomination (see The Fifth Element).

Thank you for letting me exorcise my aesthetic demons.  My apologies to Johnny Depp.



  1. travis, i was gonna comment on your blog that you should post more, and then i saw you had a new one! hope you’re doing wonderful!

  2. What you’re describing here sound just like The Lord of The Rings trilogy. Great books, but the movies?? Blech.

    Imminent death! HUGE battle. Miraculous victory! Frodo Crying. Repeat.

  3. Oh. Gosh. Don’t get me started on Superman. Well, on Superman Returns. There is SO much wrong with that movie that I can’t even think about it without getting angry [over a movie…ie, nothing]. The other Superman movies I can’t say anything about. I’ve only seen the parts they show regularly on AFI countdowns.

  4. i agree with number 5. (and all the rest of the numbers!) these movies are just mindless popcorn movies. but, it’s hard to enjoy them when they’re so bad. (new star wars trilogy?)

  5. …yeah, but you gotta admit, The Fifth Element had some funny stuff in it!
    ‘It-sa, It-sa, It-sa…’

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: