Friday, 14 March 2014

Are We Becoming Too Unforgiving Of Plot Holes?

Plot holes are often deemed the greatest enemy of all fiction. They're those irritating quirks which snare your suspense of disbelief and call into question the validity of the plot. Vast numbers of films have them from critically acclaimed blockbusters to made-on-five-quid bargain bin tripe.

As audience understanding and standards grow, our expectations and frustration at these errors rise with them. Groups of online forums have become devoted to picking out the failings of certain films or even desperately trying to write them away. Fandoms of ongoing series have become particularly vocal of certain failings and are quick to point out flaws. Some people have even made a living off of analysing these problems, from Noah Antwiler to SFDebris, and almost every film which comes out now seems to have at least one major failing.

The question though is this: Have we as an audience become too unforgiving of such problems?

Now, please don't misread this as some argument that certain plot holes should be ignored. They definitely shouldn't. Standards need to be set and poor characterisation and plotting needs to be explored for what it is. It's the only way film-making and writing will slowly progress and improve over time. 

That said, you have to wonder if the same standards are being applied to the classics. All of those films which are upheld as pinnacles of great writing, near perfect characterisation and excellent scripting. All of those ones which are cherished and well recognised within pop culture for memes, iconic lines and great storytelling. Because when you do look back at them, truly look back and analyse them, you find severe plot holes which go completely unexplained.

Now, to be completely fair I am not going to use two examples of my personal all time favourites here. There is no bias involved, these are films I genuinely love. At the same time however, there are problems which people seem to have completely overlooked where they would be held against them if they were produced today.

The first of these is from John Carpenter's The Thing, from the film's opening. In it we see the survivors of the Norwegian camp chasing after the faux husky, trying to hunt it down and kill it before anything can escape the frozen continent.  Even ignoring what we know from the much later prequel, they clearly were aware that fire was a major weakness of the monster. So the question here is obvious:

Why were they even bothering with bullets?

The film later shows that bullets don't even slow the creature down and it will casually shrug most off. Fire is the only thing which will hurt along with potentially explosives. Yet throughout almost the entire opening they spend time trying to gun it down before eventually breaking out grenades towards the end. You could argue they were trying to slow it down, but at no point was it ever suggested bullets would even stagger it. For people who had turned their camp into a warzone fighting it, this was a major mistake.

The second of these is James Cameron's Aliens, back before he utterly went off the deep end. It is a well lauded film for its tight storytelling, great atmosphere, fantastic ideas, and not attempting to completely replicate Ridley Scott's classic. That aside, when all is said and done, when the film is over and everything is finished, answer me this:

Why had no one heard the Derelict's beacon?

In Alien it was what drew the crew to the planet in the first place. It was loud enough for what was effectively a glorified space truck to pick up loud and clear without any distortions or problems. Yet at the same time in Aliens we are expected to believe that no one has heard it. In the time more advanced explorer ships have arrived and a colony has been set up, no one LV-462 has even heard of the distress signal. It is mysteriously off without a single hint as to why, especially since it had been broadcasting for seemingly a millennium, and despite it being a crucial part of the film this directly follows on from.

Again, both are fantastically well made films despite these flaws. Yet ask yourselves this: If they were released today, would audiences still be so accepting of these flaws now as they were back in the 80s? Probably not. They would probably hang over the entire film for some people and be brought up as a major failing. Often many other films will be decried for having similar, very early, issues while here they seem to have just been ignored.

Speaking personally, I think a big reason for this has to do with communication between now and then. With the internet about it is much wider, as mentioned before, and we are used to hearing so many opinions. As such whereas one guy previously would have only been able to point out these problems to one or two people, he can now broadcast it to a few thousand at once. We have become extremely used to picking out these problems, expecting such failures and quite often holding them against the film. The problem is that at the same time, we so rarely truly look back at prior productions when doing this and still hold them up as almost sacrosanct creations.

So what's the solution? Better awareness of the failings of these past films.

Greater perspective is needed when it comes to analysing films as a whole. More people need to understand that the very films they consider to be the greatest among those ever made are hardly without flaws before they judge others. That for every error a modern production makes, there are indeed some narrative failing which can be seen as acceptable for a greater overall story. People should be no less willing to question lapses in logic or failures of the plot, but in some respects they should definitely be a little more forgiving. At least with the films which are not openly insulting the audience's intelligence by having the heroes cure death and render space travel irrelevant. Yes Star Trek, that was directed at you.

This is, as always, just a personal opinion though. If you have any thoughts of your own you wish to add, in agreement or complete disagreement with what is here, please feel free to add them in the comments.


  1. "Why were they even bothering with bullets?"
    Easy, they want to knock out a leg and then hit it with an incendiary grenade while it's down, though given the amount of grenades they had, they could probably just have thrown them, but trying to throw a grenade out of a fast moving helicopter in the middle of wind (there had to be some at least) and hitting a target that small who's going to try and dodge the grenade is nearly impossible, while it does shrug off bullets, that's mostly due to the fact that bullets can't damage its anatomy too much, they blow holes and it reforms, even so, blowing a hole in a leg mean that it can't move for a short period. Granted they could have just tried to hover over the dog and throw the grenade, I'm not sure why they didn't, so it's still a plothole.

    "Why had no one heard the Derelict's beacon?"
    The only explanation I can give here is that it might have worn out, given how old the ships are in Prometheus I'm surprised it lasted until Alien.
    Granted that's a pretty poor explanation, and there's also no hard evidence supporting it.

    If these were released today, I don't think people would be so perceptive of the flaws, in Prometheus the character with the map got lost, and people didn't care too much, even while recognizing it was a plothole, in Looper the ending is a massive plothole, but people don't really hold it against that film either.
    I don't think we're as unforgiving, as we are aware, I wasn't aware of a lot of plotholes until I saw SFDebris point a lot of them out, and even then it didn't overly change my opinion of the film if I liked it, I remember a while ago watching The Emperor's New Groove, which is entirely based around plotholes, to the point that there isn't a single plot point that isn't a plothole:
    Emperor: "No Way! How did you get here before us?"
    Villain: "I-" *Pauses* "How did we do that?"
    Henchman: *Shrugs and pulls out a map* "I don't know, I mean by logistical standards it just doesn't make sense."
    Villain: "Oh well, back to business."
    The difference there is they don't undermine the film, most of the fun in the movie is based around laughing at them, and they never undermine the plot, if you look at older reviews, critics like Roger Ebert still held plot holes against older films as he did newer ones (provided they undermined large sections of the movie), but back then there weren't forms and people dedicated to picking out all the minor flaws, so a lot of the films managed to sneak in under the radar and people weren't aware of them, and even in the director commentary on The Thing John Carpenter picks out the plot holes in his own film:
    John Carpenter talking to Kurt Russell: "Now you go up to the tractor and we don't know why you find that flashlight there..." *Kurt Russel burst out laughing*

    Having said all of this, I do completely agree with your second to last paragraph.

  2. I guess what I am trying to say with my previous comment is I think people have always had the same reactions to plot holes in movies/book/games, it's just that we are now a lot more vocal about it thanks to being able to find similarly minded people, as well as being able to put our thoughts on the internet, everything else you said in here though still rings true.

  3. Oh no, I understand where you're coming from completely and I do appreciate you passing on a few of those details. I'm actually going to try and make the time to see The Thing's commentary due to that small bit to see what else gets brought up and there are indeed certain ways plot holes can be approached. The Emperor's New Groove might have been a comedy, but it was certainly a good example of how a seemingly major failing can be completely avoided or even spun in a great way.

    Honestly, the only think I disagree on is how perceptive people are of flaws, but that may well be due to the audiences I was with. A lot of people I was in the cinema with left discussing the gaping plot holes in Iron Man 3, and immediately coming out of Looper I encountered no less than three groups arguing about the time travel flaw in the ending. It could be due to the area I live in or just the groups of friends I have, perhaps even just from visiting certain online websites, but it just seems that a lot of people seem to be much more critical of flaws today than in past years. Admittedly, saying that no one in the cinema brought up any flaws within Prometheus upon leaving.

    Out of interest though, you brought up the internet as a potential reason as well. The obvious reason brought up was due to the potential for ideas to be thrown out, but do you think a problem might also exist in the level of communication and hype available? We've reached the point these days where factions and fandom splits can form well before a film is released thanks to heavy promotional campaigns, causing many enthusiasts to draw in as much information as possible.

    1. The reason I brought up the internet is because I find myself looking for plotholes when I see somebody else point some out, the internet has just heightened my awareness of them, and I'm certain it's done that too what with people on the TGWTG site who love to point out plot holes in older movies that they found, then inspired somebody else starts up another show pointing out plot holes they found, and that's how TGWTG got roughly half of its content producers.

      I do think that hype also is a big factor in how we view plot holes, I've seen several people review a movie that was received by others very well, and them poorly, so they rip the movie apart (mostly by commenting on its holes, see Spoony's review of Prometheus for this), despite the fact that it is not the worst movie they've seen, or even the worst movie they'll see that year, when they watch the movie they consider to be the worst that year they'll often have a lot less to say about it even if it has more plot holes.

      Another thing I've heard from people is the worst thing they've ever heard when they've watched what they think is a terrible movie, is that other people have enjoyed it, and this happens to me too, for example, I hate the MGS series, because I see really good gameplay, ruined by the one of the worst stories I have ever seen, if the game had bad gameplay, I'd be indifferent about it, it would just be another bad game, if it didn't have a lot of people on the internet trying to tell me how it is awesome, I just wouldn't like it, it would just be a game with major shortcomings, but because I know other people love it so much, I find myself looking harder at it each time I see it, trying to see what they like, and I always end up picking it apart even more, and then hating it more.

      This also happened with Metroid: Other M, for pretty much the same reasons, and this point really relates to your last paragraph, this is one of those things that caused quite a split in the fandom (even slightly before release), I could ignore it and pretend it didn't exist if it wasn't so hyped up and if it didn't have so many people trying to defend it.

      For another thing relating to your question all you have to do is look at the comments on the Edge of Tomorrow trailer, before the film has even come out people are saying it's nothing like All You Need Is Kill, and that it sucks, and there's almost always a reply telling them to shut up and that the movie looks awesome, it certainly seems to be a problem, but I think it's how we take information, not in what information is available.