UPDATE: Again, I swear Scott and I don't plan these sort of tag-team bits (except for when we do) but he's got a GITS post today on emotional logic, which deals with many of the same kinds of issues I talk about below. Check it out, won't you?
Last week I found myself watching Ferris Bueller's Day Off in its entirety for the first time in quite a while. This was one of my favorite movies when I was growing up and still is. Teen movies have changed so much since the days of John Hughes that as I was watching, I couldn't help but wonder how the film would be received if it came out today.
I thought of another film of that era, Back to the Future, which is often cited as a textbook example of how to set-up and payoff every single moment in the film. If you watch the first act, there's hardly a line of dialogue in there that doesn't resonate later in the film in some fashion, whether it's the way that the lightning bolt at the clock tower is set-up, or the reasons for Marty to hold onto the flyer announcing that event. There's also the backstory of Marty's parents meeting, George McFly's dynamic with Biff and even little details like the "Twin Pines Mall" and Marty later running over one of Old Man Peabody's dual pines.
As this was banging through my head, the film reached the classic scene where school dean Ed Rooney breaks into Ferris's house and has a confrontation with Ferris's dog... and it hit me! This is the first time we're seeing Ferris's dog and it's more than an hour into the film! You'd think conventional screenwriting wisdom would have dictated a scene earlier in the movie establishing the pooch's presence before Ferris left, and yet... no.
This struck me because it wasn't that long ago I saw the divide among fans of Super 8. There were those who nitpicked every last detail of the film as proof it was crap, while plenty of other viewers who were touched by the movie basically adopted the "la la la... not listening" approach to the holes. I didn't think it was a perfect film, myself. I even admit there are some details that don't quite fit... but some of the critiques crossed the line into really anal nitpicking. It was almost as if these viewers were looking for a fight with the film and were blasting it for not having any faith in their ability to connect the dots off-screen.
There's an excellent comment thread from Go Into The Story that deals with this. Also, the review by the usually excellent Auditors found here contains a number of examples of the latter. Just to pick two of them:
1. Why was the Air Force moving the Cloverfield Jr. monster EAST across the country to more heavily populated areas? There’s a reason why Area 51 is in the middle of fucking nowhere; only accessible via AIRCRAFT; it’s GREAT FOR HIDING STUFF!
It's not explained, but I don't particularly think it needs to be. They had it in captivity for a long time and obviously they had their reasons for moving it. Maybe they were taking it to the East Coast to put it on a barge to the Arctic. Does it really matter? Is this really a plot hole?
2. Why didn’t the Cloverfield Jr. monster simply escape previously while on the train? This is a HUGE plot hole that everyone just simply (and stupidly) accepts without any logic. The Cloverfield Jr. monster is capable of manipulating metal objects to a great degree, and can apparently also interfere with computers/mechanics/electrical systems. So why didn’t IT just stop the train itself, or just kick open the cargo door like it did when it escaped after the train derailed?
The monster had been held in captivity for decades, ergo, they clearly had some method of countering its powers. Maybe they drugged it, or maybe binding it kept it mostly docile and it wasn't able to escape until the train derailed. This is another instance where the on-screen evidence offers a clue that one can reasonably extrapolate an explanation from.
So if those two points and others like them bothered you in Super 8, you're probably the type of person who'd be pissed that John Hughes didn't respect his audience enough to establish the dog.
So what makes us nitpick some movies and let others off for similar flaws? (And don't think I'm setting up a false dichotomy of either "you must nitpick EVERYTHING or you must question NOTHING.") I'd wager it has to do with the emotional engagement between film and audience. People who gave Super 8 a pass on some logic issues tended to be those who were touched by the film on a deeper level. Conversely, a lot of the people who delivered laundry lists of plot holes probably were viewers looking for chinks in J.J. Abrams' armor.
If you want an even better example, take a look at the reaction J.J. Abram's Star Trek. I've been pretty open in that I think it's one of the best, if not the best of the ten films, and perhaps one of the most emotionally engaging Trek projects in the entire franchise. The vast majority of viewers - heck, even the vast majority of Trekkers - who saw it, liked it... but there was also an extremely vocal minority of Trek fans who are so venomous on the subject of this movie, you'd think it screwed their girlfriends right in front of them.
As a lurker on a few Trek boards, I saw several examples of these individuals as early as a year before the release. Before shooting was even complete on the film, they were already calling it the worst thing since Howard the Duck and were preemptively listing all the things that made working on this movie tanatmount to a war crime. That's why I wasn't too surprised to see these haters offering the following evidence that the film sucked:
"The Stardates are completely inconsistent with Trek standard at that point! They had no respect for the fans or the franchise and that's why this movie sucks!"
"Stars don't just go supernova without warning! They have no respect for scientific accuracy and that's why this movie sucks!"
"The mentally-deranged villain has a crazy revenge scheme that doesn't adhere to cold, dispassionate logic!"
Comments like this amuse me because you can look at ANY Trek film - including the highly regarded Treks II and VI - and find a comparable laundry list of issues. Anyone who cited scientific accuracy as a reason to bash Abrams' Trek has to be willing to concede that there's just as much implausible science in Wrath of Khan. (To wit: the Reliant crew's inability to count planets in the Ceti Alpha system and notice one is missing; anything and EVERYTHING connected to the Genesis Project, including the complete implausibility of its detonation forming a planet and star out of the Mutara Nebula.)
So why for these Trekkers was Wrath of Khan "Trek done right" while Abrams' film couldn't do anything right? Possibly because they didn't give the film a fair chance and were looking for reasons why it was bad. Possibly because the very idea of the film offended them so much that they couldn't give themselves over to its world, and thus, couldn't stop looking for details that reminded them it was a construct.
I'm not saying it's a folly to point out plot holes - but I also think that there comes a point where nitpicking can become a bit too obsessive.
It comes down to this: if you think Ferris Bueller is a stupid film, you probably hate the fact Ferris's dog isn't established sooner. If everything else in that movie works for you, what does it matter if the dog shows up out of nowhere? If Super 8 worked for you emotionally, do you really need to find out why the alien was being moved?
2 weeks ago