How Far Can You Suspend Disbelief


Over the weekend I was reading John Scalzi’s blog. (He wrote Old Man’s War among many other excellent books) Scalzi is largely responding to that Wired article last week about how movies get falling into lava all wrong. (They always make the viscosity the same as water whereas lava is viscous enough that you wouldn’t sink in) One of the examples used was Gollum from the end of Lord of the Rings. Scalzi thinks this is silly, saying:

In a film with spiders of physically impossible size, talking trees, ugly warriors birthed out of mud and a disembodied malevolence causing a ring to corrupt the mind of anyone who wears it (and also turn them invisible), we’re going to complain that the lava is not viscous enough?

Now I know a lot of people are in Scalzi’s camp on this. I disagree though.

To me I’m open to a movie making a handful of violations from the world around us. So I can accept magic, so long as the author doesn’t take an “anything goes” attitude. The more exceptions from the world around us the harder it is for me to suspend disbelief.

With Lord of the Rings I note that Jackson’s art department tried to make everything accurate down to the chain mail used by extras in the film. They wanted an immersive reality. We accept that there is magic and so accept large spiders, walking trees and so forth. But the point is that the rest of the world is supposed to be our world. When swords hit each other it is supposed to be like swords hitting each other here. When someone rides a horse it is supposed to be like riding a horse here. Individuals may have amazing abilities we don’t have – but the people who do this are supposed to be magical creatures like elves and not regular humans.

Of course I’m not saying you ought get angry because the people doing the CGIed ending messed up with the viscosity of lava. (Clearly they were copying the ending of Terminator 2 and just didn’t bother checking) As errors go this is a minor one and it doesn’t bother me that much. However the principle of the matter is that it’s an error and can’t be defended on the basis that the movie has a giant malevolent eye as the primary villain. It can simply be defended on the basis that most people don’t know the viscosity of lava and it’s a minor point that doesn’t pull people out of the movie. (As opposed to say the common problem of CGI fights where people disobey the laws of physics sufficiently that even non-physicists think something is wrong)

Now I know that I’m pickier on these points than most people. It bugs me in action movies when every single object appears bullet proof, when regularly bullet proof jackets stop rifles as well as pistols, when cars do jumps that you couldn’t drive away from and so forth. It’s ridiculous.

I love it when movie plot lines end up being similar to what would really happen. (Last week’s Mythbusters actually showed the way Lethal Weapon’s toilet bomb was survived was completely plausible — I love that!)  But I know the vast majorities of directors and writers don’t care whether anything is plausible in their films. It’s just that while I can excuse a few items the more there are the more it bugs me. And when someone does point out the flaw it’s really hard for me not to notice anymore. (Kind of like when someone notes there a boom-mic in a shot or some film crew got accidentally filmed — less of an issue now since these are normally removed digitally)

What about you? Do highly implausible or impossible things bring you out of a movie? How much disbelief can you suspend?

18 thoughts on “How Far Can You Suspend Disbelief

  1. It depends on the context. I think your point about lava and Gollum is good, but I have less issues with bullets and car chases because I view those films as fantasy anyway and so they are subject to “action movie physics”. That said, when films do get the science right, I appreciate it.

  2. Yeah action movies are cartoonish to me, so the over-the-top stunts and fights don’t bother me. In fact the more implausible, the better–cuz that makes it funny. One of my fave action movies is Die Hard 4. It’s just soooooo awesomely over the top.

    What does kinda bother me is when a TV show or movie that isn’t full of over-the-top stuff has fight scenes that are completely implausible. Since I’ve gotten into watching MMA, I’ve learned how easy it is to knock someone unconscious. MMA has basically ruined fight scenes for me in general–I’m always yelling “triangle!” or “guillotine!” when someone tries to choke someone, etc.

  3. I should probably add that I basically have lost all sense of suspension of disbelief when watching movies. I’m too aware of everything, like who’s acting in it, camera angles, lighting, wardrobe, make up, etc.

    One gripe I have is current movies that are set in the 80s just never get the women’s hair right.

  4. It’s way easier for me to suspend disbelief when it comes to physical action than when it comes to emotionally-motivated behavior.

    As far as lava’s viscosity and many other things it’s important to realize that reality doesn’t always make for 1) the best story or 2) the most visually palatable scene.

    For example, if you threw a real person into lava in real life, they would die a long, horrible death as their body burned and they slowly sunk into it, or worse tried to crawl to safety. Their clothes might burst into flame. It would be a horrible thing to watch. To treat a lava death realistically in anything other than a torture porn movie would definitely jar people out of the story.

    Think about space movies and how there is no sound in space. That is the truth. That is boring.

    Susan’s example of MMA is great. Because in the early days of MMA fighting, when you’d watch a fight you’d realize what b.s. Hollywood fights are. The reality of UFC fights seemed sureal in comparison with the fighting that films and television had been showing us for years.

  5. For example, if you threw a real person into lava in real life, they would die a long, horrible death as their body burned and they slowly sunk into it, or worse tried to crawl to safety.

    Isn’t that what happened to Darth Vader?

  6. LOL. I was just about to say that Susan. (Although honestly I’ve blocked out the new trilogy enough I can’t remember the details of that)

    There are science fiction movies that get the no sound in space right. I won’t say 2001 as I know a lot of people find that boring. But Outland did it as have quite a few other ones. Star Wars obviously doesn’t. I can’t recall what Battlestar Galactica did – but I think the idea there was what it sounded like from within one of the ships rather than an observer in space. I vaguely recall them using a machine gun sound when the vipers fired.

    What I did like about BSG though was that they acknowledged the way ships move in space. i.e. turn the ship around to fire behind you. Star Wars is the exception again but it’s explicitly aping the old B-movie serials. So I give it a bit of a pass. (See I can suspend some disbelief in fantasy)

  7. Regarding the reboot of BSG. I found this.

    The 2003-2009 Battlestar Galactica reboot series does not use silent space, but sounds in space are muffled. This is meant to represent the way explosions and fired weapons sound from the interior of the ships. Demonstrating the aforementioned “law of cinema”, if a scene intercuts between shots outside and inside a fighter, the muffling increases inside the cockpit. The producers stated in interviews that they tried soundless space but it made transitions too jarring.

    (To see the interview they refer to see here)

    This raises a good point about audience expectations and then understandable tropes. For instance people talk on the phone quickly and then act as if they’d had a longer conversation. This we accept because we don’t want to have it all drawn out. It screws with the pacing of the scene and is what I’d call a shortcut the audience expects.

    Likewise we know guns will be quieter in film than real life. Interestingly every couple of years you read a story where people claim the opposite. They claim guns are made noisier so a 9mm becomes a .44 magnum and the like. These people have obviously never shot a gun let alone a gun in an enclosed space. Now it may be that the sound effect isn’t from the gun being fired. Most sound effects sound nothing like the actual act. The obvious example being punches. (Mythbusters even did episodes on this and other movie sounds) But the relative volume is always much, much quieter than reality. In reality you can lose your hearing for a while when shooting a gun and even suffer permanent hearing problems.

    So I don’t mind those little sound tropes which are are all artificial (i.e. don’t sound like reality) but are a kind of trope as sign of what is going on. (Ditto footsteps, screams, etc.) I can understand BSG trying sound and thinking it screwed with the pacing. Especially when you are quickly flipping from inside shots and outside shots. So I don’t mind it there.

  8. I’ve had this conversation with people about the first Ghost Rider movie. There were several continuity issues (not with the comics – within the movie itself; also – the extended cut on DVD resolved one, but added another). When I mentioned them to others who actually liked the movie, they responded “dude – it’s about a guy who’s head is on fire and rides motorcycles.”

    Which misses the point – but then, the movie missed the point of the comics character (it’s a bad sign when the director/scriptwriter states he doesn’t really understand the comics character, so he needed to invent a different motivation for the character). Ghost Rider is my favorite comics character, so I can accept a guy selling his soul to the devil – but it’s harder when you have blatant continuity errors, confusing and inadequate character motivations, and general holding of the idiot ball by the protagonist and friends. Just because it’s a fantasy doesn’t mean that “anything goes.”

  9. I’ve got a sort of complicated meta-physical approach. For most movies–and I really mean most, as in 99.9% of all movies, including documentaries–I don’t care if what’s on the screen is not an exact replica of reality. What’s far more important to me is whether the filmmakers have created a world that is consistent within itself and abides by its own rules, filtered through our own understanding of human nature and plausible motivations. Basically, each film is its own constructed reality. Whether the film works as it’s own reality lets us know how good of a builder the filmmakers are. This is the level, for example, that I think it’s useful to critique Lost. If you get caught up in the fact that if a jet plane’s fuselage were to snap in half, all the passengers would most likely die, not be sprinkled on a mysterious island; if you get caught up in that fact, you’re just not going to get very far. (Also, I really don’t care about lava deaths one way or the other.)

    Of course, this sounds all intellectual and clever, but I should admit that it bothers me that Fincher and Sorkin’s version of the founding of Facebook has a very loose relationship with the facts, and I can’t really reconcile this with what I just wrote a few minutes ago.

  10. Not to get to nerdy on you but I wonder if the point of having It behave like water is meant as a bookend to Smeagol/Gollum’s experience with the ring. He found it in a river of water and he and it ended in a river of fire.

    Oddly the ring didn’t splash down into it, right? It sort of plunked onto the top and melted.

  11. BTD Greg –

    Well, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance is due to come out next year sometime, but I was referring to the extended cut on the DVD.

  12. Well with Lost I think the idea was that no one should have survived and the Island is doing mysterious things. But maybe that’s what you mean by an internal logic. I can accept something happening that wouldn’t normally happen if there is some explanation for it.

  13. I agree with Brian G. I’m more easily annoyed by irrational characters than any other sort of cinematic gaffe. That’s why a movie like Titanic is just plain unforgivable. The behavior of most of the characters is so far removed from reality that I find myself laughing where I should be weeping.

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