Embrace the Plot Holes

The Dark Knight (2008)

Liked by 94% of critics (who gave it 8.6/10 on average) and 94% of audiences

About halfway through The Dark Knight, Bruce Wayne commits to outing himself as the Batman, catalyzed in his decision by the death of his friend and ally, Commissioner Jim Gordon. However, this emotional motivation doesn’t work because Bruce is surely aware that Gordon faked his own death since Gordon would have plotted his seeming demise with Batman. Additionally, at the end of the car chase scene, Batman inexplicably lays prostrate waiting for the Joker to attack him until Gordon appears (back from the dead) to capture the Joker. Either Batman was taking a short nap or he was in on the plan the whole time.

Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977)

Liked by 93% of critics (who gave it 8.6/10 on average) and 96% of audiences

Several times in the original trilogy, we watch the Skywalker family demonstrate some sort of force-family connection. Vader, at multiple points, is able to communicate telepathically with Luke, and both Luke and Leia are able to sense one another’s danger. However, at the start of A New Hope, Vader apparently has no idea that Leia is his daughter even when interrogating her.

Fargo (1996)

Liked by 93% of critics (who gave it 8.7/10 on average) and 92% of audiences

Most of the movie’s drama is set off when our kidnappers kill a state trooper and are then forced to chase down a couple eyewitnesses. In the following scene, when our protagonist Marge arrives, she inspects the dead bodies of the witnesses. She then asks her partner where the dead trooper is and he points up the road in the direction where Marge just came from. It’s a straight road, flat in every direction; there’s no way she could have missed the body.

Section Break

I think we need to talk about plot holes—you know, those things in movies (or books, I guess) that don’t add up, those things that may float by us on an initial viewing, but on reflection start to fall apart. We need to talk about those gaps in a story where things happen without logical reason—and ask, what’s it matter?

The significance of plot holes is far-reaching since virtually every kind of movie has them. Dramas have plot holes—think of the Heart of the Ocean necklace’s apparent ability to transport itself wherever Titanic’s plot needs it to be. Indie films have them—consider the magic VW in Little Miss Sunshine that never has to stop between New Mexico and California. Action, comedy, and sci-fi movies, they all definitely have plot holes.

Even critical and commercial successes (especially critical and commercial successes) have plot holes—and usually more than a few. The Dark Knight starts off with criminally negligent bus drivers, and halfway through the movie the Joker just leaves Harvey Dent’s fundraising party after crashing it. Star Wars, one of the most influential movie franchises of all time, is riddled with plot holes, partly due to the Prequels. Luke keeps his father’s name and goes back to his home planet even though he’s in hiding, and Obi Wan doesn’t recognize R2-D2 even though he spent over a decade with him. Even smaller films without superheroes or space wizards will have plot holes; they’re kind of inescapable.

It’s important to point out, though, that not all logic issues are the same, and plot holes usually fall into one of two categories. The first is the kind of plot hole that doesn’t necessarily break any of the rules that the movie has set up, but breaks rules of logic that the audience is familiar with. Interstellar demonstrates this with its paradoxical conclusion [SPOILER] that Cooper saves himself by supplying his daughter with information in the past. This works in the movie but still seems illogical.

The second type of plot hole involves not just breaking rules of logic that the audience has, but rules that the movie itself has set up. This disrupts the verisimilitude of a movie—it’s internal logic—and has the potential to take the viewer out of the movie-watching experience. Inception, another Christopher Nolan movie, is the perfect example of this. As a movie, it sets up specific rules for itself—you can only be woken up through a “kick,” the outside world affects the world of the dream, a kick doesn’t work through more than one layer of dreams, etc.—but the scene when the van tumbles down the hill and Joseph Gordon Levitt’s character does not wake up seems to explicitly break these rules.

Inception Van

The latter type of plot hole is clearly more heinous than the former, yet Inception is almost universally accepted as a great movie. In fact, all of the movies we’ve mentioned thus far are more-or-less seen as exceptionally good movies. How can that be? Plot holes are logical problems in the movies, so how is that all these successful and well-liked movies have so many of them? The answer is that neither type of plot hole is really an issue on account of one thing: willing suspension of disbelief.

The willing suspension of disbelief is perhaps the most critical part of fiction writing. The term was first coined by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the poet and author, who defined drama as “that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith….” It is this suspension of disbelief, this subconscious choosing to not be bothered by the impossibilities we see on the screen or read on the page, that allows us to enjoy what it is we’re viewing.

It’s the willing suspension of disbelief that makes the movies above work fine. We don’t mind that the Joker’s plan makes no sense or that there’s no way Rose had the necklace at the end of Titanic, because to care would take away from our enjoyment. We subconsciously choose not to care.

This all naturally leads to the rebuttal, I don’t choose to care about plot holes; I just do—and they ruin the movie. Well yes and no—some of it is our choice, but mainly, the issue is beyond our control; the issue is the rest of the movie.

People like to point to plot holes as the thing that ruins a movie for them because plot holes are tangible (something we’ll talk about next week). There is a specific scene where I can say, “There! That doesn’t make any sense and is ridiculous, therefore this movie is trash.” But in reality, it’s a little more complicated than that. In fact, I would say there are three additional factors alongside a plot hole that can make it ruin a movie: the magnitude of the fallacy, one’s proclivity towards identifying fallacies, and the context of the fallacy.

It’s said that hitting a plot hole at high speed can damage your willing suspension of disbelief. For that reason, the magnitude of a contradiction—i.e., how unlikely it is or its prevalence in the plot—is the first factor in how a plot hole can affect a movie. Either type of plot hole can have sufficient magnitude to hurt a movie, but when a level 2 occurs—something disrupting the internal logic of the film—this can really derail a viewer’s enjoyment.

Prometheus is my go-to example for this. In my opinion, the movie simply has too much nonsense going on for me to enjoy the story. Perhaps a more universal example, though, is Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. In that movie, there is almost no logical connection between scenes or setting up character motivation. The movie is like the lunar surface of plot holes—and for that reason it was almost universally panned. However, a movie like The Dark Knight also has more than its fair share of plot holes and was well-received, so clearly the magnitude or frequency of logic problems is not the only factor in ruining a movie.

The second factor in how plot holes affect a movie is how people receive plot holes. You see, for most people, they naturally slide into a willing suspension of disbelief and plot holes have little-to-no effect on them. However, for some people, plot holes can really mess up a movie. Why this is the case is relative from person to person, but for a lot of people, they’ve trained themselves (probably unintentionally) to look for plot holes. Watching too much CinemaSins on YouTube can do this. A good indicator if this second factor applies to you is if you have consistently found yourself dissecting the examples I’ve given of plot holes throughout the post.

cinemasins

The last factor that can take any old plot hole and ruin a movie is the quality of the rest of the movie. In fact, this is the number one factor in determining if a plot hole will ruin a movie for someone. It’s the simple factor of how well people already like the movie. If you’re watching a movie, and it’s not catching your attention, then you’re less likely to give it your willing suspension of disbelief. Inversely, if you’re wrapped in a movie’s narrative, you’ll give a torrent of plot holes a temporary pass.

Think of the recent Solo: A Star Wars Story. The movie has gotten some mixed reviews and I’ve heard a number of different reactions to it from friends—some of which pointing to the plot holes in the movie as their primary issue with the film. But I’d posit it has to do more with one’s connection to the characters than the actual plot holes themselves. Your interest in how a squid-alien-monster could live next to a black hole; in how Dryden Vos could assume he wouldn’t be connected to Beckett’s heist even though he sent his #2 in charge; in how Han could possibly know the Wookie language—your interest in all that depends on how invested you are in the movie’s characters, if you’ve bought into Han’s mission to save Qi’ra or Beckett’s loss over his wife; that will determine your interest. If you didn’t connect with Han because his escape was too soon and you weren’t that afraid of his previous situation, then you won’t care about him, and the plot holes become a lot more evident.

Plot holes are clearly a bad thing—they’re logical contradictions, and movies should avoid them, lest they tarnish the film. Movies should especially avoid plot holes that disrupt the internal logic that the movie itself has put forward. However, there are multiple other factors that contribute to a movie being bad, not just plot holes. The magnitude of the plot hole, our preoccupation with plot holes, and the quality of the rest of the film—especially the quality of the rest of the film—all contribute. We just like to think it’s plot holes that ruin a movie because plot holes are tangible—and that’s what we’ll talk about next week.

2 Comments

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  1. It is worth noting the overwhelming majority of plot holes revolve around timeline continuity. It’s like solving a crime. If something doesn’t line up with the timeline it immediately becomes a red flag.

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  2. Time Travel and Plot Holes: It is not a plot hole for time travelers to interact with people in the past if that event actually happened in the past, thus causing/motivating the time traveler to perform that action (the H.G. Wells theory of time travel, which I ascribe to). But if, they change something in the past, then you go to the “Back to the Future” theory of time travel, which creates a separate time path, and can erase people. While I respect the effort to logically follow the chain of decisions, I believe this to be wrong.
    I would like to request a future post that gives a systematic review of theories of time travel.

    Liked by 1 person

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