Movies are an integral part of our lives and part of a culture that seems to transcend age, gender, nationality and politics. The very best films stay with us forever, becoming instantly recognizable cultural artifacts that are part of our everyday conversation.
Movies like Martin Scorcese’s 1995 Casino, the original Star Wars films, and older classics like Casablanca, Citizen Kane, and Gone With the Wind are woven into the fabric of our society.
At the same time, audiences have become more sophisticated over the last hundred years, and the internet has accelerated the conversations we have about movies. Lazy screenwriting, acting or directing is picked up on quickly. In theory, this should result in sharper, more polished films, but in practice films – even critically acclaimed films – still draw on certain clichés that we can all recognize. Here are five movie tropes that are well past their sell-by date.
One second left
The ticking bomb is a handy shortcut when you want to create instant excitement. When you first see a movie where the hero is trying to defuse a bomb while the seconds are ticking, you might be drawn into that suspense. However, once you’ve watched it 10 or 20 times, it becomes a chore. The ticking bomb leads to other lazy clichés, like the hero telling everyone to save themselves while trying to defuse it, or the quirky time warp where the length of a second seems flexible.
If you’ve watched this a few times, you know that the hero will almost certainly stop the count, usually about a second before the end, and there’s very little drama left. Ticking bombs can still be a source of drama — and the trope has been cleverly reinvented in Speed (1994), but please, filmmakers, be original.
A day after retirement
Even if you’re not a Star Trek fan, you’re probably familiar with the red-shirt trope, borrowed from the original TV show. If you beamed down to a new planet but weren’t one of the main actors, then your days were numbered. Well, movies have an equivalent trope: the day after retirement.
A day after retirement, the guy is usually, but not exclusively, a cop, and for the sloppy filmmaker, this presents a handy way to inject a little pathos without really trying. However, it’s been so overused that audiences know exactly what’s coming when a movie tells us a character is about to retire. Criminals also have their own version of this image: the guy taking one last job.
How can a filmmaker quickly and easily convey that their character is seriously ill? Well, the standard method is to have someone cough into a napkin, show a drop or two of blood, and then have them hide the napkin when someone else comes in. Like the ticking bomb, this one may have once been effective, but overuse has diminished its impact to the point where audiences are no longer shocked. It still conveys the crucial information that a character is ill, but without any emotion.
Medicine cabinet horror
As with most of these tropes, the first director or screenwriter who thought of using the medicine cabinet door as a quick way to induce shock had hit on something. However, this trick has become so overused that every time a character goes into the bathroom and opens a medicine cabinet, you know they’ll see something in the reflection when they close the door, and whatever they see will become their eyes cause them to expand and compromise their morning dental hygiene routine.
cut your own hair
Some filmmakers seem to have trouble letting go of the notion of women wearing indestructible makeup 24/7, but while that trope is slowly being phased out, there are plenty of others that directors and screenwriters can turn to . One of the most tedious is cutting your own hair while disrupting the routine. Has your character been through a major ordeal? Well, why doesn’t she get her hair cut in the shower?
This is one of those tropes that’s harder to fathom, although the answer probably lies deep in the psyche of various male filmmakers. Why is she cutting her hair? Why not her toenails? Presumably, long hair indicates a happy, balanced life, while short hair automatically indicates a traumatic history. And how does she manage to give herself a perfect hairstyle with scissors and without a mirror? We don’t know the answers, but we do know this is a trope we could do without.