When Good Scenes Happen to Bad Movies

These 10 films are arguably "bad"—but each has at least one truly great scene. We count them down to figure out what "bad" really means.

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No “bad movie” is ever one person’s fault—films are, after all, expensive, collaborative efforts—just as no film on this list ever had the intention of being labeled a “bad movie.” Every filmmaker attempts to reach a certain demographic—from glorified action flicks to video game adaptations to sci-fi abnormalities to “historical” melodrama, a film should never be judged in a vacuum. Instead, a “bad film” is one that never reaches its target audience.

In celebration of what is generally considered a sweet spot, a ripe time of year, for “bad movies,” we have chosen the following films not based on a single premise or any one element alone, but based on their effects on the viewers they hold most dear. Yet, fail or not to reach those by whom the film will be most embraced, we cannot deny that even a so-called “bad movie” can have a memorable on-screen moment. For these films, the failure far outweighed the success, but for a shining few minutes one scene managed to summon shock or awe among its spectators. Perhaps, when taken out of the context, these scenes show us the true talent that goes into making a multi-million dollar motion picture—tease us with what the movie might have been had the stars aligned better. For that, and for that alone, they are worth revisiting.

Here are the 10 best scenes in otherwise bad movies.

(It’s also worth noting: spoilers ahead!)

10. Lasers, Lasers and Lasers
  Resident Evil (2002)

We begin the list with a videogame adaptation. In Resident Evil, director Paul W.S. Anderson borrows from classic horror movie tropes made popular by films such as George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and Ridley Scott’s Alien to depict a group of protagonists within an enclosed space fighting off monsters. Anderson makes heavy use of the kind of cheap jump scare tactics—loud banging noises; jarring music—that have become too predictable to startle any sci-fi horror fan. The protagonists are largely incompetent, following the “no man left behind” mentality and stubbornly protecting one character by the name of Rain (Michelle Rodriguez), who’s bitten by a zombie halfway through the movie anyway, leaving the confrontation between the crew and Zombie Rain a lot less shocking.

Yet, there is one scene (which would later find its way into Resident Evil 4) that amps up the gore and manages to be ingenious enough to overcome the lackluster action that surrounds it: main badass Alice (Milla Jovovich) and her cronies find themselves facing off against a rather unfair game of laser dodging. In an ode to the classic security system scenes in heist films such as Mission Impossible or Entrapment, our protagonists dare to challenge the technological prowess of the underground facility’s artificial intelligence system, appropriately dubbed the Red Queen. After venturing into a room that spells trouble, the door locks behind four members of the group, leaving them trapped in a narrow corridor.

The claustrophobic setting of the underground facility is amplified by an immediate threat of death and a sickening method for killing the victims. In the film’s earlier action setpieces, everyone is going through the motions of a typical zombie-action film, but with the Laser Corridor, our disposable heroes face an unexpected challenge. The room seems to be almost toying with the soldiers: lasers move without reason, shifting about to pick off victims one by one. In the last act of carnage, the lasers form a gridlock pattern, inescapable for the last person who has, until this point, managed to outsmart the room. Funnily enough, the sequence feels like a self-aware re-incarnation of the opening scene from Cube (1997), a similarly constructed sci-fi horror film about an unfortunate group of people narrowly escaping traps like mice in a pseudo-sexual science experiment. But whereas the scene in Cube puts its one victim at ease rather quickly, the laser room scene gets its jollies out of teasing before pleasing. Hey, who ever said viewers can’t have fun watching people get diced into hamburger meat?

9. Samuel L., Shark Bait
Deep Blue Sea (1999)

There are enough exaggerated theatrics in Deep Blue Sea to feed every B-movie Jaws wannabe since Roy Scheider first uttered, “You’re gonna need a bigger boat” in 1975. The story revolves around a group of scientists in search for a cure to Alzheimer’s who accidently create a trio of super-intelligent sharks that are tired of playing the test subjects. Although an argument may be made that the movie is knowingly dimwitted, for a creature feature of the killer shark variety, nothing has ever really proved better than Jaws. Other films have tried: After the success of Spielberg’s film, there was a rise in derivative action-horror films like Mako: The Jaws of Death and Deep Blood, not to mention the countless sequels to the original film. Deep Blue Sea knows it’s a B-grade movie—and that’s okay. Where it loses its identity is in superfluous plots and an attempt at an underlying message about animal cruelty. For a film marketed towards an audience of action-horror fanatics looking to see people get mutilated, so much time is spent on the ceaseless droning of the two-dimensional characters, listening to them argue about how to best escape their whole “killer shark” debacle, and die in really boring ways. If a character is in the water, he or she is certain to get chomped to death. Nothing more.

There is the one scene, though, that is always remembered. Because there is Samuel L. Jackson’s limited role as corporate executive Russell Franklin: amongst a bunch of people with a collective death wish, who do nothing to represent the doctorates they have attached to their names, none seem to want to die more than Samuel L. Jackson. When Franklin delivers a monologue about survival, taking the form of the dull elderly man who brings wisdom to his younger constituents, we expect his speech to be another part of the long-winded discussions that have thus far filled most of the movie. Instead, we are relieved temporarily from his lines of encouragement—for future consideration, when you’re delivering a motivational monologue in a film about killer sharks, don’t stand close to the water.

Anyone with the nerve to kill off the biggest star of the picture midway into the action deserves a nod of approval. And director Renny Harling gets an additional thumbs up for the close-up of Jackson’s face before the big moment happens. Close-ups are comforting; audiences believe a frame filled with another person’s face means there’s no room for anything scary to jump out. Not this time. Samuel L. Jackson was eaten by a shark in a B grade sci-fi horror flick: enough of a cool tidbit of information that Dave Chappelle reiterated in an equally memorable sketch on a 2004 episode of The Chappelle Show.

8. Tsunami
Hereafter (2010)

In 2010, Clint Eastwood reached beyond the grave to pull at our heartstrings. Yet, in the end, Hereafter felt too contrived to evoke an authentic emotional response—even though it’s loaded with religious premonition. While the film’s three storylines, each following characters searching for meaning in death, take diverging paths, getting lost somewhere along the way, the cast (including Matt Damon) sleepwalk through their respective roles, delivering less than enthusiastic performances for characters searching for an ethereal meaning. Within the first moments of meeting each character, we come to understand their stories but we get no sense of character development or further analysis. Instead, each character repeats the same troubles over and over again until we are forced to stop caring.

But Eastwood does have a deft eye, and although each story ultimately seems to lead to no end, one begins with a scene suitable for the film’s faith-based overtones. In the opening sequence, which starkly shows the impermanence of life, Eastwood realistically depicts a natural disaster capable of driving a film on its own. It’s Boxing Day in Thailand, and a tsunami is about to ravage the life of Marie (Cécile De France), one of the three main characters of the film, who we come to know quickly and intimately through her brush with death. Whereas other natural disaster films almost always take the form of an action movie, with large casts serving as heroic sacrifices for the greater good, there is no sacrifice in Hereafter, there is merely Marie’s survival. We’re compelled to relate.

The sound effects are almost disquieting when the tsunami begins, the thrashing of waters at a distance, heard but not seen. For a moment, the idyllic lives of the people inhabiting the island are peaceful. We observe a man, Marie’s lover, in his hotel sleeping; Marie is in the street searching for souvenirs for the man’s children. When the waves come, the streets disappear—food carts become a blur and buildings cave in on themselves. The camera follows Marie as she clings for life underneath the overpowering waves of the water. In a final shot, we observe Marie in a close-up. She takes a last futile gasp for air. Her eyes close. In the moments we’ve gotten to know her, she’s already gone. We instantly recognize the brevity of life, how easily it can be taken away. But then, in the following scene, she awakens, and the movie seems to begin all over again.

7. Take It All
Nine (2009)

In 2009, director Rob Marshall rounded Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2 up to a Nine and somehow ended up with a big fat zero. From the Busby Berkley musicals in the early years of sound film (using choreographed routines patterned after World War I drill precision), to current cinematic Broadway adaptations, any great musical is defined by spectacular numbers. The problem with Marshall’s take on the Maury Yeston musical is that he rarely lets those musical numbers breathe. Much like Chicago, each performance is a product of the protagonist’s imagination. Unfortunately for us, Guido’s (Daniel Day Lewis) imagination is as drab as his personality. Marshall struggles to pace the performance spectacles well within the film’s main storyline, relying too heavily on MTV-style post-classical editing to suggest action rather than show it. Shots move too fast; the choreography is more a notion than something to appreciate.

Despite all the overly stylized aesthetics, there is one musical moment which manages to distance itself from the rampant mess of everything else. By the time Marion Cotillard’s big “Take It All” comes around, the audience has more or less become dizzy from the exaggerated look of the film. The scene isn’t a standout because it refuses that same aesthetic—instead, this is an exhibition and Cotillard is an exhibitionist. Cotillard, who has remained so conservative for the entire film as the helpless wife to Guido, finally has the opportunity to break out. She is glamorized after being lost in the shadows of glamor—and it’s the only time in the film when a character is actually developed through his or her surreal performance. The role of the aggrieved wife is stripped away, both figuratively and literally, as Cotillard becomes the burlesque nightmare her husband fears. Paying homage to Rita Hayworth’s “Put the Blame on Mame” from Gilda, she teases the audience by stripping off her silk, elbow-length gloves, entirely in control of the scene’s pacing. A moment imagined by her husband seems to be all her own, and this moment she gives to us, the audience, only because she wants us to have it. We become part of the voyeurs in the front row. She urges the viewers to “take it all” as she leaves everything on the stage.

6. Where’s the Remote?
Funny Games (1997, 2007)

Michael Haneke’s Funny Games is an odd inclusion on this list. Though well directed and at times well acted, the movie’s agenda is what doesn’t work. Haneke has stated that his film was meant to hold a mirror to our society’s infatuation with violence by realistically showing bloody acts perpetrated for the sake of pleasure. He even remade the film for U.S. audiences because he believed Americans had become overly obsessed with gore. Yet, the film is so caught up in pushing its message that it doesn’t realize that it caters to violent depictions as much as it protests them, excavating the clichés of the horror genre it wishes to critique while drowning in the very same. Funny Games combats violence with violence—the argument is a stalemate, the audience who would enjoy both these films and the films these films protest is the same.

The one great moment in Funny Games is not altogether great when watched in context with the rest of the film. Our two villains, played by Michael Pitt and Brady Corbett in the American version, have a family of three tied up in a living room. The son (Devon Gearhart) is hysterical, as any child should be during a home invasion. The father (Tim Roth) has spent the majority of the film with an injured leg, incapable of moving or heroically saving the day. That leaves the mother (Naomi Watts) to stop the antagonists from inflicting further harm on her family. She manages to grab a gun away from one of her captors and shoot the other in the sternum. The moment is shocking enough already; we have seen the family attempt to escape multiple times but to no avail, and the nihilistic reality of the film has set in. When a glimmer of hope greets our family, it doesn’t fit with the tone Haneke has set for the audience. Appropriately, the remaining villain left without a gaping hole in his chest (Michael Pitt) wrestles the gun away from the mother and proceeds to search for a remote in the seat cushions of the couch. He then rewinds the moment on-screen, reviving his friend and restoring balance to the bad guys.

This scene is altogether inventive because it manages to convey what Haneke wanted to say about our society’s obsession with violence. The villain breaks the fourth wall, acknowledging that he is capable of doing anything he wants. Rules are tossed out the window, a fact Haneke seems to believe shouldn’t exist for no reason—yet here is someone breaking the structure of the movie reasonlessly. He restores the scene to replay the scenario and questions our expectations on how the film should play out. Which is all we have: our expectations, flipped and reversed.

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