A movie is well done when you know how it turns out, but you’re still on the edge of your seat in the getting there. I recently rewatched Apollo 13 and was reminded of that. The odd thing, though, is that while I vividly remember watching the Apollo 11 moonwalk on TV, I don’t remember anything about Apollo 13 “in real time” at all. Granted, at 16, it wasn’t a big part of my world, but still.
Another example of keeping the tension despite knowing it’s coming is a scene in The Sixth Sense. Something happens that made me jump the first time I saw it. And though I know it is coming, I still jump. I’m not sure if that’s me reacting to Haley Joel Osment’s reaction, or something else. But it still works.
Sometimes filmmakers do get it right. They touch all the right notes and you are in that world and those circumstances on the screen. One of the best for creating completely believable false realities was Jim Henson. We believed a frog could ride a bicycle because we saw it and nothing suggested it wasn’t absolutely real. People still believe that Miss Piggy bats her eyelashes, even though Frank Oz has pointed out that her eyelashes are fixed and can’t move. And my absolute favorite – Muppets are more believable musicians than most human actors. Watch most actors pretending to play a guitar – their hand on the neck strings never move, as it should. Muppets may not have five fingers, but their few fingers do move, giving a far better impression of actual playing. A friend made a puppet movie that involved a groundhog. People picked apart things in the movie (a student film), but none realized they had never questioned for a second that a groundhog puppet could blow out a lit match.
Movie-making done right captures moments like these that stay in our memories long after many other movies are forgotten.