Do Movies Owe Us Logic?

In last week's mega-hit, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, there are a couple of moments where we must all turn blue by holding our collective logic as our geriatric hero survives a spot-on tree landing and three rather large (see: not survivable) waterfalls. It begs the question, "What do movies owe us in terms of logic?" The answer is more Zen than simple: Nothing and everything.

Far too many critics try to insert a little too much logic into the act of watching a movie. By all means, use your brain. But use it right. Too many critics think trying to sift through a movie for logic gaps is their job description. And in my mind it just isn't that simple. It's the movie's job to dictate its own sense of reality. The movie creates its own rules, but some people want to create the rules for the movie. This is not only wrong-headed but foolish because they're missing out on all the fun most of the time.

Now, sometimes the movie sets up its own rules and just flat-out ignores them. Take Iron Man, for example. We spend much of the first half of the movie watching Tony Stark struggle as he designs and attempts to use his suit to some disastrous (and comical) effect. He stumbles and falls and he has to learn to pick himself back up (like Batman). The film establishes a semi-realistic world here where being "super" doesn't come easy. It has to be worked for; it has to be earned. How odd it is then that in the final act Jeff Bridges manages to jump into his super-suit for the first time and flawlessly maneuver and kick unholy ass in it. Hmm. A clear case of a movie ignoring its own logic.

There is nothing logical about the "car-fu" action in Speed Racer. But this is a movie that clearly set up its own set of rules for its universe. The rules appear to be: there are none. Gravity does not exist in Speed Racer, at least not in the way we know it and I didn't bother questioning how the Mach 5 could maneuver, land or fall the way it does in the movie. I accepted the universe the Wachowskis were selling. It was a world where ninjas wore polka-dot boxers; John Goodman could spin bad guys twenty times over his head; and cars could move like Li Mu Bai in Crouching Tiger.

I don't thirst for reality. I face it every time the rent is due or I wake up in the mirror and realize I'm not McDreamy. So sometimes I go to the movies to visit alternate universes. They can be extreme (Speed Racer) or a little more subtle (Michael Clayton), or something in between (a movie like Mr. Brooks comes to mind). And every so often, I'm okay with something just completely ridiculous (hellooo, Rambo!).

A movie's logic doesn't always apply to stunts, of course. And this is what really ticks off a lot of the more fundamentalist critical types. People behave in interesting, illogical, and sometimes contradictory, ways in movies and many are quick on the draw to point this out. But people are just as interesting, illogical, and contradictory in real life as well. Many are just as quick to forget this. The question for me has always been whether or not the movie has earned these illogical or contradictory moments.

I'll take a little detour here to give you an example with one of my favorite movies: Take Mike McD (Matt Damon) in Rounders. The entire movie is about him playing poker safer and smarter than his best friend Worm (Ed Norton). Worm's outlandish, cheating ways keep setting Mike McD back, though, to the point that they are hurting him. In the end, however, Mikey doesn't play it safe. He risks it all, potentially setting himself back further against Teddy KGB (John Malkovich) ... and he gets baited, talked into playing another game.

Now the movie could have ended one of two ways at that point. It could go the "realistic" route. In life, people often get baited at the poker table, suckered for another table sit, and they lose everything. This is what the casinos hope to pull off when it comes to early winners. In the "real" route, Teddy KGB could have wiped out Mikey and the movie could have ended on a depressing, "real" note. Depressing notes aren't bad as long as they make sense in the context of the movie. A depressing note doesn't make any sense in the case of Rounders and in fact would not have rung true. The movie is good and strong enough that the Hollywood ending is just the right one. This movie earned both the ending and Mike McD's somewhat contradictory decision.

War of the Worlds, on the other hand, does not earn its happy ending in my view. Cruise finding his son alive at the end of the film always felt emotionally dishonest. Spielberg wasn't just making a fun popcorn movie. He was echoing some 9/11 horror, recalling the traumatic event through outrageous science-fiction the same way Cloverfield did earlier this year. But Cloverfield doesn't falter in this way. There's loss and we experience it. I wasn't asking for much from Mr. Spielberg. Just one dead kid, yeesh.

But who am I kidding? I'm writing this because of Indiana Jones. While the latest movie is very much over-the-top, I'm not so sure this isn't in keeping with the franchise (as Film.com editor Laremy pointed out, I liked the movie even if it's my fourth favorite in the series). Nazis seeking the lost Ark of the Covenant as a military weapon? The Nazis not noticing Indy's crew digging only 100 yards away in plain sight until really late in the day (maybe it was the heat exhaustion)? Indy and Sallah finding super-human strength and lifting the ridiculously large block of stone that covered the Ark for centuries? Thousands of snakes that managed to stay in the tomb for all those years, living off, um, sand? And how the hell did Indy get off the island at the end of Raiders anyway with all those Nazis on the U-Boat still to deal with (thank you Mr. Frank)?

How's about the stones that helped seriously depraved cultists rip into the chests of people and remove their hearts before the eyes of the victims? And lest we forget ... Indy, Willie, and Short Round clinging to an air raft for their dear lives after they jumped out of an airplane a couple thousand miles in the air; this was a raft that conveniently fell in an arch, onto a sloping mountain, and ended up intact on a river?

It's all illogical and/or requires serious suspension of brain activity and I pretty much loved every single moment of it. But that's the movies for ya. God bless 'em.