Rewind: What Makes a Movie Re-Watchable?

My son hates the fact that I never want to watch new movies or TV shows. He’s almost seventeen, and just beginning to learn about the incredibly wide world of music and film that exists out there – and relishing in the exploration of that world. From nu metal to jazz, and old classic films to brand new TV shows like The Witcher, he’s a devourer of entertainment (and a creator, too, inspired by what he hears and sees). I love to see that in him, but for myself … I feel like I’m too old to learn new tricks. I don’t actually believe that to be the case, but there’s something about the comfort of rewatching a beloved movie or TV show that deeply appeals to me.

My wife is more in line with my son – always on the lookout for new shows and movies to watch. But every once in a while, even she will want to rewatch something (this is rare), and it makes me wonder – outside of my own personal experience, what actually makes a movie or show worth rewatching? After all, the novelty of the first experience won’t be there, so why watch it a second – or third, or fourth – time at all?

I think there are a few elements to explore here, so I’ll lay them out below.

Emotional Connection

I think – for me, at least – one of the strongest reasons to re-watch something is if there’s a deep emotional connection between the content and the viewer. This could be an empathetic connection, of course – you understand innately what the characters are going through – or it could be a feeling that the movie inspires in you, but emotion is one of the core reasons to consume entertainment at all, and if the media triggers an emotional response in you, then you’re likely to want to re-experience that same emotion again (assuming it wasn’t a deeply negative or triggering emotion).

I remember the first time(s) I watched what is perhaps my favorite single film of all time: The Crow. It’s cheesy, full of bad lines and bad acting, but at the same time there’s a rawness to the characters and the story that connected with me deeply at that time of my life, being as I was severely depressed. Many moments within the movie made me literally cry, and the ability to feel anything, never mind the ability to feel a deep sadness that was inspired from deep within me, was incredible. I probably watched that movie once a day for a month.

Another movie that connected with me at an important developmental time in my life is Donnie Darko; also a movie I could re-watch any time, I felt very connected to the main character’s confusion, nihilistic depression, and deepening instability as the movie progresses. Never mind that the movie is also deeply confusing in and of itself (an element I’ll address momentarily).

Re-watching these movies today allows me to revisit and relive those emotions from when I first watched them, and for me, at least – being as I am typically very emotionally reserved – that’s a good thing.

Complexity & World-Building

Sometimes you come across a movie or TV show (often based on a book, being more capable of winding complexity than film in general) that is so deep in its lore, world-building and complexity, that you simply can’t take it all in in one viewing. This could be anything from tiny references to much larger elements through to seemingly-innocuous plot elements that turn out to be incredibly important later on, but movies like this typically require multiple viewings to truly appreciate the depth of storytelling that went into them.

Perhaps the best example of deep lore and world-building I can think of is my old staple, The Lord of the Rings. If The Crow is my favorite single movie, The Lord of the Rings is hands-down my favorite trilogy, ever. Much of this has to do with the epic grandeur of both the scenery, the story, and Howard Shore’s incredible score, but a larger part of it has to do with Peter Jackson’s intense attention to detail, and faithfulness to Tolkien’s original books. From moments such as Théoden crying “Forth Eorlingas!” – a phrase that, without context, is unintelligible and meaningless – to the importance of pipe-weed threaded through the entire trilogy, there are references, nods and entire points lifted straight from the book that, to the average viewer, make little to no sense without having read the books in the first place.

Then there are movies that are complex and intricate in their plot, to the point where it is almost impossible to know what to pay attention to during the first viewing. Time travel movies are often my favorite example of this, and a great example of this genre that to this day I struggle to grasp in its entirely (I’ve actually only seen it once) is Predestination, starring Ethan Hawke. An absolutely bonkers tale of pre-empting crimes through a time-traveling police agency, it slowly unravels a mystery that includes insane paradoxes, whilst still somehow at the end of it all seeming to make sense (can someone be their own mother and father?). I really want to watch this movie again, just to see the hints and details that I would have missed the first time around.

Nostalgia & Comfort

Lastly (for tonight), there are movies whose merits are in nothing more than the comfort of a well-worn sweater, or a favorite stuffed animal: simple nostalgia, and the comfort of the familiar. These movies are not always high art, nor revered as great bouts of acting or storytelling, but hold a special place in our hearts as individuals, either because of the associations we make with when we first came across them, or even just because, for some reason, we find them deeply relatable.

One of my favorite movies to watch over and over again, to the point where I can probably reiterate almost every line in the film, is Wayne’s World. This Mike Myers vehicle is a virtually plot-less comedy romp through 90s alternative rock culture, and whilst the film has virtually no artistic merit whatsoever, I simply adore it. It no longer makes me laugh out loud (the comedy is too expected after the thousandth viewing), but still manages to draw a smile and Wayne and Garth’s overgrown childish antics. The appearance of an in-his-heyday Alice Cooper is merely an added bonus.

What are your favorite movies to watch again and again? Are you the kind of person who doesn’t like to watch something twice, or are there films or TV shows that you could watch endlessly without getting bored? Let me know in the comments!

Writing in the Film Generation

If I’m to be brutally honest, I don’t really read that much – particularly not as much as I think I should, as a writer. This isn’t a new problem for me, but I haven’t always been this way – in my youth and young adulthood, I used to read voraciously, devouring book after book with gusto. In fact, I would argue that I stopped reading so much around when I started writing (an odd coincidence, to be sure), but it also occurs to me that I stopped reading quite so much when I started watching.

I’ve always loved movies, film and TV, and there was a time when I would be excited about all the newest movies in theaters, or the latest TV show to grace cable networks (I’ve also come to realize that, as I get older, I kind of just want to watch the same stuff over and over again, a kind of comfort in familiarity). And if I’ve never said as much outright, I find that film and literature are really two sides of the same coin – namely, storytelling.

I think that’s what I really enjoy more than anything – a good story. Something that triggers the imagination, that gets the creative juices flowing, or simply makes you feel. And I don’t particularly think that any given story ‘needs’ to be told through any particular medium; the core essence of the story can be just as valid as a book, a poem, a photograph or a full-length movie. However, the way in which the story is told is more important to the medium, and this is where I think that, as I write more and more, I’m slowly realizing the influences that are guiding my storytelling.

You see, reading in the past – wonderful books like To Kill a Mockingbird, or Great Expectations, or even Salem’s Lot – got me feeling in a way that, in my experience, only a book could. When Scout and her brother are being stalked through the dark, or when Magwitch is waiting in the staircase for Pip, I remember feeling a deep unease, a fright and terror that no movie could ever instill in me – something that came from a deep caring of lovingly crafted characters, and the words on the page painted emotion as much as they did images.

Film, on the other hand, is (obviously) a heavily visual medium. And whilst some films don’t necessarily explore this in depth, others manage to convey the story in a way only visual imagery could. The Lord of the Rings, Lawrence of Arabia, or even the manufactured but highly enjoyable Marvel movies … these are all prime examples of stories that, I feel, are absolutely best told through film. The grandeur, spectacle, and beautiful blending of sound and light simply wouldn’t work as words on paper (ironic, that all of these would have started life as scripts – or in some cases, actual books).

But as I delve deeper into writing my own novels, I’ve come to realize that I’ve become more influenced by these visual stories even as I put digital ink onto screen. When I write The Redemption of Erâth, I see the story in my head, almost as a film playing before my eyes; I write it as if I were describing a movie. And the more I think about it, the more I realize that I’m really writing movies – 400-page movies, to be sure, but movies nonetheless. My inspirations aren’t the books of my past, but the films I’ve watched and adored.

It’s interesting, because in some of the reviews I’ve read, people have actually said that they would make great movies – perhaps because of the visual element I’m trying to instill into black and white text (not always successfully, of course). And it makes me wonder – is there room for a different kind of story in me? Can I even write a book that toys with emotions and thoughts in a way that film can’t do justice to?

In any case, I enjoy writing these stories – whether they’re primarily visual in my head or not – and I suppose I’ll carry on for now in the way I always have; after all, I don’t particularly want to see a great change of style halfway through the Redemption of Erâth series. But as I continue through my literary journey, perhaps I can try to include a little more of the written story in my books, as well.

What do you think? What books have made you feel things that you couldn’t imagine from a film? Or vice versa?

Revisiting The Lord of the Rings

It’s hard to think that The Fellowship of the Ring first came out in theaters nearly nineteen years ago. It’s even harder to think of a world in which these masterpieces of cinema didn’t exist, and nobody knew what they were in for before their first-ever watch. It’s particularly difficult to imagine that Peter Jackson et al had the most immense difficulty getting these films green lit, filmed, produced, and realized, in an era where CGI was only just starting to take hold of blockbusters and our only experience of motion capture was Jar Jar Binks.

I want to revisit these films in light of their imminent release in 4K, as I am (like many fans the world over) simply dying to see scenes such as wandering the halls of Moria, or the battle of the Pelanor Fields, in even higher quality than ever before. I’m even more excited for the news that remastered editions are coming next year, but 4K will have to do for now.

Like the best of cinema, The Lord of the Rings trilogy is an epic visual feast, from the bright and colorful renditions of the Shire to the overwhelming sight of ten thousand soldiers on horseback running down an even greater number of orcs, and every scene and shot is filled with visual magic – both practical and CGI.

Given that we’re discussing these films in the context of their technological improvement (upscaling, re-rendering, etc.), it’s worth noting that the timing of these films was perhaps a key to their visual success: the burgeoning rise of computer-assisted imagery was vital to Peter Jackson’s vision, yet an enormous number of shots were achieved through much simpler – and much cleverer – practical effects. When comparing these films to later blockbusters – including The Hobbit prequels – it really is the seamless blend of practical and digital effects that allowed this movie to achieve the visual successes that it did. When we see great panning shots around the stone city of Minas Tirith, or witness the breaking of the dam above Isengard, we’re actually watching 100% practical shots, achieved with excessively large miniatures (‘bigatures’, as Jackson’s team would come to call them), enhanced only by the subtle CGI addition of things such as people wandering the streets, or orcs being thrown into cascading rivers.

At the time, audiences were used to CGI being used for very obvious, impossible to visualize effects; think the liquid metal of Terminator 2, or the tracking shot of the bug in the opening to Men In Black. Most other blockbusters of the time – even huge visual-effects-laden hits such as Independence Day – relied primarily on practical effects, sometimes superimposing multiple practical shots with green screen. It was much less common – and at times disastrously obvious – when CGI was used to render entire landscapes, create inhuman characters, or add dazzle to otherwise normal shots.

This means that Jackson was, at the time, at a crossroads of technology; anything was possible with CGI, but it still wasn’t alway the best choice. To create creatures such as Gollum – which, as opposed to Jar Jar Binks, was necessitated by the original source material – Jackson had no choice but to rely on motion capture and an army of digital artists to create his vision. But to create many of the epic landscapes and cities, he relied on something much simpler: the majestic and wildly varied countryside of his native New Zealand. So much of the grandiosity of The Lord of the Rings comes not from CGI, but from the real-life locations in which he chose to film. When we watch Gandalf, on the back of an eagle, soaring high over snow-drenched peaks, we’re watching a small blip of CGI against a completely real world.

In some ways, these are the scenes I’m most looking forward to seeing in 4K: not the crazy, CGI-laden battles of ghosts and oliphants, but the sweeping, majestic landscapes that deserve to be seen in the highest possible quality.

Of course, style is nothing without substance, and whilst there are small moments that detract from the overall interpretation of Tolkien’s original vision (I’m looking at you, Legolas-surfing-down-a-staircase-on-a-shield), the faithfulness of the adaptation, and the clear love Jackson had for the source material, make for one of the most thrilling, and emotional, stories to be put to film. When The Lord of the Rings first came out, many people were concerned at its runtime, and what seemed to be incredibly slow pacing. And arguably, they are a long, slow set of movies; it’s nearly forty minutes into the film before we even leave the Shire, and there’s still half an hour of film to go after the destruction of the One Ring. But this pacing reflects the detail of the film, which in turn reflects the detail of the world-building that Tolkien put so much effort into.

Die-hard purists will complain that the reluctant king trope Aragorn plays in the films is contrary to the original story, or bemoan the loss of Tom Bombadil in the opening chapters, but the other thing Jackson had an uncanny knack for (which he has yet to replicate to such a degree) was knowing what worked well, and what wouldn’t work well, when translated to film. As slow as the films are, they are a masterpiece nonetheless in tension, character- and world-building, and even in the extended editions, nothing is present without reason. Sure, Aragorn doesn’t set out from Rivendell with Andúril in hand, knowing he is to be crowned king, as he does in the books, but this would have worked against the audience’s empathy for him had Jackson stuck hardcore to the text. Modern audiences expect character arcs, and arguably Tolkien was less a master of character-building than he was world-building.

Even when Sam (albeit temporarily) abandons Frodo in the passages above Cirith Ungol (a thing that never happens in the books), it works to the emotional tension of the film, serving as a breaking point, and moment of darkness before moving into the final climax of the film. These changes, I would argue, are for the better – at least in the telling of the story cinematically – and these three movies remain to this day my favorite works of art ever committed to film.

I can’t wait to see them in 4K, and when the remastered versions come out next year, I’ll be first in line!

What are your favorite moments from The Lord of the Rings trilogy? Do they stand the test of time, visually and content-wise? Let me know!