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A Meandering Rant About Lazy Movie Titles

Remember when movies had interesting titles? Or at the very least titles that had some depth of meaning to them, like The Shawshank Redemption or Memento? Even stuff that seems boring might mean something else, like Sunset Blvd. It takes place on the actual street of Sunset Blvd, but it’s also about the metaphorical sun setting on both Norma Desmond and Joe Gillis in different ways. The title is both indelible and meaningful. Other titles seem incredibly obvious, like Alien, Psycho, or Seven Samurai, but they’re titles that have an impact and are artful while still being simple and direct. There are also titles like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, which is as lurid and shocking as the film it represents. When you see the title, you know what you’re in for, and there isn’t anything inherently wrong with it. Yet, why is a title like Man on a Ledge, which is equally direct, so flat and uninteresting?

In the earlier cases I mentioned, the titles, no matter how literal, came as a result of the film itself. The original title for Alien was Star Beast, yet for a movie so blue collar and industrial, Alien better served the tone and could apply to both the creature and the crew of the Nostromo being foreign in outer space. To go a different way with a Ridley Scott movie, Blade Runner is based on the Philip K. Dick novel, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?,” which is a little long for a marquee, so it was changed to Blade Runner. Problem is, “Blade Runner” was a book about illegal smuggling of medical supplies in Africa, but Scott liked the title and so optioned the book just to use it in something. Aside from a couple of throwaway lines added to tie it up, Blade Runner has nothing to do with running blades or running on blades or blades at all. If someone asked you to describe Blade Runner the words “blade” and “runner” would never appear anywhere in it, but that’s not the point. The important thing is that Blade Runner is a fucking fantastic title and one that sits in the minds of people forever.

Describe Man on a Ledge. It’s about a man… who’s on a ledge. Other stuff happens, sure, but essentially it’s a man who is out on a ledge. The sequel will probably be Man on a Limb, about a man who climbs a tree and refuses to come down, but I fear it’d be too deep for people. Too many titles nowadays are neither intriguing nor clever; they’re literally just the pitch or general conceit of the film. What’s the concept? It’s snakes on a plane. I know, let’s call it Viper Flight or Cobra Cruise or Venom at 50,000 Ft. No, idiot, we’re calling it Snakes on a Plane because that’s what it’s about. There was a movie a few years ago about fighting and it was just called Fighting. They’re not even trying anymore!  Tyler Perry, the billionaire behind all those movies you’ve never seen, is coming out with a movie called Good Deeds about a guy named Wesley Deeds who does good things. For fuck sake! “See, his name is Deeds and he does deeds, so it works in two ways.” No it doesn’t! It’s the same obvious way twice! What about the new Disney movie John Carter? I’m aware the book series and film are about a guy whose name is in fact John Carter, but he goes to fucking MARS and fights in a gladiator arena with giant monsters and shit. But no, John Carter, that’ll be good.

And it’s not even just that the titles are too obvious. Some of them have zero to do with the movie. Safe House takes place in a safe house, fine, but the movie Lock-Out, about a guy having to rescue the president’s daughter from a prison in outer space, is not about being locked out from anywhere. But, boy, it sure sounds like something they’d do in a prison. Make up your mind.

The following are famous, good-titled movies and what they probably would be titled if they came out today:

Star WarsSpaceships

The Silence of the LambsFat Women Get Skinned

A Clockwork OrangeA Violent Delinquent Gets Reformed, Kinda

Double IndemnityInsurance Fraud

Back to the FutureOld Car Time Machine

Reservoir DogsMen in Ties

Die HardNothing Lasts Forever (which is the actual title of the novel upon which the film is based)

The Great EscapeMost Of The People Die

So the point of all this is that I’m easily irritated. The End.

-Kanderson wants to remind everyone that not everything needs a point. Follow him on TWITTER

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  1. BG says:

    I’m exactly a year late to the party, but how about the new Jason Bateman-Melissa McCarthy film…”Identity Thief”. Yawn. I agree Hollywood has become really, really generic. Just cookie-cutter copy and paste.

    I’ve noticed there’s a lot more movies and TV shows called “The ___”. It’s nothing new, but it’s become such a lazy throwaway. On daytime alone, there’s “The View”, “The Chew”, and “The Talk”. I guess with so many viewing options on TV and in theaters, trying to standout with a creative title takes too much work.

  2. Tim Latza says:

    Abduction – Who was abducted?

  3. Peter says:

    Haha! Man On A Ledge cracked me up the instant I heard the name. But it was because I have been annoyed by the same thing for a while now. Movie titles like “How do you know?” etc. I will defend Snakes on A Plane however, I think that title perfectly fits the film, it is just so ridiculous and humorous that it works. But I do get what you are saying. A movie title should not only be memorable, but it should represent the content within the film while still allowing an element of intrigue to its potential audience. That’s why Star Wars works, but something like “Defeat the Empire” wouldn’t.

  4. Nathaniel H. says:

    I agree with your general point, but I have to disagree about your primary example: Man on a Ledge. To me, this particular title invokes a layer of class I doubt the movie has, and it says so much while also saying so little. Who is this man? Why is he on the ledge? What has brought him here? What correspondance does it have to the actual metaphor of the man on a ledge? I saw that movie poster and the title on the poster before I saw the trailer, and I immediately wanted to know more. After seeing the trailer, I actually doubt it will live up to that, but upon reading only the title and seeing one image on the poster, I wanted to know more. Isn’t that exactly what a movie title should do?

  5. Skaloop says:

    There’s already a Man on a Limb. Small Canadian film called Treed Murray, about a guy in a tree.

  6. Liz H (from Canada) says:

    Actually, I’ve been noticing – and lamenting – this trend for the past year as well. ‘War Horse’, anyone?

  7. Tyler says:

    I’m reminded of a Back to the Future anecdote. In the DVD commentary, one of the participants claims it was very nearly called Teenager from Pluto or something similar at the studio head’s insistence until Steven Spielberg sent a public memo complimenting him on such a great joke.

  8. Russell W says:

    I agree with LiamJM. You have to look at the title in context. Some times the title, like ‘Snakes on a Plane” is meant to be a throwback or even sarcastic. And how does “Star Wars” not fit into the category of generic movie title—just because it was the first one to do it? I mean, it’s a fairly more nuanced movie than wars in the stars. But it’s also meant to be a throwback to old serials and that overtly large generic title does the trick. Besides which there really isn’t a movie titled Star Wars; they’re all “The Last Hope” and “The Empire Strikes Back…” etc.

    I even remember all this guff when “Return of the Jedi” cam out and some posters said “Revenge of the Jedi,” but Jedi don’t get revenge. Which made it even better that they eventually did make “Revenge of the Sith.”

  9. GuanoLad says:

    I came up with a good title once. It didn’t have a solid plot idea attached to it, but you can guess what I was thinking of:

    “Plan B”

  10. Eloy says:

    “John Carter” was actually called “John Carter of Mars” in all the old previews and posters. I don’t know why they took out the “Of Mars” from the title, probably trying to actually trick people into seeing it who might not go to the movie because it sounds too sci-fi.

  11. Double R says:

    Re Brian E: “The End” was actually the title of a ’70s Burt Reynolds movie.

    If it were made today, it would called “I Wish I Were Dead”.

  12. LiamJM says:

    Actually “Snakes on a Plane” was the working title. They were going to change it to “Pacific Air Flight 121” but Samuel L. Jackson demanded they keep it as Snakes because he thought it fit the movie better.

    How do you not get that? It was most of the buzz about it, the whole point of the movie is that it was self-referential B-Grade horror film.

  13. Mike Wilson says:

    My favorite is “Snakes on a Plane.” I think it’s about marketing. There are too many talentless execs in Hollywood calling the shots.

  14. Mike Wilson says:

    My favorite is “Snakes on a Plane.” I think it’s about marketing. There are too many talentless execs in Hollywood calling the shots on what gets green lit. Talentless mouth breathers making decisions about art. So sad.

  15. Louie says:

    An interesting fact nugget – That title in the image header played tonight at my local art house, as part of their Mondo Mondays series.

  16. Raidar Klinkhammer says:

    Movie Trailer: We bought a Zoo. Rated PG-
    Me: Stab me.

    What was the point? Why MAKE that?

    That can not be an enjoyably kids movie. Most things I liked as a kid were over-the-top in both concept and mood, yet here we are.

    At the same time, that also can’t be a good adult movie. True story or otherwise, that has to be boring as hell no matter how you write it.

  17. Brian E. says:

    Ooh “The End’ is a great title Kyle! 😉

  18. Fitz says:

    That explains why all those people were angry when I went to see X-men:First Class and they were complaining that there wasn’t one freshman transvestite in the whole movie.

  19. ThyHoopyFrood says:

    I could not agree more.