In the simplest terms: it has to be good.
Of course, it’s not as simple as that. Unpacking exactly what makes a film ‘good’ is a problem that has troubled artists, critics, audiences, and philosophers for millennia. Art and rebellion are perpetually intertwined. Almost immediately after a definition of ‘good art’ is created, it becomes strangulating – it limits the artist to sets of rules that quickly become predictable and tired. The only response is rebellion. An artist is forced to rebel against the rules it is faced with, in order to remain both engaging and innovative.
Therefore, the definition of ‘good art’ remains at best vague and at worst nonexistent. Critics’ approaches to the question differ and almost inevitably fail. So does that mean there’s no point in pursuing any claim a film is good (or indeed heavenly) at all? Kind of… but where’s the fun in that?
The One Rule of Film
Each judgement the Judges of Movie Limbo make will be subject to a number of different criteria – character, dialogue, direction, soundtrack, etc. But there is one key rule that each film must pass before even being considered worthy of heavenly ascension.
“Be aware of any breaks you make to pre-existing guidelines.”
That’s it. It sounds simple enough, but there are many types of guidelines that can be broken. We choose the word ‘guideline’ over ‘rule’ to stress that they can be broken – but only with consideration and for a predetermined effect. Here are three examples of what we might mean by a guideline:
Dramatic Consistency & Functionality
In short, make sure your narrative has no fat. Every part should add to the overall story, and no time should be wasted. There should also be consistency in the development of character and narrative – each action contributing to a trajectory from beginning to middle to end. This usually involves conflict, drama, tension, and all those nice fun entertaining things.
A film should set out to establish certain rules and then follow them, particularly in fantasy films. For example if at the start of a film it is established that a species of alien are immune to bullets, then it would be unsatisfying to have the hero later escape a trap by shooting one in its solitary bulbous eye. It confuses the stakes, cheapens the tension, and destroys faith in the storytelling.
A Sense of the Cinematic
The entire film should make sense… as a film. The chosen medium should make the best use of the story and its constituent parts. If it feels as though significant parts (or the entire thing) would be better portrayed in a different medium, something is wrong. Audiences will walk away feeling uneasy and disappointed – like there was missed potential.
There are many other guidelines (many too specific or too vague to be worth listing here), and they are all to be treated in the same way. They can be broken – they are not rules! – but the filmmaker must know why they are breaking them. They can’t go changing characters willy-nilly without a direction for that decision. They’ll just end up with an inconsistent mess that’s entertaining for no one. Or maybe just themselves. But that would be a very lonely premiere.
The guidelines lead to emotional resonance, drama, and most fundamentally entertainment. And so to go to Movie Heaven a film should follow a set of guidelines unless they break them with intent. We don’t know if a complete set of guidelines will ever exist: maybe we all have our own or maybe we’ll one day figure an objective list we can all agree on. Maybe it’s an eternally elusive concept like discovering digits of pi: we’re always getting closer but we’ll never reach the target. Maybe we’re just idiots on a blog overthinking this.
What makes a film go to Hell?
It has to be bad.
Again, that’s not very helpful. Instead, it might be good to provide you Jurors with an idea of just how bad a film has to be before it goes to Hell, and how good before it goes to Heaven.We’ll use the arbitrary and subjective ‘rating out of ten’ to explain this with utmost efficiency:
7-10 – Movie Heaven
4-6 – Stuck in Limbo
0-3 – Movie Hell
We should add that we typically assume all films are a 5/10. Then as the respective merits and flaws are weighed up, it either loses or gains points. (Basically, a 6/10 is pretty positive despite what teachers ever told you!)
Right, enough chatter. Time to get back on the bench, and put this theory to work.