Fade In: The Importance of Verisimilitude In Movies

After talking about the experience of having just watched Dune (2021), my friend gave me a quarter he had in his pocket because he hadn’t heard that long word before, or, at least he wasn’t familiar with it, yet he “kind of” knew what it meant.

Dune might not be loved by everyone, but it was bold and ambitious, and even though it is a complete fantasy set on other planets in the far future, there is something about it that made it feel real. Viewers could see the movie’s version of helicopters called ornithopters. But instead of spinning rotors at the top and tail like helicopters, they have rapidly flapping rotor-like wings on the sides. The ornithopters not only look like real machines, but the audience looks at them less like the fantastical machines they technically are and treats them as a common piece of technology in the film’s universe. The ornithopters even have dirty windows, tangible controls for taking off and controlling the rotors, and altimeter meters, similar to helicopters and small planes. This is one of many examples of “verisimilitude” in movies.

Verisimilitude isn’t just about special effects, nor is it always about how “good” something looks. Some movies from the past have special effects that, while excellent for the time, don’t quite hold up to scrutiny, yet these films can still have an excellent sense of verisimilitude. For example, in Ghostbusters (1984), the main characters have figured out how to trap ghosts using equipment they developed. While watching the film, we accept the conceit that, in the world of the movie, ghosts exist, and the film progresses in such a way that we believe the narrative that the Ghostbusters can clean up spooks and poltergeists as part of their daily routine. Many factors contribute to the overall believability of the premise (the main one being the writing and the film’s pitch-perfect tone), but one can look at things like the equipment that the Ghostbusters use: the proton packs and ghost traps look functional, and feel like real machines that these men developed, machines that would need regular maintenance. Although we know Ghostbusters is completely fictional, all of the various talents, from the props to the writing, to the overall feel of the movie, contribute to making the movie feel real, or at least real enough, during the time we are watching it.

What about films with bad verisimilitude or a total disregard for the same? There are many examples. The television show “Star Trek Discovery” pays so little attention to the details. Wouldn’t it make sense to best use the space that you have when constructing a vessel? Because why would the corridors in the neck and main hull of the Starship Discovery have windows that look out into space? Wouldn’t it make more sense to have rooms built on both sides of a corridor to make the best use of the corridors themselves (they are constructed to connect parts of the ship as efficiently as possible, at least, you would think.) Of course, verisimilitude goes right out the window when the show has scenes that take place in the turbo lift (i.e., elevator shafts). During these scenes, the ship looks like it’s mostly empty space, the elevators look like rollercoasters in the dark, and you know right away that these “roller coaster” tracks could fit inside the ship after looking at the ship’s exterior design.

Verisimilitude or the lack thereof doesn’t always lie with the prop department or the special effects team. Any element of a film can either pull the viewer out of the narrative (bad verisimilitude) or keep them engaged with it (good verisimilitude). One wonders how Bruce Wayne was able to get back into Gotham City after escaping from a foreign prison at the end of The Dark Knight Rises. Logical questions were a huge issue long before that: after Bane and his men invade the stock market and steal from Wayne, we see in subsequent scenes that his manor has no power due to lack of payment. The audience is pulled out of the film because they know that the fraudulent trades made in Wayne’s name would not stick or that the power companies would not shut his power down so quickly.

All movies ask the audience to suspend their disbelief, and even analyzing the greatest films of all time, flaws in logic can always be found. That said, close attention to verisimilitude is something good filmmakers do to ensure their audience is engaged. Once you accept a film’s conceit, such as the ability to travel between worlds in many science fiction films- which is not possible presently- or that there’s sound in space when there isn’t, the best filmmakers use their talents to make the film as believable as possible. That is what verisimilitude is all about.

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