I’m a grotesque nerd, so plot holes bother me. I have lost sleep over movies with logical contradictions. This is a mental deficiency that will likely plague me until my dying day. It would not surprise me if my last thought upon exiting this world is something like, “…but Aladdin wished that he was a prince, not to pretend to be a prince, dammit!”
That said, spotting plot holes can be fun. It’s a side-effect of over-analyzing a work of fiction, which is a worthwhile pasttime in and of itself. Nothing makes you feel smart quite like noticing something super obvious that a writer missed. It’s especially satisfying in this day and age, when you can run off to your social media outlet of choice, share your amazing discovery with all the world, and allow others to bask in the warm glow of your smugness.
You know what makes me feel even smarter than that, though? When some dude comes along complaining about some plot hole he discovered, and it turns out it isn’t a plot hole at all. Because sure, it takes a little creativity to spot a plot hole in the first place, but sometimes it only takes a tiny bit more to close that hole in a logical way. If you’re going to overthink things, overthink them.
There are a few dozen infamous plot holes the internet likes to flip its collective shit about. They get recycled a lot as Top Ten lists on Cracked and Buzzfeed. I find a lot of these popular examples to be objectionable, though. For one thing, it seems that I operate under a much narrower definition of “plot hole” than most people do. I only count plot points that are logically inconsistent, whereas the internet at large seems to prefer a much broader interpretation like “anything in a movie that doesn’t immediately make sense”. So before I get to my list of famous examples, here’s a short list of things that don’t qualify as plot holes at all.
Things That Are Not Plot Holes
1) Unanswered questions. It’s not a plot hole if a movie fails to explain in detail something you wish had been explained. What’s in Marcellus Wallace’s briefcase? Something expensive and of great value to Marcellus Wallace, probably. More information than that is not required to make the plot work. Pretty much every problem anyone has ever had with Lost falls into this category.
2) Stunning coincidence. It’s not a plot hole if a thing happens that is vanishing unlikely. I didn’t see the Star Trek reboot, but apparently a bunch of people were up in arms at a scene where a young Kirk crash lands on an ice world and just so happens to run into an elderly time-traveling Spock. Pointing out the unfathomable odds against this encounter isn’t identifying a plot hole, it’s just identifying that the writers chose to have a billion-to-one event happen in their story. (Presumably, having Kirk crash on an ice world and then die of exposure would have been preferable.)
3) Obvious executive meddling. Sometimes there is a perfectly good explanation for a plot hole, albeit not a satisfying one. People have agonized for years about why the machines in The Matrix needed humans as batteries as opposed to, say, just building nuclear reactors. The answer is the writers had a much better explanation in mind but the producers thought we were all too dumb to understand it. Oh well.
4) Hollywood writers aren’t scientists. This is a different flavor of #3. The more familiar you are with science, the more often you will notice physically impossible things in film. These technically count as plot holes, but neglects the simple fact that writers tend to focus more on telling interesting stories than making sure all the chemistry and physics check out. The answer to “How come the microwave weapon in Batman Begins doesn’t vaporize people, who are 70% water?” is “You need to re-calibrate your Disbelief Suspension Module, you grognard.”
5) Pedantic bullshit. The previous two examples are both about plot holes that involve questions with reasonable, if unsatisfying, answers. This one is about plot holes that involve questions the viewer shouldn’t be asking in the first place. “Who built the cars in Cars!?” Maybe it’s an animated kid’s movie about talking cars and you’re a creepy weirdo for speculating whether or not their exhaust pipes are genitals.
And now, a list of things I decided aren’t actually plot holes, even though most of the internet still seems to think they are. I’ve placed these in the rough order of when I figured them out.
Brick’s List of Plot Holes Which Aren’t Actually Plot Holes
1) How did Jeff Goldbum upload a virus to the alien mothership? – Independence Day
I loved this film when it came out in theaters. I saw it with a friend of mine, who was a bit of a computer nerd, and who had already seen the movie once. On the way to the theater, he told me to watch for one thing at the end of the movie that was totally impossible. At the time, we were both young enough that “planet invaded by aliens” didn’t qualify as such an event.
At the climax of the film, Jeff Goldblum and Will Smith travel into outer space to dock with an alien mothership. While there, Goldblum uses a laptop computer to upload a virus into the mothership’s main computer, thereby disabling the force fields on all the smaller dropships on Earth’s surface, so rednecks and inspiring presidents could blow them up.
After the film, I admitted to my friend that I didn’t see the impossible thing, and I thought he was kind of a genius when he explained it to me. And so it was until high school, when we revisted the topic in one of our incredibly nerdy movie discussions. We concluded that, really, it made perfect sense that the laptop could interface with the mothership.
Earlier in the movie, it is revealed that Earth had contacted these aliens before, when one of their scouts crash landed at Roswell and was subsequentially impounded at Area 51. This was in the 1940s, and was immediately followed by fifty years of unprecedented advances in computer technology. We reasoned that, after years of research, American scientist simply reverse-engineered the alien ship and then marketed the resulting achievements. Ergo, Goldblum’s laptop was the same technology as the mothership it was attempting to interface with. The bigger question is why he programmed a cute skull and crossbones into his virus.
Upon arriving at this conclusion my friend and I decided we were both geniuses.
2) Why doesn’t Bruce Willis know he’s dead? – The Sixth Sense
This glaring plot hole was hotly debated when The Sixth Sense was brand new, and even way back then, I had no idea why. The answer seemed so obvious to me and to this day I am kind of surprised so many people continue to miss it.
The premise of the movie is that Haley Joel Osment (who is 26 years old now, holy crap) can see ghosts, and Bruce Willis is some kind of paranormal psychologist who specializes in helping kids who can see ghosts. The big twist at the end is — surprise! — Bruce Willis was dead the whole time, and only Haley Joel Osment could see him. The issue people had with this twist is the great lengths the movie takes so Willis is never seen actually interacting with anyone but Osment. This makes sense at face value, but fell apart as soon as people started thinking about it a little more. How did the guy not know he was dead the whole time? Did he think it was normal that his wife didn’t talk to him all year?
But creepy sees-ghost kid offers us an explanation to this exact issue partway through the film. He tells Willis that ghosts “only see what they want to see”. Even on my very first viewing of the movie, I took this to mean “ghosts perceive reality differently from people, and that’s how they don’t know they’re dead.” There are lots of reasons Bruce Willis might not know he’d died. Perhaps, as a ghost, he experiences time differently from us, or perceives events out of sequence. Perhaps his ghost brain selectively forgets anything that would reveal its own true nature. Perhaps the mind of a ghost becomes so laser-focused on one obsession that anything not immediately related to that goal simply gets glossed over. Hell, this happens with people sometimes.
I should point out that I didn’t actually see the twist coming. I’m not that smart. All I did was pay attention when the movie established its ghost rules.
3) Why doesn’t Scar kill Simba? – The Lion King
This came up as the topic of discussion in a creative writing I took at my one year of college. The topic of the discussion was how to fix famous plot holes. One of the girls in class pointed out that, in Disney’s The Lion King, the evil villain Scar chases the young Simba away rather than just killing him, and I was shocked that so many people in the class agreed with her. I’m shocked all over again when this one pops up in internet discussions.
The answer is, Scar does want to kill Simba, and he does try. He sings about it during his big villainous musical number. He purposely concocts a situation where Simba is almost sure to die. When Simba miraculously survives, Scar sics his ravenous hyena goons on him with explicit instructions to kill him. And when Simba shows up later alive and well, Scar expresses surprise and irritation at said goons at that fact.
How can this be interpreted as “Scar kills Mufasa but lets Simba live”? Scar was banking on Simba dying in the stampede or, failing that, being mauled to death by hyenas. It’s not as though he’s going to kill Simba with his own claws; that’s not Scar’s style. Scar’s problem wasn’t a sudden change of heart, it was his overestimation of obviously incompetent henchmen.
4) Why doesn’t Marty’s mom recognize him? – Back to the Future
My mom’s three favorite movies are the Back to the Future trilogy, which as far as I’m concerned is irrefutable evidence that my mom is cooler than your mom. When the films first came out on DVD I sat down with her and marathoned all three, back to back, in a particularly heartfelt example of mother-son bonding. And while the BttF movies are ripe with low-hanging fruit as far as spotting plot holes is concerned, my mom said this is the one that bothered her the most.
In the film, Marty McFly travels back in time to 1955, where his own mother promptly falls in love with him. Why, then, does she not recognize him in 1985, after he’s all grown up? Wouldn’t she immediately notice that her son is the spitting image of a guy she fawned over in high school?
So I asked my mom, can you honestly say you remember, with perfect recall, someone you haven’t seen in thirty years, and don’t have any pictures of? And she said, huh, no, I guess not. Good point.
Mrs. McFly no doubt has fond memories of her one week with the mysterious teenage heartthrob who dropped in out of nowhere, but human memory is a funny and fallible thing. On the off chance she did notice some resemblance between her spring fling and her teenage son, it’s not likely her first thought would be time travel. More likely she’d just conclude that her son grew up to look maybe a little bit like some guy she knew, and isn’t life funny?
Focus on the parts with the inconsistent alternate timelines, guys. At least those plot holes go somewhere fun.
5) How did Andy Dufresne hang his poster back up? – The Shawshank Redemption
I don’t recall exactly who first pointed this out to me. It bugged me until I re-watched the movie, upon which I immediately spotted the solution. It’s another favorite subject of internet lists, and I can’t help but shake my head in dismay every time I see it.
In the film, Andy escapes prison by digging through the stone wall of his cell with a rock hammer, and covers his progress with a girly poster on the wall. The morning after he makes his escape the prison warden angrily rips the poster from the wall, revealing the hole underneath. Everyone stands in utter amazement at the feat, but nobody thinks to ask how Andy hung the poster back up after crawling through the tunnel.
Answer: he’s a wizard.
No, actually, the answer is he’s a normal person with, like, half a brain. Any thinking person could solve this problem in a manner of minutes. In Andy’s case, the poster is normally secured to the wall with tacks or nails. On the night of his escape, he simply secured the top two nails, carefully climbed into the hole underneath the poster, and that’s it. If he climbed through the hole backwards, he could have done a passable job of putting the bottom tacks into the wall by reaching underneath and pushing them in, or attaching the sharp end of the tack to a piece of string and pulling it in, or whatever. Or maybe he didn’t do any of that, and everyone was too focused on the missing prisoner to notice the poster was just hanging freely at the bottom.
Shawshank Redemption is one of the best films ever made, and I’ve seen lots of comments to the effect of “the movie would be perfect if not for this one thing!” Worry no more, for I have fixed everything and now the movie is just plain perfect again.
6) Why don’t the Eagles just fly Frodo to Mordor? – The Lord of the Rings
I admit I cheated on this one a little bit, because I actually read The Lord of the Rings long before the third film came out and set this question on everyone’s lips. The solution involves extrapolating information about Middle-earth which is trivial with the added context of the books, but is not so obvious just from the movie.
The story goes, Frodo has to carry an evil ring to an evil volcano and throw it in. This took three four-hour-movies, endless trudging hardship, thousands of dead goblins, and some eleventh-hour rumination about the taste of bread. Once the ring is destroyed, Gandalf the wizard sends in his magic giant bird friends to retrieve Frodo so he doesn’t have to walk all the way back.
So why couldn’t the eagle just take Frodo in to begin with, and spare everyone the hike?
There are actually several totally reasonable explanations for this, and I’m sure die-hard Tolkien fanatics could come up with a few more. Here are the top three most relevant ones to the events of the film.
First, and most obvious, is that the bad guy has flying shadow demons guarding his lands. Any eagle that flies into Mordor is going to be spotted immediately — after all, the bad guy is literally a giant, unblinking eyball — and set upon by indestructable witch-lords.
Second, and maybe somewhat less obvious, is the evil ring is, in fact, evil. Its very nature corrupts whomever carries it, rendering them unable to destroy it. This happens even to Frodo, in the end, even though Hobbits are known to be somewhat resistant to its effects. Handing the ring to an eagle would not result in the ring being dropped into a volcano — it would result in a corrupt, invisible eagle coming under the power and influence of the Enemy.
And third, it helps to remember that the eagles of Middle-earth are, in fact, capital-E Eagles. They are a sentient species akin to Elves and Dwarves and Ents. They have their own Eagle society which may not have an immediate interest in this whole ring-destroying folly.
7) Who jacked Cypher into the Matrix? – The Matrix
I’m stretching a bit on this one, because it’s more a personal “What If?” theory than a full-blown plot hole debunking. But it’s far more satisfying to think about than why robots need human batteries, so try and stick with me here.
At one point in the film, we cut away to see Morpheus’s crewmate Cypher having a steak dinner with Agent Smith. He gives a little speech about how ignorance is bliss, and sells out the entire crew in return for being plugged back into the Matrix, because he would rather dine on fake porterhouse than real snot-gruel.
The problem is, we’ve already established that you can’t jack yourself into the Matrix. You need a spotter on the outside to plug you in, monitor your position and, when you’re ready, pull you back out. So who jacked Cypher in, so he could have this conversation in the first place? It couldn’t have been anyone on the crew, or the betrayal wouldn’t have worked. It couldn’t have been an evil robot, because such an intruder would have been detected right away.
Cypher provides us with a clue, though, during one of his first conversations with Neo. He has been monitoring the cascade of green pixels and glyphs that make up the Matrix for so long, he can actually decode it in real time. He doesn’t even see the code, he says; he just sees “blonde, brunette, redhead”.
My theory: he’s not in the Matrix at all. He’s watching his screen. He knows how delicious his steak is because he’s that adept at reading the code. His entire meeting with Agent Smith, where he hammers out all the details of his betrayal, happens during his graveyard shift at the monitors on the ship.
I’m not a programmer, but I’ve dabbled enough to know strange things start happening to your brain when you stare at code long enough. You can see it compiling before you run it. Now imagine a world where that code is literally your only stimulus. That’s the place Cypher lives. Honestly, I can’t say I blame the dude. I’d want to be jacked back in, too.
8) Why did Dr. Manhattan kill Rorschach, but not destroy his journal? – The Watchmen
Most people who read The Watchmen despised the film. I’m not one of them, though. I think both versions of the story have their own merits. Not having been a comic book geek back in the 80s, most of the nuances of the graphic novel were lost on me during my first reading, but I did think the ending was pretty brilliantly played. I can see how a lot of people misinterpreted it — and then misinterpreted it again in the movie, where it was unchanged.
The broad strokes of the ending are as follows: Rorschach, the crazy vigilante, twigs to the evil plan of the villain Ozymandias, and writes all the details down in his journal. Before embarking to help stop the villain, he deposits the journal into the inbox of his favorite crackpot right-wing slander rag. That way, if he fails, he reasons, his story will still get told.
The villain ends up going unthwarted, though, and the heroes decide it’s for the best that the rest of the world is kept in the dark as to the particulars. All but the fanatical Rorschach, that is, who plans to go back home and tell everyone. The the omnipotent and omniscient Dr. Manhattan prevents this by exploding Rorschach all over Antarctica.
Just to be safe, shouldn’t Dr. Manhattan also have destroyed Rorschach’s journal? It’s already established he knows everything and can do anything, so this should be a trivial task even though nobody ever told Doc about this journal sitting on the other side of the planet. So what gives?
What comes across really well in the graphic novel is that Rorschach is, in fact, a crazy fanatic whose journal reads like an insane conspiracy theory. There is literally no evidence to support the incoherent ravings contained therein. The truth gets out, yes, but it’s not a truth anyone is going to believe. Doc knows the journal poses no threat. And when I say he knows it, I mean he knows it. He can literally read the future.
Maybe the nuance doesn’t come across so well in the movie, if you haven’t read the book. I guess I can give moviegoers the benefit of the doubt on this one.
Thus concludes my list of popular plot holes which aren’t actually plot holes. I’d be interested to hear of any plot holes you’ve managed to close on your own, or if you think I’m wrong and stupid about any of the ones I’ve presented here. Thanks for reading!