Mainstream Monday: Film Countdowns


Pace and timing are some of the most important facets of quality filmmaking. A great story can be ruined if told at languishing pace. Great moments, especially in the realm of comedy, can be ruined and/or forgotten completely if they’re done with poor timing. It’s important that a film move at a pace that audiences can identify with, in order for them to truly become involved in the story. One of the ways filmmakers insure that this happens is to include visual or audio clues that alert audiences to changes within the story. There are many common tricks of the trade that are used to do this. but it’s the practice of this column to point out things that are not so common. So I’ve picked out a few films that have used creative ways to indicate to audiences just how much time is left both in the situations the characters find themselves in and sometimes in the film itself. These “Unorthodox Countdowns” as it were, help to turn the suspense up a few notches and push the drama (and the scene) along at the proper pace. So without further ado, here are a few of my favorite creative film countdowns.

The Flower, from Beauty and the Beast

Universally regarded as one of the greatest Disney films of all time, Beauty and the Beast is a great example of storytelling at its finest. One of the most iconic images of this fairy tale turned film classic is that of the magic rose, slowly wilting through the course of the film. It’s an ingenious take on a typical hourglass in that it’s a picture of the frailty of beauty and love, kept hidden away in a darkened, forbidden wing, thinly protected by a glass casing. The dying rose, which serves as an indication of how long the Prince has to discover true love or be condemned to his present form forever, informs the emotion and despair of the Beast, while giving the audience a limited notion of suspense as their love story progresses.

The Family Photo, from Back to the Future

It’s not enough that Marty McFly has barely escaped the clutches of a Libyan terrorist cell and been unceremoniously deposited in the 1950s, he’s also managed to fall right smack in the middle of his parent’s love story, effectively eliminating the possibility of his own future existence! (God I love this movie) This turn of events is communicated ever-so-effectively by the family photo of Marty and his two siblings that he carries with him. As events in the past progress and it becomes less and less likely that his parents will end up together, his family begins to fade and disappear one at a time, beginning with the oldest. Of course we know Marty’s parents get together just in time for him to finish the chorus of “Earth Angel” and for the photo to be restored. It’s an incredibly clever way of keeping the dilemma of changing the past firmly in the viewers’ eyes and minds, without devolving into scientific and philosophical double-speak.

The Aging Process, from The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

As intriguing, and sometimes disturbing, as it was to watch Brad Pitt age in reverse in Button, it cannot be denied that this was an effective way of pushing along a story that could have used a few more conflicts. Watching an old man age into the form of a young man forces us to confront our own concepts of life, time and fear of aging. It also became even more effective when contrasted with Cate Blanchette’s natural aging. The two meet romantically in the middle, all the while knowing, along with the audience, that this process has only allowed them a small window and will soon pull them apart again. Then we must watch, along with Benjamin, as he becomes stronger and she, the dancer, continues to break down physically. With each of Button’s dramatic shifts in age we realize we are drawing closer to his life’s and the film’s end.

The Heartbeat/Battery Level, from the Crank films

The Crank franchise is an exercise in adrenaline, quite literally so in the case of the first film. In order to stay alive Chev Chelios must keep his heartbeat surging, which he does in a variety of increasingly adventurous ways. In the second film he must keep the battery charged on his artificial heart with repeated shocks to his system. Both films are extremely fun and these constant countdowns are a big part of the reason why. It would be easy to lose track in films with such a frenetic pace, but the constant visual reminders of Chev’s ticking clock propel each scene to their end and bring the next into focus. When an audience is constantly keeping track in the back of their mind how long a scene is running to determine how much longer the hero will survive, there’s no way they can lose interest. It also helps to have Jason Statham surf a police motorcycle in a hospital gown.

The Portholes/Ship, from Titanic

There are a couple of different ways to determine the passing of time in Titanic: you can measure how much people are walking calmly around the boat vs. running and screaming; you can measure it by how well-kempt Billy Zane’s hair-do is in any given scene, or you can pay attention to the portholes/the ship itself. Of course this countdown doesn’t really begin until Leo and Kate have already “hooked up” as it were, but once the ball gets rolling the entire ship becomes a giant countdown to a doom you know no passenger will escape. It’s explained in the beginning with the computer generated replay of how each compartment in the ship would begin to fill with water, but actually seeing it, and watching poor handcuffed Jack Dawson looking out the porthole at an ocean that just a short while ago was far below that same window, is truly frightening. The ship fills, and tips and mentally we replay the earlier computer imagery, knowing what comes next and counting down the ship’s self-destructive checklist until finally our two heroes are clinging to the tip of the Titanic as it is buried in the sea.

The Cell Phone Battery/Sand, from Buried

I’m a member of a small group of people who actually believe Buried is a brilliant film that has a lot to offer. It’s caused me to catch quite a bit of flack from friends on Twitter, but I refuse to relent: I thoroughly enjoyed this movie. The entire premise of the film is a countdown to what seems inevitable: Paul (Ryan Reynolds) is going to die. His only hope comes in the form of a cell phone and its fading battery life. It’s his only means to communicate with the outside world, including connecting with his family, the authorities, and negotiating with the terrorists responsible for his current situation. Watching that battery die becomes the same as watching Paul’s life slowly ebb away. The more he tries to contact the outside world to save himself, the closer he comes to losing all connection. As he nears the end, bombs exploding outside turn the box into a virtual hourglass, pouring sand in from every crevice. To Paul, and the audience, time is the only thing there is, and there’s simply not enough of it.

The Dangeometer, from Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs

Things finally take a swing for the better when lifelong loser Flint Lockwood finally invents something that works: The FLDSMDFR, a machine that turns water into food! Having accidentally launched it into the perfect position in the atmosphere, Flint and the citizens of Swallow Falls now enjoy a constant smorgasbord prepared to order. And all of this is kept firmly in check by a device known as the “Dangeometer”, which has a series of color levels alerting Flint as to how the machine is performing. You can basically time the three acts of the film by the levels of the dangeometer - first is green, when everything starts rough then gets really great for Flint. Then it’s yellow - Flint becomes famous and the town of Swallow Falls begins to indulge itself a little too much. And finally there’s Red - when the suddenly obese Mayor opens a new food-themed amusement park and follows it up with an order of a Vegas style all-you-can-eat-buffet. Needless to say, the Dangeometer and the machine it represents are pushed beyond their limits, bringing about the climax of the film.

The Van/The Jump, from Inception

If you haven’t seen the fan-edited video on Youtube that plays all four dream-levels of Inception side-by-side you ought to track it down. Christopher Nolan’s mind-bending, masterful heist film bends the laws of time and space by slowing down time on each level of dreams-within-dreams, allowing the team of thieves to accomplish multiple tasks over several hours in lower levels during the time it takes a van to back off a bridge in the top layer. With multiple cuts back to the slowly falling van (so very very slowly), we’re constantly reminded of how long the team has until the final jump. This of course ramps up the suspense on the lower levels as Joseph Gordon-Levitt works to orchestrate a second level jump, and things get even crazier the further down they go. It’s an expert plot-pressuring device that took a great film and elevated it into one of the most creative and memorable movie-going experiences in years.

The Body Count, from every Slasher film, ever

There’s only so much you can do with the ‘slasher’ sub-genre of horror films. There are a number of people. These people are being ‘slashed’ by a killer. It’s basically plot by process of elimination. Filmmakers can get as creative with the kills as they want but the bottom line is we can tell how far along we are in the story simply by counting how many survivors are left. And once it gets down the ‘final girl’ (or boy, if they’re feeling whimsical), we know it’s time for the final showdown. Not that I’m complaining. The fun is in the journey, not the destination, right?

The Days, from 500 Days of Summer

Like Zooey Deschanel’s Summer, 500 Days is honest and upfront from the beginning: this is not a love story. It never abandons this truth either, as the story alternates between good days in the relationship and bad days, effectively telling the story of this relationship. Each day is a like a chapter in a book, and every time a new one begins the audience is left wondering what kind of day the next will be, and when will day 500 arrive? The non-linear structure allows for comedic breaks in the drama, as well as providing an interesting window into the evolution and decay of a relationship. It’s yet another fresh approach to the concept of time and timing in film, and absolutely deserving of a spot on this list.

The Disintegrating Harvey Keitel, from Little Nicky

You didn’t think I’d go through an entire ‘Mainstream Monday’ entry without mentioning Adam Sandler, did you? Nothing says urgency like watching your Dad fall apart piece-by-piece, depending on you to save him. As son of the dissolving dark lord, Sandler’s Little Nicky rushes to Earth to try and return his two rebellious older brothers to Hell before his father, the Devil, falls apart for good. The running gag throughout the film is that Nicky dies multiple times, and each time he returns to Hell he finds his father in an even greater state of disrepair, until Keitel is nothing more than a pair of disembodied arms holding up a mouth. It’s ridiculous, it’s stupid, it’s Sandler. But it does give the plot a reason to press on. More or less.

The Dwindling Resources, from The Basketball Diaries

The frightening true story of Jim Carroll’s descent from potential-laden teen basketball star to homeless heroine addict is rough to watch, even with great performances from Leonardo DiCaprio, Lorraine Bracco and a young Mark Wahlberg. What moves the film along this terrifying path is the slow erosion of Jim’s connections to his past potential. One by one the most important things in his life are ripped away from him, beginning with his friend who suffers from leukemia. Losing his spot on the basketball team, his best friend Neutron and his home life, Jim sets out to the streets with his two remaining friends: Pedro and Mickey. He loses friends, health and even his pride in the form of teasing at the hand of a prostitute (Juliette Lewis) whom he used to ridicule. Finally he returns home and we witness as he loses the one thing he has left: his mother, when she locks the door and refuses to let him in, suffering through his screaming and begging. Having lost everything, Jim turns his life around in prison and becomes a successful writer and public speaker. It’s an incredible story driven and measured by successive losses.

As with most of my lists these are just a few among literally hundreds of examples. They might not even be the best ones, they’re just the first to pop in my mind. Let me in on a few of your favorites in the comments below!


About Author

Host of Next Projection's ongoing Mainstream Monday series. I enjoy the occasional film, but most of the time I just watch movies. I'm no film student; just an old-fashioned homemade addict of cinema.