A Real Life Cliffhanger – What Movies Have Taught Me About Suspense In Life

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We’ve all been there. Comfortably sitting with a good book, perhaps a movie – steaming hot coffee or with popcorn that’s falling on the floor as a great fable unfolds. Sooner or later there’s a build up towards what is referred to as the ‘plot twist’ or the ‘turn’ or typically a ‘cliffhanger’ moment in the story line. The main characters are placed in a precarious situation where the stakes are high and their ultimate fates are unknown. Power is spiralling out from their grasp and the world around them seems to be scratching to relieve them of their place. We may even find ourselves tensing in our seats for these people, sweating at the palms and sinching our legs together tightly as you live through the next few moments with complete concentration. The main plot thickens by the second, fingers evermore soggy from the shoveling of more popcorn in one’s mouth – perhaps you’ve held your breath while these mere, yet believable actors navigate the next set of sharp turns into the crossroads. Does our hero (or villain) rise to the occasion or do they shrink in face of the challenge ahead? Guts or glory? What about both?
The ever riveting sequence in “Gladiator (2000)” comes to mind for me.
“My name is Maximus Decimus Meridius, commander of the Armies of the North, General of the Felix Legions, loyal servant to the true emperor, Marcus Aurelius. Father to a murdered son, husband to a murdered wife. And I will have my vengeance, in this life or the next.”
Why do we love (and hate) these (sometimes predictable) storylines so much? What is so thrilling about watching the scenes of what we wish ourselves never to experience? Why are cliffhangers so important?
Because we simply see ourselves, though perhaps, never quite manifested, in that chosen character. We desperately want to mimic them to become an ideal version of ourselves. It just might be that what we seek is to at least know that we are not alone. The fun of the book or movie in these dire sequences is we get to roleplay ourselves into the situation, without the actual consequences of it ever actually happening. We can relive a moment and pay attention to how somebody else handled the situation and move forward from the place of hindsight and the pause button.
Some of my most memorable pastimes were while I hid under the safety of a comfortable rug, rewatching some favourite films at the conclusion of another day. I could pretend I was the main guy with all the combat moves of Neo in the Matrix, the savoir-faire of James Bond or the admirable wisdom of Gandalf the Grey, always with a timely counsel. As long as I was absorbed in the moment of the story, I felt confident in an obviously delusional way that I could be ALL of these people in the right circumstance. Of course, this was ridiculous in the real world to imagine I suddenly had all this power of physical prowess, charisma and charm. I was still stuck as myself, with myself, all the time.
Fear not. Though on the surface things like thriller movies and books seem a vain waste of time, they aren’t. Life is not completely about raw productivity and pragmatism. Stories, fairytales and riddles can be the key to re imagining scenarios we may face or have already faced. It’s a reevaluation tool that loosens the screws within our mind that are over tightened and rigid.
Be absorbed, enamoured with your favourite characters. Become like the brave riders of Rohan (Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers – 2002), daring as the young king Simba (The Lion King – 1994) or as staunchly determined as Rocky Balboa (Rocky 1977). Just remember, that as good as these fictional teachers might be, you will never quite be them. Come back to reality often, though the hours may have passed by like minutes, with what has been learned so you can truly be a person ready for your own cliffhanger…