Time is relative. Some scientist said that at some point. For my purposes, it means that one minute can seem longer or shorter depending on the context. That minute in traffic is far longer than that minute playing video games before work that got you stuck in traffic in the first place.
Naturally, this applies to stuff like movies too. A two hour movie can feel incredibly long or it can flash by in an instant. Why? Pacing. Pacing is important. Really important.
Let’s look at An Unexpected Journey. It’s a three hour movie but, unlike the prior The Lord of the Rings films, feels much longer. The simple reason for this is for lack of content: the film takes much to long repeating points. The run in with the rock giants, for example, is a lengthy sequence that adds nothing to the plot (except an extra action scene). Sure, there’s a small moment showing Thorin’s growing acceptance of Bilbo as part of the team, but that’s a beat that’s seen elsewhere. Sequences like these bog down a movie and draw it out. The Return of the King and the rest of the trilogy were bursting with story and characters: every scene added another layer to one or the other. Those films didn’t feel bogged down as every beat felt necessary to the movie at large.
Transformers: Age of Extinction feels overlong in a different way: there’s way too much going on. Though visually pleasing (as you’d expect from a Michael Bay film), it’s a narrative mess. There’s no clear antagonist antagonizing the heroes and, as such, the heroes have little plan thwarting to carry out. With no central throughline pushing the story along, the film winds up feeling like a series of vaguely connected misadventures involving giant robots. Which wouldn’t be so bad if we actually gave a crap about these characters but, this being a Michael Bay film, we really don’t. As such, it’s 165 minute runtime really starts to drag after a while.
Guillermo Del Toro, another purveyor of giant robots, had this to say about film lengths: “All I know is that as an audience member, my ass meter starts ringing its fire alarm after two hours.” Essentially, there’s a point where it starts to feel like you’ve spent too long sitting in that chair. If a long movie is paced well it won’t seem long at all, if it’s paced poorly it’ll feel even longer. That said, you’ll probably start to notice how long you’ve been there as the two hour mark fades behind you.
Take Del Toro’s own Pacific Rim as a great example of a well paced movie that doesn’t feel too long. Big set pieces are linked together through emotional beats: The opening and Gipsy Danger vs Knifehead leads to the introduction of Stacker and Raleigh’s arrival at the Shatterdome before we see Mako’s flashback which in turn gives us a quiet character focused chunk before the big battle around Hong Kong. We get another break as Newt and Gottlieb work out the secrets of the breach before the final confrontation. These lulls not only to allow us to get to know and love the characters, but also give us breathers between action scenes and make us long for the next one. Del Toro, ever conscious of the audience’s collective ass meter, ensures that neither character/plot progression or action scene ever outstays their welcome, rather they work together to keep the movie puttering along, keeping us entertained throughout.
The LEGO Movie opts to follow Campbell’s monomyth and wisely never spends longer than necessary on individual beats. Not only does this allow for the movie to move along at a nice slick pace, but it means that when it comes time for it to spend time on something really important — take the conversation between the father/son and Lord Business/Emmet — there’s leeway for it to sink in without slowing down the plot.
At 143 minutes, The Avengers is a comparatively long movie. But it does as Pacific Rim does, stringing together smaller character moments between bigger set pieces, yet never allowing any to last too long. Add that to a group of great characters who you’re happy just to watch hang out with each other and it’s easy to get lost in the movie. And getting lost is the best, because suddenly you forget about time and your ass meter and just enjoy the movie.
Movie runtimes are one thing, how long they actually feel is another entirely. Watching Sex and The City (151 minutes) for class felt like an eternity, whereas The Dark Knight (165) felt just right. Time is relative — especially when watching movies. That’s where pacing comes in.
Note: Of course it’s not all in the pacing, but it is terribly important. Sometimes, a fascinating subject matter and engrossing characters are all you need — see Lost in Translation. That said, this blog post assumes that’s understood