Any successful movie has a Dark Moment. The moment when the bad guy starts winning. The moment when every silver lining disappears. The moment when characters we’ve grown to love no longer see the point of chasing their goals. Every outcome seems like the worst possible outcome.
Of course, as the three act structure dictates, every Dark Moment is followed by a climax, confrontation, and then a resolution (hopefully a happy one). But every resolution is only as satisfying as the Dark Moment preceding it. A writer doesn’t need to kill their darlings per-say, but they do have to put their darlings through several layers of hell. The best movies bring characters to their lowest point not out of sadism, but to amplify the film’s emotional impact. When the Dark Moment is done right, it feels so much more cathartic when the characters succeed (hopefully).
But enough Screenwriting 101. Below are 15 Movie Moments When All Hope Seemed Lost.
15. Inside Out – Joy in the Memory Dump
Even animated movies need to get dark sometimes, and Pixar understands this better than any other studio. They nearly plunged our favorite toys into a firey inferno, smashed a lovelorn robot to bits, and convinced a clownfish his son was dead. Critics applaud Pixar for respecting their audiences. The animation juggernaut trusts moviegoers to handle serious ideas even when they’re gift-wrapped in a cartoon. Their trust pays off especially well in Inside Out.
When Joy makes a hastily decided leap for the Train of Thought, she misses and falls into the Memory Dump. This is where memories go to fade away entirely. The deep cavern of opaque memory spheres diminish Joy’s hope of saving Riley, her human ward. That is, until she finds one key forgotten memory.
This moment works because it shows a character the error of her ways. Joy finally sees the merits of sadness. She understands now that sorrow is not only OK, but also necessary. This epiphany rouses her from helplessness and she Memory Dump. Too bad Bing Bong couldn’t join her. Damn Pixar.
14. Kingsman: The Secret Service – Harry Dies
Here’s a great, modern day “Obi Wan moment.” A moment when the mentor in a hero’s journey perishes abruptly. His death transpires while our hero watches, unable to help. At the start, the mentor ushers the protagonist out of his natural world and infuses him with purpose. When the mentor dies, the hero’s purpose dies a little with him.
Such is the case for Eggsy in Kingsman: The Secret Service. When a lisp-adorned villain kills Harry, his role model, Eggsy watches through a video feed. Eggsy and Harry’s last encounter went poorly. Eggsy fell short of Kingsman status after Harry pulled numerous strings to get him there. Feeling like a disappointment, Eggsy watches Harry, and any chance of reconcilement, die thousands of miles away.
This moment succeeds for several reasons. Firstly it’s unexpected. Samuel L. Jackson delivers a typical bad guy speech, then swerves from convention and shoots Harry. Secondly, it weighs heavily on Eggsy. Harry plucked him from degeneracy and offered him a dignified life. When Harry dies, Eggsy’s hopes for a better life die a little with him.
13. The Cabin in the Woods – The Truth is Revealed
Horror movies are littered with dark moments. So many that it becomes difficult to pinpoint one as the Dark Moment. But for The Cabin in the Woods, the Moment is very clear.
After suffering attacks from hillbilly zombies, Dana and Marty begin to suspect something weird is happening (hillbilly zombie thing aside). Marty finds an elevator that goes below the eponymous cabin into God knows where. They descend into a prison packed with monsters in clear cubed cells. Here Dana realizes the truth: these monsters belong to somebody. Somebody who went after Dana and her friends for a reason.
Dark moments in horror films usually come from simple intentions. Bad things happen to good people. Monsters chase victims because they need someone to chase. There’s not much else at play. But Dana and Marty were targeted specifically. They sought them out, trapped them in, and purposefully unleashed hell onto them. Dana feels unfairly treated (at minimum), and goes into serious “Why me?” mode. Worse than if this had all been random.
12. Total Recall – Douglas Quaid Betrays Himself
Sometimes we are our own worst enemy. Total Recall cleverly actualizes this truth in the movie’s big twist. When it comes, the protagonist realizes his quest was destined to fail, and that he was the one who made it so. Don’t worry, this’ll make sense in a minute.
Douglas Quaid goes to Rekall expecting a simulated adventure. But the Rekall machine returns to him fractured memories of being a super spy named Hauser. Quaid starts believing he’s a hero, meant to liberate Martians from the evil Vilos Cohaagen. But a video of Hauser tells Quaid everything he’s done was part of Cohaagen’s plan. Quaid, not Hauser, could gain the Martian rebel’s trust, consequently leading Cohaagen right to their hideout.
It’s a sobering moment, both emotionally and intellectually. Quaid thought for a time he was meant for greater things. In a way he was right, but those greater things were not what he expected. He feels defeated, but also stupid for not seeing this coming. Being mocked by yourself is a literal self-esteem killer.
11. Shaun of the Dead – Shaun Kills His Mother
Many Dark Moments involve death, but a key death scene in Shaun of the Dead is particularly traumatizing. A quasi horror film with no shortage of dark moments, the film’s true Dark Moment forces Shaun to do something unfathomable to someone he loves.
Sequestered at the Winchester, Shaun and his friends think they’re safe from zombies and can finally “wait for all this to blow over.” But as they munch on bar snacks, a horde of zombies encroach on the pub. Worse still, Shaun’s mother has a zombie bite, kept hidden from her son, and the effects are kicking in. Faced with threats from outside and within, Shaun has no choice but to put his undead mother out of her misery.
Like how Pixar understands the need for Dark Moments in animation, Edgar Wright understands their place in comedies. Shaun of the Dead is sometimes labeled merely as a horror parody, but it contains genuinely heavy moments. The heaviest comes when the responsibility-averse Shaun must shoot his mother, whom he’s often neglected in the past.
10. The Princess Bride – Wesley Is (Mostly) Dead
The road to true love is paved with giant torture machines designed to take years off your life. In this case anyway. Of all the fictional characters who say they’d die for the woman they love, Wesley is one of the few who actually does.
When Buttercup declares undying loyalty to Wesley, Humperdink goes on a rampage. He cranks The Machine to fifty wand kills Wesley without a second thought. By the time Inigo and Fezzik find Wesley, he’s a corpse. Even the sick kid has trouble stomaching this, and lashes out at his grandpa for reading him this upsetting story.
That’s why this Dark Moment is so special. The movie cuts away at this kid’s defenses by making him sit through a “kissing book,” bringing them down completely with Wesley’s death. The Princess Bride says it’s OK to allow feelings to rush in sometimes, and react to a death in a healthy way. Whether it was intended to or not, The Princess Bride takes masculinity down a peg with this Moment.
9. Swingers – Mike Considers Moving Back East
Sometimes there’s no need for a big dramatic display. Dark moments come in all shapes and sizes. What matters is that the protagonist reaches a valley appropriate to their circumstances. Mike is a comedian trying to make it in LA. Mike doesn’t have to kill somebody to reach his low point.
In Swingers, Mike Peters (Jon Favreau, who also wrote Swingers) is an unlucky migrant from New York. Licking wounds from a recent breakup, Mike tries to get back into dating. But a six years relationship makes re-entering singlehood difficult. After a catastrophic attempt to ask someone out, Mike considers moving back East. Then his friend Rob reminds him how money he is. Because Mike is very money and seems unaware of it.
Most of us haven’t had to kill a zombified version of our mother or watch a madman take over Mars. Some of us are just average people having a rough time. Favreau plays unlucky in love in a relatable way, making this a Dark Moment for the everyman.
8. The Martian – Mark’s Plants Die
Not all of us are as optimistic or resourceful as Mark Watney. We don’t have skills needed to plant food on Mars, nor do we have the good humor to endure such a hostile place. So when Watney loses his cool, how are the rest of us supposed to deal?
Things seem to be on the right track for Watney, a botanist stranded on Mars. NASA knows where he is and Mark has enough food to last until they arrive. All this changes when Mark’s airlock gets blown open and his crops wither and die. Mark finally hits his breaking point, and in a scene that earned Matt Damon a much deserved Oscar nod, he throws a rare tantrum in the driver’s seat of a rover.
The Martian is all about problem solving. Mark understands better than anybody the importance of problem solving, and prepares to take each of his many obstacles in stride. Up until this devastating hit, his productivity has not slowed. Now it’s come to a seemingly permanent halt.
7. Temple of Doom – Indy Gets Brainwashed
Indiana Jones is a seminal action hero, and not because of his hat, whip, or exhilarating theme music. It’s because he can take a punch, wear the bruise on his face, and then take several hundred more. And in no movie does he take more punches than Temple of Doom.
Beneath Pankot palace, Indy discovers the dangerous and racially insensitive Thuggee cult. The Thugs capture Indy force him to drink the Blood of Kai. After a night of writhing in agony, Indy’s old self vanishes, temporarily replaced by a mindless servant to the Thuggee. He can’t even recognize his friends and doesn’t hesitate before lowering them into canyon filled with lava.
Indy is the toughest archeology professor of them all. He’s an American hero whose main hobby is punching Nazis. It’s not easy to accept Indy falling victim to mumbo jumbo he doesn’t even believe in (even after Temple of Doom for some weird reason). But that’s what happens, and the iconic hat and whip don’t return until after his stomach gets torched.
6. Almost Famous – Almost Plane Crash
In near death experiences, it’s admirable to think fondly on the people in your life. But people aren’t always admirable. When the band Stillwater, their managers, and rising rock journalist nearly die in a plane crash, all anybody does is think the worst of each other.
Almost Famous follows William Miller while he tours with Stillwater. Soon after Stillwater upgrades the tour’s transportation, their new tour plane hits heavy winds. After a few extensions of good will, the self-centered musicians start airing grievances to each other. Volume and bitterness escalate as the storm worsens, and doesn’t end until the plane is in the clear. While the pilots in the cockpit rejoice, those in the cabin stew in an awkward silence.
Symbolically, this scene convinces us that pettiness never really goes away, even at peak fame. The famous are still the same person they were and have the same problems they had. This is also just a damn funny scene, in which Stillwater’s drummer comes out of the closet just before the plane steadies.
5. Independence Day – First Lady’s Death
In a movie where UFOs destroy historic monuments with laser beams, the craziest thing that could happen is somebody dying quietly in a hospital bed. So it goes with First Lady Marilyn Whitmore in Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day.
Crucially injured from the time aliens attack Earth, Marilyn Whitmore treks all the way to Area 51 aided by a kindly stripper. She finds Marilyn in a crashed helicopter and nurses her during the long journey. But by the time the First Lady arrives at her destination and reunites with President Thomas Whitmore, it’s too late. She dies from internal bleeding, right after what she knows will be the last farewell to her husband.
This sucks. Like really sucks. This poor woman travels through a vaporized wasteland, finally survives to see her husband and daughter again, and then dies. Emmerich deserves credit for sneaking a intimate scene into a worldwide disaster film. Marilyn dies with no regrets, giving her grieving husband the strength to deliver a world-unifying speech that still gives viewers chills.
4. Empire Strikes Back – Frozen in Carbonite
“I love you.” “I know.” Five words that still elicit teardrops after thirty-seven years. A romantic Dark Moment if ever there was one, Empire Strikes Back demolishes hearts beyond repair with the carbon freezing of Han Solo.
Betrayed by Lando and captured by Darth Vader, Han Solo has the misfortune of being Vader’s test subject in an procedure meant for Luke Skywalker. Leia Organa, only just registering her feelings for Han, is in now way ready to say goodbye to the rugged scoundrel. After keeping a wall between them for so long, Leia regrets never giving Han the chance to be with her. Deep down, she knows it was meant to be.
You’ve seen the movie. You know what happens. This Dark Moment isn’t followed by the happiest resolution, or at least not until immediately. But that’s exactly what makes Empire stand out. It’s a dark contrast to the first Star Wars while setting the stage for the third. Empire’s Dark Moment is so memorable because it eventually makes the original trilogy’s conclusion so satisfying.
3. The Dark Knight Rises – Bruce Wayne in Bane’s Prison
Bruce Wayne started this movie a limping, bearded mess. And while a shave and a high tech knee cast helps him for a time, it’s not long before Bane turns him into a bigger mess than he was before. A bigger mess than he’s every been in his time as Batman. And more bearded.
After taking over Gotham city and giving it back to the people, Bane carves out enough time to drop Wayne in the prison that forged the villain so many years ago. The Pit is a dark place with only one way out. To escape, one must climb a wall with sizable gabs and dubious holds. This is a pressing endeavor for a healthy man, which, at this point, Bruce Wayne is not.
Like Indiana Jones, Batman resonates because of his many years of taking punches. Unlike Star Wars, the Dark Knight trilogy saves it’s darkest hour for the last act of it’s final film. Wayne’s physical pain outweighs everything except his emotion pain, inflicted by news footage of Gotham in chaos.
2. Kill Bill Vol. 2 – The Superman Speech
A death can sometimes be the least disheartening moment in a movie’s final act. In fact, at time it can be the most uplifting part of a third act. That’s how it is for Kill Bill Vol. 2. We’ve waited two films to see Bill die, but he doesn’t go down with having one last word.
After putting their child to sleep, Bill injects Beatrix Kiddo with a truth serum, coaxing her into a talk about her fateful wedding. Before asking why Beatrix kept their daughter from him, Bill embarks on a suspenseful, classic Quentin Tarantino monologue. Using Superman for comparison, Bill tells Beatrix that no amount of running or hiding could change her. She is, was, and will forever be a killer. Bill puts Beatrix in a more complex position than before: by killing Bill, she’ll prove his point.
1. Anchorman – “Milk Was a Bad Choice”
Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy is an epic tragedy. It’s a fall from grace as momentous as anything Shakespeare ever wrote. The eminent newscaster sinks to an unimaginable low when he opts for an ill-advised beverage. It’s here where he utters a phrase that is now common speech for fans of this sleeper comedy hit (so everybody).
Burgundy’s scorned co-anchor and former lover, Veronica Corningstone, plots revenge on Burgundy after his repeated pranks. She preys at Burgundy’s instinct to read ev-ery-thing-uh on the teleprompter. Without even knowing it, Burgundy slanders the entire city of San Diego and gets fired for it. Now a pariah, Burgundy appeals to his news team when he passes them on the street. But they are forbidden to speak to him, even sweet Brick.
Ron Burgundy cries out in agony. A cry that echoes forever in the history of Dark Moments, and the history of film. No exaggeration.
What Dark Moments did we forget to include? Mention your favorites in the comments below!