“Do you know what happens to a toad when it is struck by lightning? The same thing that happens to everything else!”
We’ve all encountered them over our years of movie-watching: lines of dialogue so terrible, they elicit both groans and outright scorn from anyone with a hint of taste. It might seem impossible to assemble a list of the ‘Worst Movie Lines of All Time’ – as films seem to pursue that prize on an annual basis – yet movie fans won’t have to look far to see several lists claiming a select few films and quotations as universal offenders to the written word.
But that got us thinking: do bad lines pop up more often than usual in downright bad movies? Or are movie fans simply willing to overlook some truly terrible lines of dialogue if the surrounding film is a success? With that question in mind, we’ve steeled our resolve – and swallowed our pride – to point out some truly terrible lines in otherwise “great” movies (ex.: the infamously bad Storm/Toad quote from X-Men).
The entries on this list are generally acknowledged as anything but despicable in terms of writing, and while they remain close to our hearts, we think you’ll agree that these 10 Terrible Lines in Great Movies have earned some criticism.
10. Jurassic Park (1993)
“Your investors, whom I represent, are deeply concerned. Forty-eight hours from now, if they’re not convinced, I’m not convinced. We’ll shut you down, John.“
For those who may not recall every line of dialogue in Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park (what are you doing with your life?), this line is credited to Donald Gennaro (Martin Ferrero), the lawyer sent along with the movie’s ‘dinosaur experts’ to determine the safety of the titular park. But for those who stop and think about the warning’s wording – if two days pass without distant investors being convinced, the man on the ground… won’t be? – the flawed logic becomes clear.
The pronoun-filled line is one of the most cited among fans as being confusing at best, and an outright mistake at worst. But the almost imperceptible flick of the pen in Gennaro’s hand reveals the “they” in his sentence to be not “the investors,” but the experts riding in the Jeep ahead. The terrible wording butchers the line entirely; if it were clearer, then the later scenes of Grant, Sattler and Malcolm being unconvinced while Gennaro saw only profits would be twice as interesting. As it stands, it’s a line best ignored in a movie famed for its quotable monologues.
9. North By Northwest (1959)
“I never discuss love on an empty stomach.”
“You’ve already eaten.”
“But you haven’t.”
In the world of ‘mistaken identity’ thrillers, there is none more iconic than Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest. While stars Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint earn the most attention, screenwriter Ernest Lehman deserves special praise. The acclaimed writer’s name may be unknown to younger readers, but his work on The Sound of Music, Sweet Smell of Success, Sabrina and more is above criticism. And for North by Northwest, he came up with an exchange racy enough to send 1959 crowds into widespread bouts of ‘the vapors.’
The original line had the lovely young actress informing protagonist ‘Roger Thornhill’ that she “never made love on an empty stomach,” later clarifying it was his empty stomach she was referring to. That’s the blend of romance, sex appeal, wit and shock value that Hollywood screenwriters can only dream of today – and that 1959 censors wanted no part of. So what audiences got instead was the exchange seen above; completely meaningless.
8. Gladiator (2000)
“Why is he still alive?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well he shouldn’t be alive. He vexes me… I’m terribly vexed.”
The title of Ridley Scott’s action-packed Gladiator may imply an ‘unrefined’ film, but it was strong enough to not only make Russell Crowe a household name, but cement him as equal parts action hero and legitimate Thespian. But while Crowe was the star, the character fans loved to hate – with good reason – was Joaquin Phoenix’s turn as Emperor Commodus, the film’s antagonist.
We’re no fans of simple villains, so were pleased to see the ‘sibling rivalry’ and jealousy behind the Commodus/Maximus animosity that drove the overall story. As for Phoenix’s performance, well… audiences were meant to despise him, so mission accomplished. Then came this:
There’s plenty to hate about the above sequence – from the Moulin-Rouge-esque camera sweep to Phoenix’s delivery – but the line left awkwardly suspended in midair is a sign of something far worse. To this point, audiences had revelled in their hatred of Commodus, a spoiled and self-involved brat. Stating that a man’s pulse “vexed” him makes his arrogance clear. The added emphasis reinforces the audience’s belief that he is a whiny, obnoxious oaf – but confirms that the filmmakers know it too. Getting an audience to despise a character is an achievement, but confirming it to be your intention (and not trusting viewers to get it) ruins the magic.
7. Superman: The Movie (1978)
“Can you read my mind?”
Since the power of nostalgia has made criticizing Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie nearly impossible, we expect defenders for this entry. Even so, re-watching the film is inevitable, so more and more young comic book fans are bound to encounter this truly baffling sequence. Donner’s original plan for the film’s love theme “Can You Read My Mind” was to have it performed by his own Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) in a musical number. Unfortunately(?) the decision was made to work the song into the midnight flight between Lane and Superman (Christopher Reeve) with Kidder reciting the lyrics instead.
To get an accurate sense of Kidder’s delivery (akin to a grade school book report), enjoy:
The chemistry between Kidder and Reeve make the sequence work better than it could have, and voice over narration used to be far more common than it is today. But Kidder’s delivery is simply too deadpan to work, and the unexpected addition of an internal, detached monologue defies logic. She couldn’t have read excerpts from the article she was writing in her head while flying next to her new “friend from another star”?
6. There Will Be Blood (2007)
“I’m your brother… from another mother.”
Most movie critics or enthusiasts would describe writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson (Magnolia, The Master) as a somewhat enigmatic creator; far more interested in achieving a singular vision than pleasing mass audiences. The approach has worked, with leading actors and actresses in his film nailing down Academy Award nominations like clockwork. In the case of There Will Be Blood it was Daniel Day-Lewis who won accolades – but it was Kevin J. O’Connor who stole the spotlight for one truly troubled line of dialogue.
Audiences barely had time to recognize O’Connor (“is that the guy from The Mummy?”) before he made his relationship to Daniel Plainview clear: he was the main character’s brother – “from another mother.” Anyone under the age of sixty should know why this line seemed as out of place in the period film as a cell phone, but for whatever reason, it wasn’t addressed by Anderson. Normally we would say that the writer’s unwillingness to think of how his work would be viewed by the masses is a good thing. In this case, a revealing statement became a punchline – and a timeless one, at that.
5. Titanic (1997)
“A woman’s heart is a deep ocean of secrets.”
Of all the writer/directors in the world, few are as successful – or divisive – as James Cameron. He’s had hits – the first two Terminator films, Aliens, and The Abyss - but few films are as universally mocked as the highly-quotable Titanic. Lines like “I’m the king of the world” or “I’ll never let go, Jack” are regularly recited with disdain, but in the context of the overall film, they make far more sense than their popularity in pop-culture implies. And they’re certainly not the most egregious offenders in the film.
It’s the insight into the nature of women, delivered in the voice of the elderly Rose (Gloria Stuart) that stands out most. Although the line may shed light on Cameron’s view of women (he is on his fifth marriage, for the record), it is so on the nose that it seems worthy evidence of those seek to discredit his writing abilities. Stating women are secretive while making not one, but two plays on the name of the film’s ‘Heart of the Ocean’ necklace? That’s the real tragedy.
4. Batman Begins (2005)
“Have you finally learned to do what is necessary?”
“I won’t kill you. But I don’t have to save you.”
Director Christopher Nolan and his Dark Knight Trilogy set out to adapt the Batman mythology for modern audiences, but managed to keep much of the source material intact along the way. The efforts paid off for fans and the studio, even if the scripts have had a handful of missteps along the way – especially when placing Batman Begins alongside the later films (for instance: setting out to make criminals terrified of bats, before abandoning the idea completely).
But no line sums up one of our biggest issues better than the one above. In the film’s climax, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) informs his murderous mentor Ra’s al Ghul (Liam Neeson) that he will never become an executioner, killing in the name of a ‘greater good’ – before leaving him to die. Fans could be outraged given how false the twist is in regards to the Caped Crusader’s morals, but a new Batman (Ben Affleck) will emerge soon, so this bad memory is already fading into the background.
3. Spider-Man (2002)
“Deliver us– [Green Goblin bursts through wall] — DELIVER US…”
“Finish it! Finish it!”
Every movie fan knows that director Sam Raimi has a love of eccentric and over-the-top dialogue and action, and mainstream audiences got their first mass exposure to his style in the form of Spider-Man. Contrary to what some might have thought, the result was a resounding success. And when Norman Osborn (Willem Dafoe) had his table manners checked by Spidey’s own Aunt May (Rosemary Harris), it was clear he would have the last laugh.
Unfortunately, the Green Goblin’s revenge was out of control in its campiness, even by Raimi’s standards. A quick reminder for those who have forgotten:
The modern comic book blockbuster may have Raimi and Spider-Man to thank, but no film has come close to being as cringe-worthy in its ‘heightened’ villains as Green Goblin. The fact that this exchange ended up exactly as Raimi intended proves that even the most inspired minds occasionally cross the line.
2. Man of Steel (2013)
“They say it’s all downhill after the first kiss.”
“I think that only applies if you’re kissing a human.”
There are few tasks more daunting than re-imagining a global icon, and even if Christopher Nolan helped steer the way with his Dark Knight films, director Zack Snyder was courting scorn on a whole new level with Man of Steel. In the end, the cues taken from Nolan’s Batman universe were clear, but Superman’s origin story actually ended up as its own breed of action, drama, and humor. But some influences were clearer – and more flawed – than others.
For the unfamiliar, suffice to say that Lois Lane (Amy Adams) had an interesting reaction to barely surviving the decimation of Metropolis. A kiss from a hero after saving the day is nothing new, but this line stuck out so terribly, the overwhelming cheesiness of the sentiment was the least of its problems. Henry Cavill may have tried to save it with a comeback of his own, and it shares DNA with Nolan’s brand of Bat-humor, but in the Man of Steel universe, it’s completely out of place.
1. The Matrix (1999)
“He’s… a machine.”
A taste was all it took for The Matrix‘s Neo (Keanu Reeves) to realize the benefits of instantly downloading knowledge into a human brain. When Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) comes calling for an update on his progress – and an impromptu fistfight – Neo’s operator explains that Neo has had no sleep, no food, and no time off; in other words, he is “a machine.”
To a modern audience, that metaphor makes perfect sense, as athletes, geniuses, or simply devoted employees are often equated to machines for their unwavering stamina. But in the world of The Matrix, Tank (Marcus Chong) is likening Neo to the enemy currently seeking to wipe humanity from the Earth (imagine Raiders of the Lost Ark containing a scene in which Marion Ravenwood claimed Indiana Jones was “a real Nazi when it comes to archaeology”). Luckily Morpheus took Tank’s meaning, instead of immediately attacking the unconscious Neo, as he likely should have.
Bad movie lines will continue to appear just as often as bad movies are made, but we hope this list has shown that even the greatest and most beloved films can have their rough spots. These poorly-conceived or confusing lines certainly didn’t sour the overall film, but it’s worth remembering that just as great writing can’t save a doomed project, poor writing doesn’t have to condemn one.
Follow Andrew on Twitter @andrew_dyce.