Top 10 High-Concept Films

Have you ever had a Lloyd Grossman cooking sauce? The makers of said cooking sauce commissioned a survey that yielded the following information: Britons consume only four staple meals – we cannot be bothered to cook anymore. According to the Guardian newspaper that would suggest we eat one of our favourite meals – that being spaghetti Bolognese – nearly three-thousand times in an average lifetime. Perhaps this says we just don’t like to cook, at least, extravagantly, or that our appetite is less adventurous than we might think. Or maybe we just like the same things. Maybe we want spaghetti Bolognese or chicken curry or sausage and mash every week. We are used to the formula that is tried and trusted, and comforting in its simplicity. We like the fact we know exactly what it is that we’re getting. We also know we’re going to enjoy it.

After I finished my Friday night meal of spaghetti in a Lloyd Grossman Bolognese sauce, I placed Samuel L. Jackson’s high-flying adventure “Snakes On A Plane” into my DVD player and hit play. After about the hour mark when Mr. Jackson is down in the belly of the plane trying to get the power back on, I had the distinct feeling I’d been here before. No, I hadn’t seen the film and just forgotten about it like some form of random-amnesia that forces the brain to forget average movies – it was the formula of it all that set the deja vu into overdrive. Well, that and the fact Jackson did the exact same thing in “Jurassic Park”. They even had walkie-talkies but of course in Spielberg’s dinosaur adventure the aforementioned king-of-cool lost his arm, or was that his body, before he had a chance to radio for help.

That got me thinking every film we see has a formula. It’s the same with literature, there are basically around eight stories that have been told in thousands of different ways with only character names, locations, and small details changed (in fact, some theorists believe there are only two main story structures, and others believe there is only one). In cinema the easiest and most identifiable formulas are seen in genres such as romance (the boy meets girl, there’s a conflict but they get together in the end), and slasher films (beautifully parodied in Wes Craven’s Scream – teenagers get killed in horrific ways by a seemingly unstoppable killer who likes sharp, metallic murder weapons but final girl defeats the evil in the end). However, the simplest formula comes from those movies that first busted blocks in 1975. With their one-line pitch, instant iconography, easy marketability and consumer appeal, and star-name, they introduced cinemagoers to bite-size (quite literally in many cases) movies. It was a gift from the television generation (Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Joe Dante, Robert Zemeckis) to American audiences. Welcome to the high-concept movie. They are easily recognizable and much like our formula-diets, easily digested.

So what is a high-concept film?

Good question because the whole idea of a high-concept genre of films is as much debated as whether or not Margot Kidder slept with every major film director of the 1970s. Many believe the pioneers were Spielberg and Lucas with “Jaws” and “Star Wars”, but the idea may well have been developed by Barry Diller and Michael Eisner at the ABC Network during the 1960s. It has also been argued that the high-concept movie dates further back to the likes of “Casablanca” and even Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane”. But this only applies to the idea of identifiable similarities within the films and not the commercial activities that only really became prominent in the late seventies and eighties.

true lies james cameron film

Essentially, the high-concept movie is one where the plot can be summed up in a sentence or two. It will have a simple title that tells you most or everything you need to know about the film, and be based on an idea that breeds easy-to-sell marketability. This includes everything from soundtracks and tie-in pop music (think P Diddy’s hit “Come With Me” for Godzilla), star vehicles and franchises, consumer goods, and dominant, impact-inspired themes (examples would be dinosaurs let loose on the public in “Jurassic Park”, or a meteor heading to earth that will destroy everything in “Armageddon” or “Deep Impact”).

It could be argued that the high-concept movie has lost its distinction simply because American cinema is now almost totally overrun by films that are made primarily on the basis of profitability. Indeed, has 21st century Hollywood become high-concept and then everything else? The most dominant Hollywood directors of the past twenty years would suggest this: Spielberg, Tony Scott, David Fincher, James Cameron, Stephen Sommers, Simon West, Michael Bay, all have based their careers around high-concept films.

In pandering to the needs of the average cinemagoer you get more people into theatres, more people talking about your movie, and therefore more sales. But maybe they are just pandering to that staple diet I was talking about earlier. Every high-concept movie includes very similar things in its formula. There’s a predominant theme of good versus evil which always sells, with the main character having to face a major problem that will always be as big as “Armageddon”, or a giant sea lizard type-thing attacking New York City, or dinosaurs running riot downtown, or a bus that will explode if it goes under fifty miles per hour. And they also feature the extraordinary in either the character or the situation, but one is so dominant it fights against the other to create obvious and seemingly unstoppable conflict.

It’s quite obvious why high-concept movies are so well liked because they deal with broad themes that are recognizable to any type of filmgoer, who can, whether they are male or female, black or white, English-speaking or not, identify with such themes. Lost love, war, fear, life and death, family, and honour, are all dominant within the films themselves. Examples would include Jaws (fear, death), Top Gun (honour), Pearl Harbor and Saving Private Ryan (war, honour). And in many cases a star-name is used to draw more popularity to the film Tom Cruise (Top Gun), Bruce Willis (Die Hard franchise), Tom Hanks (Saving Private Ryan).

Another reason high-concept films are easily digested is because they rely on plot over character. For example, “Snakes On A Plane” in its title describes the plot, the conflict and pretty much everything you need to know about the film. Essentially, that is what the film is about: snakes are let loose on a plane and the characters, including the hero, who in this case is an ordinary man faced with extraordinary circumstances, must survive. Saying ‘bomb on bus’, child alone at Christmas, lawyer who cannot lie for a day or man is forced to live same day over and over again, would instantly evoke the memory of “Speed”, “Home Alone”, “Liar, Liar”, and “Groundhog Day”. Yet, if I were to say struggling writer finds inspiration in his wayward but eccentric student, you might think of Michael Douglas in “Wonder Boys”, but I could have been referring to Billy Crystal in “Throw Momma From The Train”. The reason for the ambiguity is because these films are character-based rather than plot-based and the significance is less obvious. The high-concept movie has to have an immediate significance to an audience so “Snakes On A Plane” works in the same way “Armageddon”, “Eight Legged Freaks”, “Speed”, and “Twister” do. There is an immediate idea of plot, theme, and conflict.

TOP 10 HIGH-CONCEPT FILMS

The following films aren’t necessarily the finest ever made. Although there are some very good movies in the list, as well as a couple of classics, this top 10 looks at those films that perfectly encapsulate what high-concept is about.

high concept films

10. Armageddon (Bay, 1998)
Big money? $451 million
Big star? Bruce Willis
What does the titles tell me? World’s end
Good against evil? Man against nature
What other high-concept movie is almost exactly the same? Deep Impact (Leder, 1998)

9. Twister (de Bont, 1996)
Big money? $495 million worldwide
Big star? Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt
What does the titles tell me? Colloquialism meaning cyclone or tornado. Dangerous weather – suggestive of storm chasers.
Good against evil? Man against nature
What other high-concept movie is almost exactly the same? Night of the Twisters (Bond, 1996)

8. Speed (de Bont, 1994)
Big money? $350 million
Big star? Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock
What does the titles tell me? Too fast, what is going so fast, deadly speed.
Good against evil? Man against machine against villain
What other high-concept movie is almost exactly the same? Speed 2 (de Bont, 1997)

7. Turner and Hooch (Spottiswoode, 1989)
Big money? Not bad, could have been better $120 million worldwide
Big star? Tom Hanks
What does the titles tell me? Poster gives detail to names – man and dog
Good against evil? Man against dog against villains
What other high-concept movie is almost exactly the same? K-9 (Daniel, 1989)

6. True Lies (Cameron, 1994)

Big money? $364 million
Big Star? Arnold Schwarzenegger
What does the titles tell me? Contradiction but what are these lies
Good against evil? Man against nuclear bomb
What other high-concept movie is almost exactly the same? Commando (Lester, 1985)

5. Beverly Hills Cop (Brest, 1984)
Big money? $316 million
Big star? Eddie Murphy
What does the titles tell me? There’s something special or unique about cops in Beverly Hills
Good against evil? Cops and robbers – good cops versus villains
What other high-concept movie is almost exactly the same? Metro (Carter, 1997)

4. Jurassic Park (Spielberg, 1993)
Big money? Definitely – $915 million worldwide
Big star? Jeff Goldblum
What does the title tell me? Play on theme park – ‘Jurassic’ has connotations of the dinosaur era. Dinosaurs and theme park rides…hmm…who is asking for disaster then?
Good against evil? Man against dinosaur
What other high-concept movie is almost exactly the same? Alien Vs. Predator (Anderson, 2004)

3. Home Alone (Columbus, 1990)
Big money? Oh yes – $533 million worldwide
Big star? Not quite, Macaulay Culkin became a star afterward. Joe Pesci is the villain though
What does the title tell me? Alone at home doesn’t sound too menacing unless you’re a child
Good against evil? Child and big house versus two inept villains
What other high-concept movie is almost exactly the same? Home Alone 2 (Columbus, 1992)

2. Top Gun (Scott, 1986)
Big money? $345 million worldwide
Big star? Tom Cruise
What does the title tell me? One who is the best at what he does
Good against evil? Good American fighter pilots against bad soviet fighter pilots
What other high-concept movie is almost exactly the same? Iron Eagle (Furie, 1986)

1. Jaws (Spielberg, 1975)

jaws spielberg film high concept


Big money?
$470 million worldwide
Big star? Just three of them – Roy Schneider, Richard Dreyfuss, and Robert Shaw
What does the title tell me? Watch out for a big mouth with big teeth!
Good against evil? Man against angry shark
What other high-concept movie is almost exactly the same? Piranha (Dante, 1978)

About the Author
Editor of Top 10 Films, Dan Stephens is usually found pondering his next list. An unhealthy love of 1980s Hollywood sees most of his top 10s involving a time-travelling DeLorean and an adventurous archaeologist going by the name Indiana.

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  1. Sir Phobos Reply

    I quite enjoyed this. It’s interesting to think about how many movies we enjoy are just variations on a theme. I don’t buy for a second that there is only one story told different ways. Whoever theorized that sucks. But the general idea holds.

    One point of contention for me:

    I don’t think the majority of American movies are high-concept. If you want to look purely at box-office numbers through each week, sure. Probably most of them are high-concept. But thee are loads of other, more character-driven movies out there.

    I like both kinds of movies. I’m not always in the mood for something like Adaptation. Sometimes I want War of the Worlds. There’s definitely a limit to the stupidity I can take in high-concept movies, though. I hate some of the biggest directors that tend to focus on making them.

    Oh…Commando is nothing like True Lies, and AvP is nothing like Jurassic Park. Just throwing that out there.

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