The Best Movie Premises Ever. How Many Have You Seen?

You’ll remember every one of these movies. They’ve got the best movie premises of all time. How many have you seen? Leave a comment.

 

You’re sitting at work waiting to get home so you can put Netflix on and put your feet up.

Almost as though they were prophets, years ago a group of talented writers knew that you would need entertainment. So they started typing away, trying to craft masterpieces. Many of those works got thrown in the bin. They weren’t original. They weren’t intriguing. They weren’t good enough stories to grip viewers.

But then there were the moments when inspiration struck, moments when an idea entered a writer’s mind and set off a nuclear explosion level of inspiration. Because when a writer hits on a damn good idea, they know it.

Those ideas are what writers call premises. In layman’s terms a premise is just an idea, the basic foundation of a narrative yet to be written. But to a writer a premise is a lot more than that.

Every since Aristotle wrote the Poetics writers have been debating and arguing how to create good fiction, whether for a book, a movie, a game, you name it.

Those writers are still at war today. They rarely agree. Between sips of coffee they raise their voices at one another, one saying that characters are everything, the other saying that what really matte is dialogued.

Like your mum and dad (well, my mum and dad anyway), those writers never agree on much. But they do agree on one thing. They agree that the premise is the single most important aspect of any story, whether that’s a novel, screenplay or game, the premise is everything.

Because if you don’t have the right idea, the right foundation to build the rest of your work on, you’re going to end up with some lousy wooden hut that any old wolf can huff and puff and blow down. And God knows film critic like to blow things down.

Get the premise right and you’ve gone a very long way towards creating a great story. And you’ve also got the key component of your marketing. Because really, even if you advertised a movie with a great premise, like Jurassic Park, on its premise alone, people would still see it. “T-Rex takes on humans in a prehistoric Disneyland.” Uh. Yeah. I will push my grandmother of a cliff to see that. Well, I won’t because my nan is dead (rest in peace, nan, love ya).

But anyway, moving on from my nan, a movie’s premise is everything. Take a look at my list of the best movie premises of all time. At the end you’ll probably proclaim, “Damn. Those screenwriters were blood creative geniuses.” And they are.

 

Jurassic Park: There is simply no flipping way that you could create a list of the best movie premises without including Jurassic Park.

Michael Crichton’s premise is simply sublime. Honestly, writers like me would stab each other in the face to get hold of a premise like this.

Obviously you know what the premise of Jurassic Park is. A scientist discovers how to bring dinosaurs back to life. He uses his knowledge to create Jurassic Park, a prehistoric theme park like Disneyland but where the hosts eat the guests.

Crichton then proceeds to turn his premise into a theme about how man should stop meddling so much with the natural order. But, no one cares about that. People care about the ultimate battle: dinosaurs versus men. And what a battle it is.

Interestingly, most critics and writers agree that Michael Crichton is not the best writer. His prose are stuffy and lack flair or poetic flow. His characters rarely ignite audiences and are often quite formulaic. But next to no one can argue that Michael Crichton is one of the best premise writers of all time. Congo, The Terminal Man, Sphere… they all had amazing premises.

Personally I would eat my own face to get hold of Michael Crichton’s imagination for one day. The man’s an idea genius, a creative vortex. And Amy in Congo is so adorable. Honestly, an ape that communicates using body language and a Stephen-King style computerised voice. Marvelous.

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Citizen Kane

Premises come in all different shapes and sizes. Some premises are epic, set in space, involving Galactic Empires and Rebel forces. Others are love stories that melt your heart. But the absolute best premises? Those are the ones that distill the essence of man into a single, concise idea and then present it for your viewing pleasure.

One such movie is the epic Citizen Kane, a movie that everyone in the world should be forced to watch because it features the best cinematography of any movie ever, with the possible exception of Barry Lyndon and Days Of Heaven.

Put simply, Citizen Kane takes the camera and transmogrifies it from a simple entertainment device to a portal through which life is filtered into symbolic brilliance. Watch Citizen Kane and you will realise how severely limited the average 21st Century movie is.

But all that cinematography is worth nothing without a damn good idea to go behind it.

Charles Foster Kane is a newspaper magnate who is dying. A reporter is assigned to decipher Kane’s dying word Rosebud. An epic journey begins in which the newspaper reporter tried to solve the mystery, journeying through Kane’s amazing, successful, powerful life. And at the end he discovers what Rosebud means.

You either know what it means or you don’t, and if you somehow haven’t seen Citizen Kane yet I don’t want to spoilt it for you.

But to take such a powerful man and to make his final word meaning something so seemingly trivial yet so personal and symbolic… next to Hamlet, it is arguably the best answer to the question “What is it to be human?”

 

The Notebook

Love stories are both the easier and hardest stories to write. On the one hand, they’re incredibly easy because they are so universal. Everyone wants love, so everyone can appreciate a love story. But because they are easy, millions of writers have written them, and the genre is so saturated that trying to find a unique premise for a romance is next to impossible. Needle haystack kinda deal.

Creating a unique premise in the romance genre is an Everest of a challenge. It’s easier solving a Rubik’s Cube than getting a good premise for a romance that has actually not been done before.

But here comes certifiable genius Nicholas Sparks. And at sight of him I bow my head down. Because here is a man who somehow took the most saturated genre in all of storytelling and created an idea, a premise, that has never ever been done before.

The premise of The Notebook flips romance on its head. At its heart, it features a fairly standard love story about teenage love. But through an Einsteinian imagination, Nicholas Sparks flipped that teenage romance on its heard by having old man Duke tell Allie, who has senile dementia, the story of their love so she can remember it for just a few moments.

This premise is like the sweetest song a bird could sing, it’s like Shakespeare’s best sonnet (number 65, if you’re wondering). It brings a tear to the eye every time. And, guys, if you’re wondering what movie to show your girlfriend to get her in the mood for love… this one.

Movie premises have never been more beautiful than this.

 

 

Star Trek

There are some ideas that struck like liquid gold when they first hit the cinema but which have been dilute in time like oil in a body of water. Star Trek is one such idea.

One of the best TV / movie premises of all time, Star Trek naturally needs absolutely no introduction. These were, and still are, the voyages of the US Enterprise, it’s continuing mission still continuing today thanks to the blinding brilliance of its original concept.

What makes Star Trek one of the best premises of all time? The fact that it so perfectly represents the mystery and infinity of space.

There are countless space movies that take the concept of space and turn it into a futuristic universe occupied by countless species. And true, the universe of Stark Trek is densely and variously populated. But the movies always showed the isolation of space, the mysticism.

Of course the premise of Star Trek has evolved over the years, but the original movies so perfectly capture that feeling of being one small part of a huge universe, the way you feel when you head out your front door and immerse yourself in nature, when you’re reminded of just how small and how irrelevant you are.

Star Trek is the most fondly remembered sci-fi TV shows and movies of all time for a reason, and a lot of that reason comes down to the original premise. Sure, we might take space themes for granted these days, but when Star Trek first hit the big screen it was a unique, original and inspiring concept indeed.

 

 

Star Wars

Continuing the space theme, it would be remiss of us not to include Star Wars in this list of the best movie premises ever. The epic space battle between good and evil inspired millions and made me put on Chewbacca masks and growl like a Wookie at the cinema when I watched The Force Awakens.

Star Wars has grown to become a worldwide phenomenon. But its origins are far humbler, its premise taking inspiration not from grandiose movies but from a more traditional place: fairy tales and pantomimes.

For the real genius of George Lucas, in terms of storytelling prowess, is not the fact that he chose to create a huge space battle. It’s the fact that he took the most enormous of concepts—the sci-fi war—and designed the story around the concepts of fairy tales and pantomimes.

You might think Star Wars is a sci-fi adventure, even though it doesn’t particularly indulge itself in the fictional use of science. You might think it’s not a sci-fi but a fantasy. You’d have a good point. The spiritual aspects of the force and the coming-of-age character development of Luke Skywalker do more closely resemble fantasy narratives.

In truth, Star Wars is neither sci-fi nor fantasy. It’s a pantomime set in space.

Take Jack And The Beanstalk and set it in space and you’d have a story very close to Star Wars. Both Jack and Luke live on a farm. Both receive seemingly magical gifts, Jack the magical bean, Luke the droids. Both ascends into the stars. Both fight in a castle in the sky. The similarities go on.

There’s a reason why Star Wars’ characters are so iconic. They’re timeless archetypes. Take a look at any of Star Wars’ characters, from the farm boy to the princess to the dark prince Darth Vader, and you will find characters that have been in fairy tales for hundreds of years.

Why is Stars Wars one of the best movie premises ever? Because it’s premise isn’t “a war in space”. It’s “a classical fairy tale takes place in a futuristic universe.”

 

 

The Truman Show

Jim Carrey was once a brilliant comedian who made you laugh your ass off. And you never knew that behind all that comedy he was also a brilliant serious actor. Then came The Truman show and your mind was boggled at how truly effing exceptional this comedic talent was.

But if Jim Carrey was important to the success of The Truman show, his importance is nought compared to the brilliance of writer Andrew Niccol, who gave the world one of the best movie premises of all time.

The Truman show is about Truman, a man whose life if lived in a reality TV show that he doesn’t know about. Truman begins to learn the truth and fights for escape. And if you weren’t cheering for Truman when he rode that boat out to sea to find the exit to his show, the exit to his personal world, then you are made of stone. Such character development merits enthusiasm issued in tears and cheers.

The Truman show is without question one of the most original and best movie premises of all time. And even today it still stands as a truly unique movie.

What makes The Truman’s premise so exceptional is that it takes an age old theme, a man who is sick of his personal world and longs to escape, and so perfectly transplants that character development into a theme of reality TV shows. Mind-bogglingly brilliant.

Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind

Jim Carrey wasn’t just blessed to be a bloody good actor (albeit one who has struggled with clinical depression throughout his life). He’s also been fortunate to have been handed the keys to some of the best actor vehicles of all time.

Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind is the second time Jim Carrey’s been mentioned on this list. But such is the majesty of this screenplay that is warrants its inclusion.

In Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind, Clementine visits a specialist to have all memories of her ex-boyfriend removed from her mind. Joel learns this and decides to do the same. The movie proceeds to follow Clementine and Joel’s relationship backwards through the deletion of his memories.

Many people will tell you that Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a romance. Wrong. Just because a movie involves a story of love doesn’t make it a romance. Romance movies are about the obtaining and development of love. Eternal Sunshine is in many ways the opposite.

Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind is actually a psychological drama. What makes it a psychological drama and not a romance is, a) that it isn’t about finding or developing love, and b) that the true narrative arc of the story is about why Joel does not want to lose his memories.

By taking what would be a romantic narrative, flipping on its head, running it backwards, and divulging into the preciousness of memories and how they pertain to the constitution of character, Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind became one of the best movie premises ever.

 

 

Avatar

No story can be removed from the time, space and social environment it was written in. Avatar is one such movie. Written at a time when environmentalism and global warming were all over the front pages, James Cameron (genius) took the basic principle of why nature matters and transplanted into what is yet again wrongly referred to as fantasy.

There is next to nothing scientific about Avatar. James Cameron’s screenplay isn’t written around the possibilities of science (except for the actual Avatar body). The character development isn’t about science either. A deeply spiritual movie about a man who learns the value of nature, Avatar is pure fantasy.

The story, briefly, is about a crippled man who is assigned to study a species native to the world of Pandora. He will do this by being transplanted into an avatar of the alien’s body.

All this, however, is secondary to the underlying premise of the movie. In a nutshell, the premise of Avatar is: When forced to live in the wild a man discovers the irreplaceable value of nature.

The premise is so poignant partly because it came at a time when the subject of environmentalism was so heated. And also because of the theme of a human having a possible second life in which we are not confined by society but made one with nature.

Avatar’s premise is spellbinding. No wonder it became the highest grossing movie of all time.

 

 

 

Paul Harrison

Paul M Harrison is an entertainment journalist, novelist, and blogger, and a specialist in the theory of storytelling. Paul Harrison can be contacted via his personal website or on Twitter or Facebook.

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