Updated: October 15, 2011
You all remember that one movie in your childhood, which you watched when you knew you shouldn't and then suffered a decade of scar tissue on your soul. Like a bunny watching its own roadkill, you stared at the screen, powerless to look away. And so you marked the one movie that still gives you creeps to this very day.
Nevertheless, you are a better person because of that movie. Indeed, I want to talk you about movies that build character. It's not about horror, grisly documentary or shock. It's about the impression they leave on you. A forever mark, I like to call it. The kind of impression that can affect your career, your choices in life. Whether you rented the movie on purpose, seen it accidentally on TV or been forced to watch in by your school staff, it makes no difference, you got an extra free dose of character you didn't ask for. Follow me.
K-19: The Widowmaker
If you've ever considered a career in the nuclear physics business, then please don't watch this movie. The premise is simple. A bunch of Soviet sailors are stuck on board a nuclear submarine when its reactor decides to play games. And now they have to fix it, wearing pretty much bikini suits only. And so you get two hours of people going into the reactor chamber and fiddling with neutron radiation, plus a bit of drama and whatnot.
Whether K-19 is worth from the historical perspective is irrelevant. What makes the movie memorable is that you will never again disrespect the little particles and think twice before venturing near any radiation site. On the character-building scale of 1 to 10, The Widowmaker gets 7/10.
The Cassandra Crossing
This movies is about a bacterial plague infecting people on board a train. Sounds simple, which is what makes the movie all the more character-building. And then, you have 90 minutes of suspense, colored with moments like the train pulling over into Nuremberg, where soldiers in ABC suits seal the cars. And then, the train is redirected into Poland. My, oh, my.
So what about the name, you ask? Well, it's the name of an old bridge, which is supposed to collapse when the train passed over it. Wicked. You get a healthy dose of primal fear of disease, claustrophobia, despair, and political intrigue. The Cassandra Crossing will probably not affect your career like K-19, but you may find yourself suffering an extra nightmare or two. One of the more under-appreciated suspense films of the last decade. On the character-building scale, it gets 8.5/10.
One word: don't trust old ladies living on their own in secluded houses in the countryside. At least, that's what I learned from the movie, not having read the book. While all Stephen King's works focus on something that kills something else, from a lawnmower gone wicked via puppets on a chainsaw spree to aliens drinking human blood, the motif is the same. There's something innocent that starts giving you the creeps. All right, except aliens. And maybe puppets. But old, cuddly ladies? For sure.
There's nothing spectacular about the movie, it's a fairly standard Hollywood production, but the acting of the two main leads is just stellar. Maybe it's the focus on one man's suffering, maybe it's the cheerful, brilliant madness of his captor, but you get a spoonful of fresh character at the end of it. Never again will you trust people who compulsively arrange their collections of porcelain figurines. Grade: 6/10.
This is an almost forgotten horror movie from the 80s, National Geographic style. You get a super-intelligent ape going rogue on its masters. The very idea of a chimp, or a disguised orangutan, if you like it, being the villain of a movie, after watching them play as circus-like comic reliefs for nigh five decades before that, is diabolic. Or better yet, diabolik. The interaction between Jane, played by Elizabeth Shue, and the simian killers is disturbing. The atmosphere is one of a National Geographic documentary, Editor's cut, which makes it even more terrifying.
If you love chimps, this movie will come across as a bit of a shock. What people often forget is that chimps have fangs the length of your USB thumb drive, they are some six to eight times stronger than an adult male and they eat flesh. So when you look at them from his new perspective, you suddenly don't find them so fluffy any more. But it sure does build your character, one big solid brick, 7/10.
This is a very depressing, extremely brutal Western, about the Sand Creek Massacre. Yes, you guessed it, the movie is based on a real event, so don't expect any happy ending. But there's non-happy ending and there's Soldier Blue. In fact, the whole movie is just an excuse for the last ten minutes.
It's not the actual violence that makes the difference. There are tons of movies that measure their success by the pint of blood. But most you just simply disregard as foolish, even childish nonsense. Soldier Blue delivers a message, which is not easy to chew and swallow. I won't spoil it for you, but this should not be your top choice for the Saturday night all-family fun. Worst of all, like all great cinematic pieces, the end message is very clear; there's no end message. If you expected a resolution, a closure, perhaps a bit of hope, look elsewhere. When it comes to character building, this is a skyscraper, 9/10.
You do realize that all of the movies listed here are simple mainstream titles. This is a deliberate choice. There are many types of movies that are even more character-building, but then, the chances of you ever seeing them are virtually nil. For example, anything by Dusan Makavejev or Lars von Trier is automatically character-building and probably best left alone. Foreign movies, so to speak, are also automatically at least 50% in the serious brain business. Clown movies, a given.
There you go, the perfect way to spoil your evening with some high-class horror and sadness, plus leave a deep impression in your soul that will haunt you for years to come. I guess the impact is directly proportional to movie length divided over your watching age multiplied by shock factor, which depends on various elements like historic significance, innocent items turned bad, radiation, and suchlike.
One thing is sure, whether or not you appreciate these five movies as high-quality content, whether or not you find them annoying or just plain scary or even disturbing, whether or not you approve or sympathize with their message, they will sure build your character mightily. I'd say recommended, but in fact, best let your curiosity kill the cat on this one.
P.S. The submarine, the man in the NBC suit and the Cheyenne family images are in public domain.