Tension In Film – When It Works And When It Doesn’t

There are a lot of things that have to come together in order for a scene to create a good sense of tension. There are a bunch of scenes that do so well at creating suspense; think Sicario’s border crossing, the coin flip in No Country for Old Men, and the opening conversation of Inglorious Basterds. Now there’s an equal amount that do it poorly too, so we’re going to have a look at a few examples of tension in films, when it works and when it doesn’t.

I’m going to choose some films a little different to what I’d normally pick. We’re going to look at Steven Spielberg’s – no, not JawsJurassic Park. This is a film filled with adventure and tension. There are quite a few scenes where the suspense gets to almost unbearable levels. One, in particular, does it best in my mind.

Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern) is being guided through a compound to get the park’s power back on. Meanwhile, Alan Grant, Tim, and Lex are on the way back but their path is blocked by an electric fence. 

For me, tension often dissolves when characters make dumb decisions. Think of every horror movie cliché where someone is being stalked and they hide in the worst place possible. In Jurassic Park, even with the power off, finding a way around the fence would be the sensible idea. But a distant roar from the T-Rex forces the trio to decide climbing over as quickly as possible is the best course of action. The scene suddenly has a sense of urgency – they need to get over the fence before the Rex shows up.

Cut back to Sattler and she has begun to restore power to the facility. A huge vertical panel, each with its own button for each sector stands before her. One by one, she begins activating them. The camera pans down to the very last one and lingers. We now know that this is the one Alan and the kids are currently climbing.jp32-2Now there’s even more urgency in the scene and the tension amps up. First, the scene was about getting over the fence. Then it became about getting over before the T-Rex showed up. Now it’s about getting over and off before it becomes electrified again. The stakes are being continually raised as the scene progresses. We, the audience, shift forward ever so slightly in our seats. What’s going to happen?

Tim stumbles and freezes when an alarm sounds, a precursor to the power returning. The threat of the Rex, the alarm blaring, Alan and Lex yelling for Tim to move, Ellie moving down the power buttons – it’s all come together to create a scene of almost unbearable tension. Ellie moves further and further down, a visual countdown to the power returning. Juxtaposed with this is Tim starting his own verbal countdown as he prepares to leap from the fence.9sM8OUsing the rule of three, we expect Tim to count to three and leap from the fence, just missing the power turning back on. Or we expect the shock to come on three. Jurassic Park breaks the rule and the shock comes on two. Our collective mouths drop as Tim is blown from the fence in a shower of sparks. We get conflicted emotions – Ellie is happy to return power to the park, while Alan and Lex rush to a lifeless Tim.

Tension and suspense work when the characters involved feel like they’re in danger. When we see a ten-year-old child electrocuted and he actually stops breathing, it sets the stakes of the film even higher. This pays off in the infamous Raptors in the kitchen scene later on, as we feel the kids are really vulnerable.

Now let’s take a look at a scene where the tension just isn’t as effective. Funnily enough, it comes in a sequel to Jurassic Park, 2015’s Jurassic World.

After the Indominus Rex escapes its enclosure after the stupidity of Jurassic World’s employees, we follow two brothers, Zach and Gray, in a gyrosphere. Zach suggests going off road in an attempt to cheer Gray up, despite everyone being called back to the compound and Zach previously shown to be completely disinterested in the spectacle of the park.

They begin counting dinosaurs.

“Four,” says Zach, but Grey corrects him and says five, pointing to the reflection in the sphere of the I-Rex looming behind them.

They get knocked around the sphere a bit and the Indominus Rex is distracted for a bit by some Ankylosaurs. Of course, it is a phone call from the boys’ cell phone that brings the Rex back to their gyrosphere. There’s another horror movie cliché for you, damn cell phones. Don’t even get me started on how the cell network on the multibillion dollar installation only seems to work properly when the plot requires it.funandThe dinosaur attacks and we get a scene that mirrors one from Jurassic Park as the Indominus Rex plunges towards the glass of the sphere, just like the T-Rex did to the car with Tim and Lex in Jurassic Park. The brothers flee, the Indominus giving chase. They leap from the top of a waterfall, the Rex’s jaws snapping shut, just missing Zach.  In other words, boring. It’s even boring just to write the sequence down on paper when compared to the fence sequence in Jurassic Park.Jurassic World Indominus RexSo why does this scene lack any real tension? A lot of the issues in my mind lie with the screenplay. Involving characters into the action of a film is necessary, but there needs to be a good reason for them to be involved. Alan, Lex, and Tim were involved in the scene because of an unavoidable situation that began almost an hour ago in movie time. Zach and Grey get into their situation because they’re idiots who make stupid decisions. They ignore the call to return and begin driving off road…through a badly damaged fence… in a dinosaur theme park. Smart.

Almost immediately we aren’t feeling any sympathy for these characters because, well, why should we? The film needed the kids to be separate from the adults so Owen and Claire can go searching for them later on. The reason the kids are separated feels forced, and so the audience can’t empathize with them because of it. Remember when I said tension works when the characters feel like they’re in danger? Not for a single moment do we feel like these brothers are in harm’s way whatsoever. Why? I know that I’m not about to see a teenager eaten by a dinosaur.

In my opinion, Jurassic Park just handles moments of tension scores better than World does. The directing, screenplay and actors are damn near perfect in Park, while World sort of just stumbles along. Both are enjoyable enough films, but when we’re talking about tension in film, Jurassic Park is the one who reigns supreme.

What do you think? Does the suspense work well in both films or just one? What’s the tensest film you’ve seen? Sound off in the comments and on our Facebook page.