A little while back, we covered some of the dumbest movie premises and whether or not they worked. But while Hollywood can sometimes make even the most ridiculous ideas work, that doesn’t mean that they aren’t capable of great ideas, too.
Whatever your own personal criteria for exactly what constitutes a good premise might be, it’s likely that you can name at least a few without having to delve into the recesses of your memory, because a truly great story comes with a hook – something that grabs us and refuses to let go, even long after the credits have rolled.
Just because a story has a lot of promise, however, this doesn’t always make for a brilliant film. Even the best of stories can get lost in the telling, and sometimes, the execution falls far short of the original premise’s potential.
We’ve compiled 8 great movie premises and taken a quick look at what it is that makes them so good, as well as delivering a verdict on whether or not the end result was able to meet our collective expectations.
8 – The Prestige (2006)
Premise: Two stage magicians in Victorian London develop a bitter rivalry, finding themselves locked in a fatal game of one-upmanship as each strives to develop the greatest illusion.
Based on the novel of the same name by Christopher Priest, this mystery-thriller stars Christian Bale, Hugh Jackman and Michael Caine, and with director Christopher Nolan at the helm, it proved to be a resounding success with critics and at the box office.
Priest should obviously be credited with the premise, although Nolan took a fair few creative liberties with the source material. Really though, the hook lies in the historical setting and the use of magicians as protagonists; there’s an inherent promise of deception that comes with the use of illusions as plot devices, and it’s no great stretch to imagine that the movie will be filled with misdirection, clever editing and even cleverer storytelling.
Verdict: The Prestige delivers on its promise in resounding fashion, with Bale and Jackman selling their characters’ bitter rivalry with remarkable performances throughout, and the vein of mystery running through the film is more than enough to keep you perched precariously at the edge of your seat.
7 – Click (2006)
Premise: A hard-working architect and somewhat neglectful family man acquires a magical TV remote that allows him to control reality.
Starring Adam Sandler, Kate Beckinsale and Christopher Walken, Click is a singularly odd movie, but the premise is solid: if you could skip through unwanted moments in time, would you? Should you?
While many critics lambasted Click for its borrowing of plot devices from other movies, the fact remains that its central premise has undeniable potential.
The decision to make Click a comedy was a little odd, though. The slapstick, gross-out humour does take a fair amount away from the plot’s more emotional moments, although Sandler delivers a solid enough performance to bring more than a few audience members to tears before the movie’s end, so it certainly wasn’t all bad.
Verdict: Click would have worked better as a family-drama, with Sandler’s trademark humour played down. It wasn’t without its high points, but it wasn’t able to live up to its exciting premise.
6 – The Truman Show (1998)
Premise: An unassuming man is, without his knowledge, living his life inside a TV show in which he’s the star, surrounded by actors. Outside the studio, he’s the world’s biggest celebrity.
The Truman show is hard to lock into any particular genre. It is all at once funny, poignant, dramatic and thought-provoking, and just the briefest of summaries is enough to sell practically anyone on the movie’s story.
Jim Carrey delivers an understated, thoughtful performance as the eponymous Truman Burbank, which perfectly sells the movie’s uniquely fascinating premise.
Verdict: The Truman Show works on practically every level, delivering every ounce of emotion and enjoyment that you could possibly hope for.
5 – Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (2017)
Premise: Five unlikely young friends find themselves sucked into a video game, where they are represented by a set of larger-than-life avatars. Using the range of new skills at their disposal, they must beat the game in order to survive.
1995’s Jumanji was based loosely on a children’s book by Chris Van Allsburg, and this 2017 sequel took the original premise and ran with it.
Turning the infamously dangerous board game and having it evolved into a retro video game console was something of a stroke of genius: Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle suddenly appealed to not only fans of the original movie, but a whole younger generation of moviegoers, too.
With Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan and Jack Black starring, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle ensured it had enough star power to draw even more of an audience, and it was a massive financial and critical success. Black and Hart ensured there was plenty of comedy, and Johnson and Gillan handled the impressive action sequences, and Welcome to the Jungle had something to offer for fans of every genre, all while remaining mostly family-friendly.
Verdict: A surprisingly fresh take on a popular movie that was in turn based on a book, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle was able to tap into practically every demographic out there.
4 – Bruce Almighty (2003)
Premise: A world-weary, perpetually unlucky reporter complains that God isn’t doing his job properly. God decides to let him try his hand at omnipotence.
Religion is a difficult thing to incorporate into film. It usually creates so much discourse that many filmmakers steer clear entirely, although back in 2003, Tom Shadyac directed this Jim Carrey religious comedy.
Being all-powerful isn’t easy to wrap our human brains around, so the promise of seeing a regular man being given Godlike powers is certainly an intriguing one.
Unfortunately, Bruce Almighty is predictable, and doesn’t really offer anything much to the discussion it intended to create. Instead, the movie’s message boils down to the old adage that God works in mysterious ways, and it’s not our place to question faith.
Verdict: Bruce Almighty is far too light-hearted and says far too little to fully capitalise on its solid, thought-provoking premise.
3 – Edge of Tomorrow (2014)
Premise: Thrown into a war against invading aliens without any combat experience, one man finds himself stuck in a time loop – and realises he can use it to win the war.
Based on the Japanese novel All You Need Is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka, Edge of Tomorrow stars Tom Cruise as Major William Cage, a slippery, fairly unpleasant public relations officer pressed into combat by his superiors.
While Edge of Tomorrow might sound more than a little Groundhog Day, what sets it apart is its sci-fi action, and its willingness to explore the nature of the time loop that Cage finds himself in.
The idea of a battle playing out in the same way over and over (with just one single time-looping variable) lends itself brilliantly to the big screen, and makes for epic, exciting and engaging viewing.
Verdict: Edge of Tomorrow uses Sakurazaka’s solid story as a jumping-off point, utilising both its science fiction and action in equal parts to ensure that it delivers on its extraordinary promise.
2 – Split (2016)
Premise: One man with 24 very different and distinct personalities kidnaps and imprisons three teenage girls.
Split‘s premise is one that hinges entirely on a single actor’s ability to deliver a staggering range all in the space of one movie. Luckily for director M. Night Shyamalan, he was able to secure the truly outstanding James McAvoy, who delivered one of the finest, most disturbing performances in living memory.
Split‘s risky, singularly ambitious premise was enough to fascinate a massive global audience, and the movie’s status as a “stealth sequel” was enough to make fans of Shyamalan’s movies go back and rewatch for any other hints of links to Unbreakable. From start to finish, every aspect of Split was a great idea, and it was expertly marketed with an emphasis on McAvoy’s uniquely unsettling performance.
Verdict: Split relied heavily on McAvoy, whose ability to bring 24 different characters to life was make or break for this supervillian origin story. Luckily, McAvoy delivered, and Split is every bit as tense, awe-inspiring and horrifying as it sounds.
1 – Stranger than Fiction (2006)
Premise: An introverted IRS agent begins hearing his life narrated by a disembodied voice, who says that he will soon die. With no time to wonder how he finds himself stuck inside someone else’s story, he scrambles to find the narrator before it’s too late.
This comedy-drama stars Will Ferrell as Harold Crick, who apparently also exists inside the narrator’s novel, and Emma Thompson as Karen Eiffel, the owner of the disembodied voice.
It’s a strange, singular sort of movie; poignant and quietly intelligent, with more than enough narrative weight to keep its audience guessing throughout.
Ferrell delivers an uncharacteristically reserved performance, perfectly capturing the gentle, unassuming nature of Crick and his subsequent panic as he tries desperately to prevent his impending death.
Verdict: Stranger than Fiction is a mundanely magical piece of storytelling, although it turns out to be disappointingly predictable in its ultimately execution.
And that’s our list. Think we missed one? Is there a premise that you think blows these out of the water? Drop it in the comments below!