Submarines and Androids: The Comfort Movie Phenomenon

Certain films, I’ve noticed over the years, are like chicken soup. They’re the movies you watch to make you feel better, to unwind. These are films you’ve seen so many times you can recite the dialogue and anticipate the exact cutaways and insert scenes, films so familiar they become the cinematic equivalent of a favorite old quilt.

Comfort movies, I call them. Since we’re piling on the similes, let’s try one more: Comfort movies are similar to your favorite old albums. You put them on when you want to relax, or have some background music for whatever else you’re up to.

For example, I prefer to do the laundry to mid-era Beatles. Revolver, say. Or Rubber Soul. Mowing the lawn requires the iPod and Jurassic 5. These days, when my CIA handlers remotely activate my international assassin alter-ego, it’s Titus Andronicus, all the way.

I digress. People do this sort of thing all the time with their favorite music, but you don’t hear much about people doing the same with their favorite movies. Well, I most definitely have my comfort movies – and I suspect you do, too.

Here’s how you can tell. Is there a certain film that, if you come across it scanning the TV Guide channel or flipping channels randomly, you feel compelled to watch yet again? Even though you’ve seen it roughly 34,000 times? Even if it’s just the last half hour of the film? Even if it’s on the Spanish language station and you don’t speak Spanish?

This happens to me all the time, and it puzzles and disturbs my family. I review movies for a living, so we have a frankly ridiculously large library of movies on DVD and Blu-ray. Pretty much any film I’ve seen and liked I have a copy of, somewhere.

Still, anytime The Hunt for Red October is broadcast on basic cable (according to my rough calculations, about once every 9.4 hours), I must watch that movie. My wife points out, quite sensibly, that we already have The Hunt for Red October on DVD (several reissued versions, actually) and I can watch it anytime.

Doesn’t matter – I must watch that movie. I sink into its familiar and comforting rhythms and within an hour or two am watching the end credits roll yet again. Every time. Literally. I wish I could say I was exaggerating, but I’m afraid I’m not.

Evidently, I find the genre of the submarine movie soothing, because the same happens with Crimson Tide, The Abyss and Alien (which is really just a submarine movie in space). I am, for reasons I probably don’t want to know, comforted and calmed when a dozen characters with conflicting agendas are locked together in a hermetically sealed environment. When life support is threatened, and to go outside is certain death, I’m in my comfort zone.

I have a similar reaction to movies about androids – Blade Runner, A.I., Terminator – again for reasons I probably don’t want to know. I suppose I could pay a therapist $120/hour to find out, but I suspect no good news can possibly come of that. (Actually, now that I think of it, Alien – a movie I cannot resist, ever – is a space submarine movie with an android.)

Now I realize my comfort movies are conspicuously “guy thing” movies, so I asked the wife about this. She has a similar reaction to a handful of ostensible “chick flicks”. Dirty Dancing. Bridget Jones’ Diary, the entire career output of Nora Ephron.

I’ve since run ‘behavior’ shall we call it, by other friends and family members, and after some thought, everyone was able to come up with their own personal comfort movies. A few examples from my informal poll: Spinal Tap. My Big Fat Greek Wedding. The Godfather. Saturday Night Fever. Jaws. The Princess Bride. The Royal Tennenbaums. The Shawshank Redemption.

My suspicion is that there really is a musical quality to our favorite movies that we are responding to. Stories, like melodies, get stuck in your head. Certain genres of film have undeniable narrative rhythms that resonate in representative films.

I also suspect the various basic cable networks know this, at least those that traffic heavily in the same rotation of relentlessly re-run movies. I wonder: How many man-hours of labor have been lost as we all get pulled in, yet again, to – say, The Fugitive? I’ll bet an enterprising statistics grad student could quantify the actual economic impact.

There are larger questions at play, of course, regarding the modern man’s leisure habits, and I could go on with some more dime-store pop culture analysis, but U-571 just came on TBS. Sorry, but I’ll see you later.