L13FC: Voice-over Narration

Welcome back! It’s the thirteenth and time to talk about the movies.

Many movie buffs realize there are more bad voice-overs than good ones. Telling the plot of the story as if the audience can’t figure it out visually is insulting and detracts from the scene. The function of good voice-overs is to provide a contextual layer that enhances the themes of the story or magnifies a character in a way that is not seen with the visual narrative. If you ask for a top 10 list of best voice-overs in film, many would include classics by Billy Wilder, Kubrick, Coppola, Scorsese, Malick, Fincher, and the Cohen Brothers. Some have argued that Shawshank Redemption and Million Dollar Baby with Morgan Freeman‘s soothing voice is technically bad voice-over narration. I admit it’s true. Imagine the pair without his hallmark voice. Would the stories still be touching? Yes. Did the voice-over help us see the story on another level or reveal the principal character in a way that enhanced him? Nope. Did it complicate the point of view? Yes. (And still, I love both films anyway.)

The best voice-over narrations reveal the inner battles of the character. The tension and the eerieness catapults to great heights when the audience is bound to the mind of a maniac like Alex in Clockwork Orange. Better yet is when the layers unfold to reveal the unreliable narrator or one who speaks from the grave like Joe Gillis. That’s a dimension that enhances the story.

One Great Example 

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Apocolypse Now (1979) is a film with great voice-over narration. Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) journeys into the forbidden inner realm of Cambodia with orders to assassinate the Army’s fallen angel, Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando). Willard ruminates about Kurtz. He struggles with the morality of his mission. The jungle and the river and the motley crew who travel with him seep into his system. Without the voice-over narration, we would not be privy to the unusual relationship that grows between Willard and Kurtz even though they have never met. By the end of the film, no voice-over is necessary. Our anticipation of meeting Kurtz combined with the exoticism of the heart of darkness and fueled by the singing of Jim Morrison provided one of the more captivating climaxes in cinematic history. We have been primed to wonder if Kurtz is crazy and we are horrified to the extent at which war has pillaged the minds and landscape along the way.

One Bad Example 

Molly’s Game (2018)With a voice-over style that reminded me of The Wolf of Wall Street, the fast-talking, no-nonsense narration by the principal character Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain) interjects in and out of the film and shares her story as though she were giving an interview to a reporter.  Explaining the lingo of poker players with similar on-screen graphics used in The Big Short to simplify the concept of the game for audience members who might not know the culture of poker was debatably effective. Jessica’s voice-over was monotone. She’s smart and tough just like a man, but her narration lacked a personality. This is unfortunate since the story-line about the real-life Molly Bloom is fascinating.

The Molly Bloom voice-over narration didn’t help.  Especially when she shared scenes with her two leading men who gave the best performances–Idris Elba as her attorney Charley Jaffey, and Kevin Costner as her father Larry Bloom. Elba and Costner breathed life into their characters displaying them as smart and tough, but their human frailties and emotions were present throughout the film. Meanwhile, Jessica Chastain’s Molly hides behind a hard shell, but she comes across as a robotic doll. The best performance I’ve seen Chastain give was as Celia Foote in The Help. Ironically, she shines best as an actress when she’s not smart or driven.

Please, won’t you share your favorite voice-over and explain how the voice-over enhances the film or magnifies a character with dimension?  Or, what’s a bad example you’ve seen lately?  

Interstellar and Science


Christopher Nolan’s 2014 Interstellar, a thought-provoking mind-bender about wormholes, black holes, time travel, fifth dimensions, and love triumphing all — wow– just listing the goals of the film makes me exhausted. It’s a grand attempt with jaw-dropping effects and solid acting by Matthew McConaughey, Michael Caine and Jessica Chastain. Anne Hathaway’s performance was disappointing as was Matt Damon’s performance as the portly, good scientist turned bad.

The science, the principles of quantum mechanics, linked to the fiction, and the prediction of our world in the near future had me ruminating about the film for weeks. Did Nolan get the science right? I opened up the Time, November 2014 article written by Jeffrey Kluger, where he kindly separated the scientific theories for me as well as answered how accurately they were portrayed in the film. The verdict? Much of it was plausible. You are welcome to read all about it HERE.


Or better yet, if you are like me whose knowledge of physics extends to the arm-chair, Top Documentary Films on the internet is an excellent index. I recommend the series Into the Wormhole narrated by Morgan Freeman. Specifically, in season two, try watching this episode “Are there more than three dimensions?” 


I think I get it. We’ve been accustomed to three dimensions–length, width, and height for a long time. Then Einstein came up with time as the fourth dimension, and Interstellar toys with the concept of a fifth dimension. Did you know the “string theory” suggests there might be eleven dimensions with just as many, if not more, universes out there?

Interstellar included some Inception tricks like a space station with a bendable horizon. I loved the imagined foreign planets that might be suitable for human existence–a water-world with colossal tides and it’s opposite, a bleak, desert-world. There are other nice touches in the film like the replication of a dust storm blotting out sight and air tagged with the recollections of survivors of the U.S. Depression in the 1930s. There were many details that Christopher Nolan did right with Interstellar like his interpretation of a wormhole, or his characters aging (or not) to illustrate the effects of time travel. I can’t condemn him for aspects that seemed inconceivable such as the role the black hole played in the film.


It seems unlikely that a ship could orbit the lip of a black hole and not get sucked in. It seems unlikely that anyone could travel through a black hole and survive spaghettification. But how thrilling to imagine going through one! I loved the fifth dimension played out on the screen. All of humanity rests behind the book shelf? Far fetched, yes, but I was too wowed by the story-line and the attempt of representing scientific theories to find much fault with plausibility. Instead of finding fault, I commend the audacity of Christopher Nolan for creating another mind-bending, intellectual treat. It was worth the price of admission, and you bet, I’m going to buy a copy.


It is expected that fiction will bend the rules for the sake of the story; at the heart, Interstellar tells a love story. The reunion between father and daughter is nothing short of miraculous. So what if it probably couldn’t happen?  Its magnificence lies in the imaginative spirit of Nolan. It is as visually stunning as Kubrick’s  2001: A Space Odyssey. That’s saying a lot.  

Your thoughts?

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