Editor’s note: Marshall Brain – futurist, inventor, NCSU professor, writer and creator of “How Stuff Works” –  is a contributor to WRAL TechWire.  He’s also author of “The Doomsday Book: The Science Behind Humanity’s Greatest Threats.” His exclusive columns written for TechWire are published on Fridays. 

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RALEIGH – OK, I admit it: I like to watch movies, and I am not that picky. I am not a “movie snob.” Generally speaking, I will watch just about anything with the exception of horror. I am not a fan of the horror genre. Here is what I like about watching movies:

  1. I enjoy the story telling. Just about every movie is a story told with moving pictures and dialog. Human beings like stories, and I am human so me too.
  2. I like the imagination. Lots of movies, especially science fiction and fantasy stuff, can imagine new worlds, new technologies, new situations, new characters. A movie can create new realities and show what happens in this imagined place.
  3. I like the escapism. A good movie can completely absorb my attention. Some people get drunk to escape reality. For me, if I have a bad day at work say, my way to escape in many cases is to find a good movie.

The most powerful movies can affect our real-world culture. The first Star Wars film (Episode IV – A New Hope)… think about everything that moved out of the movie theater and into our culture. Concepts like the Jedi, the Force, Lightsabers, Death Stars, Darth Vader, R2-D2, Droids in general, on and on – all of them got invented in this single movie. Zero people on planet Earth had heard of a Lightsaber or The Force prior to that film, and now just about everyone in the developed world knows of them. This is a huge real-world impact.

Movies can also teach us things, and this is what I want to focus on today. Since many movies are simulations of real-world scenarios, there can be valuable lessons that we can pick up. The things we learn from movies are not always great, not always perfect, and not always true. Even so, there is enough valuable information that it is worth examining some of the lessons we can learn by watching movies.

Let’s start with a few scenarios we can probably all agree on…

#1 – When grabbing an enemy’s weapon, also grab some ammo

We have seen this so many times. A hero or hero-adjacent character needs a weapon to fight back against the enemy, and therefore grabs a pistol or a rifle off a dead person lying nearby. If I am ever in the situation of needing to do this, two things I have learned from movies is: 1) this dead person probably also has spare ammunition somewhere on their body, and 2) I need to grab the ammo too. The ammo is in their pocket, on their belt, in their tactical vest, wherever. The gun will need this ammo eventually. Therefore, if grabbing the gun, also grab all the spare ammo you can find on or near the dead body. This way you won’t run out of ammo two scenes later when you really really need it.

#2 – Always make sure the safety is off and the gun is loaded

This is such a rooky mistake: You’ve just obtained a nice machine gun or pistol off your dead enemy’s body. And you also have plenty of ammo obtained in the same way. You now MUST do two things. First, you need to make sure you release the gun’s safety so that you can fire the weapon at all. Second, you need to make sure that the gun is loaded. What if the magazine is empty? What if there isn’t a round in the chamber? Check and make sure. Also important: If it is a machine gun, think about the rate of fire you desire. Do you want the gun in single shot mode? Three-round burst? Full auto? Make sure to move the gun’s lever to the right setting.

See what I mean? I would not know any of these details if it were not for movies.

#3 – Be really careful around doors

Say you are in your home or apartment, someone knocks on the door, and you therefore approach the door. Seems obvious. But if there is one thing I have learned from movies, doors are really dangerous for at least four reasons:

  1. Once you come to the door, your enemy knows where you are standing. Therefore, your enemy can shoot through the door and kill you.
  2. Even worse is if you come to the door and look through the peephole. Now your enemy knows where your head is located. They can shoot through the peephole for an even more lethal kill.
  3. If you open the door even a crack, your enemy can force the door open and now you are at your enemy’s mercy.
  4. Or the enemy can toss in a hand grenade or a stun grenade through the crack.

For these reasons, I never answer the door anymore. I won’t even come near the door. This is where these doorbell cameras really come in handy. I can see who is at the door, and even talk to them if need be. But I am nowhere near the door while having this conversation.

A derivative of this is: never trust anyone at the door who is not a friend or a family member who you are expecting. Delivery person? The movies have taught us that any “delivery person” is more likely to be an enemy who is impersonating a delivery person. This enemy will either shoot us through the door or barge in and kill us. Random “city worker”? Again, according to the movies, it is more likely to be an enemy impersonating a city worker. Salesperson? Probably also an enemy impersonating a salesperson, but even if not, I don’t want to talk to a salesperson anyway.

#4 – Always have your back to a wall

How many times have we seen a movie in which the enemy sneaks up behind someone and then:

  1. Points a gun at the person’s head or back and now the person is at the enemy’s mercy
  2. Wraps an arm or rope or extension cord or garrote around a person’s neck and strangles them
  3. Comes up with a knife and literally stabs the person in the back
  4. Rolls/throws a hand grenade from behind, which lands at the person’s feet and kills them
  5. And so on…

None of these “come from behind” attacks can happen if your back is always against a wall. Are you in a restaurant? Sit with your back against a wall. Are you in a subway station? Stand with your back against a wall (this also prevents your enemy from pushing you onto the tracks). Are you in a conference room at work ostensibly for Bob’s birthday celebration? Make sure your back is against a wall.

Corollary: never stand near a window. In the movies, people get shot through windows all the time.

There is one problem with walls that I have learned from movies. Most walls, especially interior walls in houses and office buildings, are flimsy. Therefore, a sophisticated enemy can shoot through a wall. They may even be able to “see” you using heat signatures or radar. Just be aware that a “wall” is not always as solid as it seems.

But on the flip side, you can sometimes use a flimsy wall to your advantage. Let’s say I find myself in this situation:

  1. Two enemies have gotten into my house, probably by picking the lock while I am sleeping.
  2. I have managed to kill one of these enemies by sneaking up behind him silently and strangling him with my iPhone charging cable that is always handy by my bedside.
  3. I have taken the machine gun AND AMMO (see #1) from my dead enemy, released the safety, set the gun for full auto, and made sure the gun is loaded (see #2).
  4. Then I realize that the other enemy is in the adjacent room.

Now, obviously, I can just shoot through the wall of the adjacent room and kill my second enemy. But I should keep in mind the following…

#5 – Don’t always shoot at waist level

When shooting through the wall to kill my enemy in the adjacent room, how many times have we seen in the movies where all the shooting happens at waist level? Meanwhile, the enemy is lying on the floor and never gets a scratch. Therefore, if you are shooting through a wall, be sure to aim at ground level too.

In the movie RED 2, the enemy has this absolutely amazing gatling-type gun in a van with apparently unlimited ammunition. The enemy is spraying so many bullets that he literally cuts a van in half (horizontally). But the problem is, the enemy is spraying all these hundreds of rounds at waist level, while our hero and friend are lying on the ground. The enemy should have sprayed at ground level as well. See this video for details: https://youtu.be/RlPspkeaFrU?si=Dk4EYE5VW37Elmtw&t=78

#6 – Always check the back seat of your car before getting in

How many times have we seen this scenario in a movie:

  1. Hero gets into their car
  2. Enemy is hiding in the back seat
  3. Enemy pops up and holds gun to hero’s head
  4. Hero is forced to do whatever enemy wants

This scenario happens all the time. Therefore, I never get into any car without first looking through the windows to make sure the back seat is empty.

If you ever find yourself in this situation, the movies have also taught us one possible remedy. Speed up and run into something solid. It might be a phone pole, a pillar in a parking deck, a wall, another car, whatever. The enemy rarely puts on a seatbelt, while you as the driver will be protected by the airbag. Hopefully the enemy gets ejected from the vehicle or otherwise injured in the collision.

The extrapolation of this is to always assume your house or apartment is compromised when you enter it. Movies teach us that locks are so easy to pick. You don’t know whether there is an enemy or three hiding in your bedroom when you get home from work unless you take the time to check. Movies teach us that enemies-hiding-in-the-bedroom is a pretty common problem. Therefore, when you get home, you should do a thorough sweep to ensure your abode really is empty. Be sure to check the closets and under the beds too, and be thorough. Don’t forget how easily ET hid in a closet by blending in – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6veTZuM62ZU

#7 – Why do we even have locks?

This is more of an observation based on #6. In the movies, just about anyone can pick just about any lock in three or four seconds. So why do we even bother with locks? They seem useless. Therefore, you need to have deadbolt locks on every door and the deadbolt cannot have an exterior keyhole. Maybe it is a smart lock that you can lock with an app when you leave. Or at least, once you get home, you can lock a manual deadbolt from inside and no one can pick it.

#8 – If one bad thing happens, there is a good possibility of a repeat

If one bomb goes off, you should always immediately start running. Chances are that there is a second bomb waiting to go off a minute or two later. If there is one bad guy chasing you, assume that he has an accomplice too. If one car tries to run into you, but misses, there is probably a second car waiting to hit you a block down the road. And so on. Never assume that any bad event is singular.

This happens all the time in the movies, but we have also seen it in real life. 9/11 is a horrible example. The first plane hit the first of the twin towers. Many people in the second tower did nothing. They should have immediately started running and evacuated the second tower because there was a second jet coming. The first plane was not a singular event.

#9 – Be sure to kill your enemy

This is going to be more controversial, but movies teach us that that we always must make sure our enemy is dead. Let’s say we knock out an enemy in a fist fight. We should also shoot him or do something similar to ensure he is good and assuredly dead. The reason is because we have seen a hundred movies where the enemy gets knocked out and is left for dead, but then the enemy recovers and comes back to cause even more trouble. This dovetails into #10…

#10 – Always kill the enemy when you have the chance

Again, a hundred movies have taught us this: If we have the chance to kill the enemy, we should do it. Allow me to demonstrate.

We can see a perfect example of this in the movie 1917. The heroes are English. They watch a German plane crash, and they help the German pilot out of his burning airplane. They seem to make the assumption that the rescued pilot should be grateful for the help, even though he is the enemy. But they are wrong: They should have instead shot the German pilot in his plane instead of rescuing him. Because a minute later, the recused pilot stabs one of our heroes. You can see it happen in this clip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3spb49yf4ZQ

In the movie Extraction, the hero is nearly killed by a teenager. The hero lets the teenager go free. Later the teenager returns and shoots the hero.

But it is the movie Lone Survivor that really brings this one home. The movie is based on a nonfiction book, a true story. The short version of the story:

  • A four-man team of American soldiers is sent in to snipe someone.
  • The American soldiers are hiding in the brush on a hillside.
  • A herd of goats and three Afghani goatherders come upon the American soldiers in their hiding place.
  • The American soldiers capture the goatherders and have a big discussion about what to do with them.

Eventually, the American soldiers decide to scrub their mission, release the three goatherders unharmed, and then hike to their extraction point. The goatherders run back to their village, alert a hive of Afghani soldiers to the presence of the American soldiers, and an amazing firefight ensues. The result:

  • Three of the four American soldiers are killed by the Afghanis.
  • A bunch more (let’s say 15) American soldiers are killed when their big Chinook Helicopter explodes due to an RPG shot by the Afghanis
  • I don’t know how many, but let’s say 30 Afghanis die during their pursuit of the American soldiers.

This is an example of the trolly problem brought to real life. In this case, immediately killing the three goatherders would have saved approximately 50 lives, including three of the people who decided to let the goatherders live.

Movies teach this lesson over and over again: When you have a chance to kill your enemy, you should kill your enemy.


There it is: ten important life lessons we can learn by watching movies. There are plenty more, and perhaps I will do a Part 2 in the future. In the meantime, stay safe out there! Movies teach us that you can’t be too careful.