There are few things more annoying in the arena of film criticism than those who seek to critique movies by simply jumping on errors in how tasks are technically performed, savaging a film for the apparent ignorance of its characters in the “proper way” of doing things. Trust me when I say that you don’t want to be the guy in the theater loudly complaining about the way a sheepshank knot is actually tied, or insisting that “THE 1974 PONTIAC FIREBIRD DIDN’T HAVE THAT STYLE OF SPOILER UNTIL FIVE YEARS LATER.” This is an insufferable manner of would-be criticism, substituting the histrionic quibbles of a hobbyist in place of substantive debate on film; the type of armchair criticism that proliferates in the most anal retentive and self-aggrandizing corners of YouTube.
We are allowed, however, to have our own little peccadillos when it comes to what personally annoys us when we’re watching movies, provided we’re able to compartmentalize that annoyance as “this trope bothers me,” rather than “it RUINED the film!” And I was reminded of that fact once again recently while reviewing Netflix’s trilogy of R.L. Stine Fear Street adaptations, in which not one but two of the installments fall back on one of cinema’s most well-worn contrivances: The limitless powers of movie CPR. Truly, there is no malady so grave, nor corpse so thoroughly dead, that it can’t be brought back to life (and no worse for the wear) by someone determinedly pounding on your chest a few times. Movie CPR is the gift that just keeps on giving to screenwriters who want to dabble in near-death experiences and dramatic resurrections, always there to pull off feats that are beyond impossible in real life.
The first use of movie CPR in Fear Street Part 1: 1994 is actually on the pedestrian side, at least as far as the absurdism scale here is concerned. At the conclusion of that film (movie CPR almost always happens in the last 10 minutes), a character has willingly ingested large quantities of drugs in order to stop her own heart and magically thwart the film’s rampaging slasher killers, with the plan being that other drugs will then be used to “bring her back,” Flatliners style. Things don’t quite go according to plan, however, requiring the character’s girlfriend to resort to 20 seconds of movie CPR. A few compressions and a couple of rescue breaths later, the character is revived, no longer suffering from a drug overdose for reasons unknown. Regardless, this is quite a standard example of silly movie CPR.
Sequel Fear Street Part 2: 1978, on the other hand, propels this trope to gloriously stupid new heights, in a scene that deserves a permanent place in the pantheon of ridiculous movie CPR. Be aware, spoilers will necessarily follow.
Near the conclusion of 1978, two characters are fleeing the same slasher killers when both are ultimately caught and viciously attacked. Our viewpoint heroine reels as a 12-inch butcher’s knife is repeatedly plunged into her chest and side. She collapses to the ground as the killer triumphantly continues to ram the knife into her chest, over and over. Few slasher killings are so visually definitive—we have watched this young girl be stabbed to death. There’s no doubt to be had about her alive/dead status. The killer departs, victorious.
Never seen a girl so dead.
… and then her romantic interest shows up and performs CPR for a few seconds. And lo and behold, she awakens, apparently no longer in danger of re-dying from the massive stab wounds littered throughout her entire torso. Nor is she any worse for the wear—the same character, seen in 1994, shows no sign of physical trauma and apparently made a 100% recovery from having been stabbed to death in 1978, as she’s able to assist in physically vanquishing the bad guys once again in the third film’s conclusion.
Suffice to say, this is on another level even for bad movie CPR, which is typically reserved for people who have been, say, electrocuted, or drowned, or beaten. At least those are ailments that one typically associates with performing cardiopulmonary resuscitation, because they’re all cases where the heart is theoretically undamaged and primarily just needs help pumping blood through the body. Having a knife repeatedly plunged into the chest cavity—which is where your heart is located, FYI—is a rather less common scenario for recommended treatment being “pounding on the flayed chest.” You might as well go full Neo in The Matrix Reloaded at that point, sticking your hand directly into the person’s chest to massage the heart manually. The stab wounds are right there, after all—make yourself at home!
Although I don’t really think this should need to be said, here’s a reminder of the actual function of cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), as opposed to the magical process that is CPR in cinema.
Actual CPR: The reason we perform CPR on someone who both lacks a pulse and isn’t breathing is effectively to buy that person some time until real medical professionals can arrive with a more effective solution. Compressing the chest acts to artificially pump the heart, pushing blood around the body and providing oxygen to vital organs, especially the brain. Occasional rescue breaths allow the blood to continue being oxygenated. It’s important to note, however, that chest compressions are not capable of “restarting” a heart that has stopped beating. For that, you’re going to need a defibrillator, and likely drugs as well. It’s not even as simple as just shocking a heart back to working, in fact.
Movie CPR: Nothing is off limits, in terms of what is possible to achieve via movie CPR. Hell, you don’t even have to perform CPR as a medical professional would recognize it—just pounding wildly on a person’s chest is often just as good. First and foremost, movie CPR is great for restarting a stopped heart—that’s just the baseline. It’s also capable, though, of such feats as curing a poisoning, removing a few gallons of seawater from someone’s lungs, or stitching up a dozen stab wounds in the case of Fear Street. Movie CPR also manages to return people back to consciousness in a state of alert, combat-ready intensity, with no lasting damage to their oxygen-starved brains. People receiving this kind of CPR don’t just swim back to consciousness and cling to life—no, they leap to their feet ready to fight, or passionately kiss their lover, blowing their own breath back into them seconds after having had no pulse.
This has been a standardized trope of American cinema for something on half a century at this point, and it’s not going to be changing anytime soon, even if I find it grating. Maybe it’s those years of lifeguard training coming back to haunt me, or maybe it’s just a wish that screenwriters would find a new way to end their action films on an emotional high note, but it’s something I’ve long since accepted as an immortal storytelling crutch.
In honor of the unkillable nature of ridiculous movie CPR, then, here are a few of my other favorite instances of this trope in action.
This instance of movie CPR, alongside a very similar incident in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, is great for the fact that it illustrates to the audience exactly what mechanic one actually needs in order to restore a normal heart pattern, which is an electrical current, and then immediately ignores that mechanic seconds later. In the case of both Tim in Jurassic Park, and Peeta in The Hunger Games, they’re left without a pulse after being shocked unconscious by an electric fence/electrified barrier. And of course, both of them are revived with no adverse effects by simple (and remarkably fast) CPR.
At least the scene with Peeta makes the audience gut it out for somewhere in the neighborhood of 45 seconds, while Jennifer Lawrence weeps over Peeta’s body, although he does spring right back to his feet when it’s over, casually remarking “it’s working now” in response to “You were dead; your heart stopped.” That’s nothing compared with little Timmy, though, who is shocked off Jurassic Park’s electric fencing, flies about 30 feet, and is then revived with less than 15 seconds of incredibly ineffectual looking CPR from Dr. Grant. He might literally receive chest compressions in the single digits here, although in real life that would still probably be sufficient to snap a child’s sternum in twain like a piece of tinder—just another aspect of actual CPR that understandably doesn’t get mentioned in the movies.
This is another scene in which the heart of our beloved protagonist (marginally small Tom Cruise, rather than a very small, dinosaur-loving child) has been stopped by an electrocution, in this case because Ethan Hunt jury-rigged a sort of defibrillator device to deactivate a tiny bomb that had been implanted in his skull—just typical, Mission: Impossible stuff. Rather than being able to use this same electrical device to restart the heart, however, love interest Michelle Monaghan is left to bring Cruise back to life the good old fashioned way: Over-the-top movie CPR theatrics.
I will say, at first this scene starts out as one of the more accurate portrayals of CPR on screen, as Monaghan’s form is considerably better than most as she gives quick compressions. Things take a turn for the melodramatic, however, when the compressions and rescue breaths seem to be failing to revive Hunt—probably because that’s a thing they literally can’t do—and Monaghan instead turns to simply wailing on Hunt’s fallen body with hammerfists like she’s Rocky Balboa tenderizing a side of beef. This brings Hunt back to life in a sudden surge of combat energy, because of course it does. Not only is he alive again; he has a gun in his hand half a second after regaining consciousness.
Truly, I feel like this is the crème de la crème of ridiculous movie CPR, and possibly the most “movie-ish” CPR sequence ever shot. This scene doesn’t merely ignore what we know about how CPR works; it actively discounts actual medical practice in favor of melodramatic hocus pocus. It’s the only CPR scene I can think of that literally shows a defibrillator failing to restart a heart, only for slapping in the face to prove to be a more effective option. It begs the question of why we aren’t training EMTs to just slap the shit out of each person who crashes on their watch.
In this scenario, Ed Harris’ wife has been drowning in freezing water, putting her in a state of suspended animation, eventually stopping her heart. Upon getting her to safety, the crew begins CPR and is lucky enough to have a portable defibrillator on hand, which they use on her with no apparent success. The medics are ready to give up on the woman (medics give up extremely quickly in movies), but Ed Harris insists that NO, “she has a strong heart!” and continues giving frantic, sloppy CPR. He then insists she be shocked again, which has no effect, freeing Ed Harris up to begin Stage 2 Cardio Antagonism, which consists of screaming in her face, slapping her and violently shaking the corpse. Together, the sheer intensity of Ed Harris’ screaming and physical assault is eventually implied to be the thing that brings the woman shakily back to life. If only we could build some kind of hospital machine that could scream “FIGHT!!!!” at dying patients, maybe we could harness this kind of unhinged energy?
Regardless, there’s no getting around the fact that American movie culture, especially in the action genre, continues to be littered with instances of ridiculous movie CPR, which will likely always be a crutch used by screenwriters to inject some suspense into the aftermath of their grand finale. Kudos to Fear Street and Netflix for shining a light on this particularly hardy and resilient trope, owner of the strongest of hearts.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident genre geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more film writing.