First popularized by Hitchcock, Merriam-Webster defines a ‘MacGuffin’ as “an object, event, or character in a film or story that serves to set and keep the plot in motion despite usually lacking intrinsic importance.” Basically it’s the thing that makes the movie go.
For example, R2-D2 is considered by George Lucas to be the MacGuffin of the Star Wars films.
But what of human MacGuffins? Anyone can be a hostage or damsel in distress, so lets look at some of the less than conventional living beings that have propelled a plot.
14. Matt Farrell in Live Free or Die Hard
Nerd MacGuffin! Matt works like many hackers before him in that nothing he does or says actually coincides with real life computer genius. Instead it’s a bunch of low balls that sound just enough like something technical to pass with the general public. That said – it’s not exactly like we were all watching this for it’s technical knowhow anyway.
Matt is both the villain’s helpless and plot-inciting target as well as the only one smart enough to stop his plan, making him the perfect MacGuffin for a Bruce Willis action film.
13. Eddie Bunker in 16 Blocks
Speaking of Bruce Willis action films, 16 Blocks is one that needs to happen more. The reason is that most days there’s only two Bruce Willises we tend to see in films: shaved head wisecracking god of fury, or balding sad guy doing something artistic. 16 Blocks is one of the few films of recent that combined those two Willises into a single super-Willis.
On the flip side of Brillis is your Mos Def, another feature of this film that we really need more of. Mos Def plays Eddie, the simpleton witness that Willis is forced to protect from his own kind: gruff cops. Oh the crotchetiness of it all!
12. Toby in Labyrinth
The more you’re around kids, the more you want David Bowie to show up and take them away, if only for a few hours. In this case it’s Toby, young Jennifer Connelly’s movie bro, who gets to hang with the Thin White Duke and his Muppet pals.
I think I’ve figured out exactly why we got the stuff we got from the Jim Henson company: Muppets, being both fluffy to touch and a palpable means of entertaining on a child’s level, most likely attracted a very specific type of stoned nut job. The kind crazy enough to entertain kids, but not crazy enough to try to murder said kids. It’s the perfect storm.
11. Laura in Men In Black II
In what starts out as a simple tale of a young pizza cashier, it turns out that aliens planted this Laura gal on Earth long ago as a hidden savior called the Light Of Zartha. As ridiculous as that sounds, it actually makes way more sense than Rosario Dawson holing it up in some New York pie barn for no good reason.
It’s only a matter of luck that the guy who finds her has a partner who knows all this (after a bunch of memory hacking) because he totally stuck it to her mom, but hey – it’s Men In Black. As long as there’s a Will Smith rap at the end I’m happy… in fact, that goes for any film.
10. Doug in The Hangover
Justin Bartha got pretty screwed when it came to these films. While centered completely on him, very little of it actually features him. Even the second film found a way to write his ass out. But hey, he’s still got those National Treasure films.
Still, without Doug we wouldn’t have the plot we have – that is to say, we wouldn’t have them WITH Doug. Doug is to The Hangover what the car was to Dude, Where’s My Car?. He’s the hung-over Holy Grail.
9. Jackie Boy in Sin City
I know I said “living” human beings earlier – but Jackie Boy is too special to keep off this list. Plus, just because he is dead doesn’t mean he can’t still talk. After all – when Quentin Tarantino is guest-directing the scene you bet your ass there will be talking, even if one of the characters is a dead body.
If only Jackie was as easy to care for than the rest on this list; all you need here is the head. Imagine if they could have just found Doug’s head in The Hangover… that would have been way more interesting.
8. Andy in Toy Story
You could also argue Buzz as the MacGuffin of the first film, but staying close to Andy clearly lasts as the motivator for the entire series.
The toy/human relationships in these films are a lot like the fan/celebrity dynamic; one party ceaselessly obsesses about a perceived superior party while said party engages one-sidedly back at their own leisure. All the while, the “superior” party has no idea that, at any second, their adoring followers could decide to rise up and overtake them. Sid saw it, and if Andy doesn’t watch his shit then you bet your ass it could happen to him.
Here’s a question: why don’t the toys just take over the world? They’re clearly possessed by the dark lord Satan, and they have no constraint to their powers; they simple choose not to be seen, not unlike how demons work best when you don’t know they exist. I think I just answered my own question.
7. Dylan in Children Of Men
Now, one could argue that Kee, the lady who housed the last hope for mankind is the one who starts off being the MacGuffin – but that person would be wrong. The moment they got that thing out of her it was all “baby this” and “baby that” – that’s how it always is. Stupid babies, they hog all our milk and blankets while we’re forced to dip cookies in orange juice while wearing tarps over our heads.
Anyway, baby Dylan is pretty much the ultimate MacGruffin here. Mankind’s MacGruffin, like Jesus or Harrison Ford, they are here to change us forever.
6. John Connor in The Terminator
This is another one where it would have been so much easier just to have to keep the head and nothing else. You bet your ass that a terminator can book it like a champion if all they had to do is keep John Connor’s head like some kind of twisted football game. Can you imagine it: two terminators playing a super game of football with a severed head? Someone call Megan Ellison; I think I have the plot for Terminator 5.
Anyway, Connor gets to be a MacGuffin as a fetus, annoying child, and wimpy adult. It’s not until the fourth film that he suddenly turn into Christian Bale and passes MacGuffin duties to the Kyle Reese character, but even then the machines still inexplicably want him (seriously guys, just kill Kyle and it’s over).
5. Leeloo in The Fifth Element
Now this MacGuffin can take care of herself, just don’t tell her about war n’ shit. Come on Leeloo, really? You kill like a room full of dudes and then suddenly you’re all “I can’t work anymore! War is bad!” What did you think that big evil planet was going to do once it got to Earth, tickle everyone? Grow up, gold-pants.
I will say one thing about Leeloo: if her character has done anything, it’s inspired a whole generation of attractive young women to cosplay on a limited budget. Thank god for that.
4. Julie Dwyer in Clerks & Mallrats
We’ve never actually seen Julie Dwyer in the Kevin Smith Viewaskewniverse, but she’s played a huge role in advancing the plot both on and off screen. I won’t obsess the details, but the films Clerks, Mallrats, & Chasing Amy happen to have an even bigger interweaving backstory than Star Wars – all of it surrounding this one lady who died in a swimming pool.
It’s the inciting incident in Mallrats when the love interest has to go on her father’s game show of Julie (the original contestant) dies trying to keep fit for her appearance. That same Julie is the funeral that the boys in Clerks end up going to, which means that Clerks actually happens AFTER Mallrats. She’s even later brought up in Chasing Amy as well. For such a dead chick, she really gets around.
3. Colonel Walter E. Kurtz in Apocalypse Now
Brando is so scarce and comatose in this that he might as well be a dead girl in a swimming pool. That said, it’s not a film without him – as the entire reason for this epic journey is to find and tactfully execute this man. Or, you know, hack him up with a machete… whatever’s easier.
Once again – this REALLY seems like the time where you could just grab a severed head and go. After all, his superiors would feel better holding the proof in their hands, right?
2. Private Ryan in Saving Private Ryan
Man, if I were Ryan I would start boning the moment I got out of that war. Think about it – if you saw how many people died just to save your white ass, you’d want to make sure your white ass had worth.
Sure, you could try to invent a cure for disease or, if you want to go the other way with it, a really terrible new disease, but chances are you’re going to fail. The best plan then is to screw like the day is long – that way you’ll at least be producing a lush bloodline that wouldn’t have existed without those brave fallen men, right? You’d have to create at least as many kids as those men would have made to make it count – that’s just math.
1. Harry Lime in The Third Man
To be honest, I’m a little obsessed with this film because of how well it worked on me. What I mean is, I didn’t see the revelation coming at all.
I know that by writing about this film, I am possibly snuffing out such an experience for those who might be reading this – but whatever; you should have watched the film first, dummy.
I know for a fact that I missed tons of examples – so let’s hear them!