Is this a smart shortcut or stupid laziness?
“We are thrust into the middle of a vast, vicious ground fight (think of the main battle scene in Braveheart, except with assault rifles and bayonets). On the right side is a sea of soldiers wearing red uniforms. The left side is a sea of soldiers in black uniforms.”
Your example would fall in the “stupid laziness” category. Lazy in that it coasts on a cinematic reference without really expanding or commenting on it. Stupid in that it squanders an opportunity to show what’s exciting or unique about your battle scene as opposed to all that have come before it.
But I suspect you were really asking about whether it’s okay to drop a reference to another movie in your script — something to help the reader understand what you’re describing.1 And the answer is yes. Just be smart about it.
You’ll almost always want to marry a movie reference with a significant qualifier, something that greatly amplifies, defeats or transforms it. Some examples…
Carla’s date PHIL is like Shrek’s uglier cousin.
There’s something uncomfortably sexual in Josh and Stan’s rivalry. It’s like Top Gun without planes.
With razor-sharp teeth and leathery wings, the dremonae are a cross between prehistoric fish and Oz’s flying monkeys.
So while it’s okay to drop an occasional movie reference, you’re almost always better off doing it your own way. Let’s take your hypothetical example and see how it might be better constructed.
We are thrust into the middle of a vast, vicious ground fight
All good up to here. But rather than immediately reducing it to a movie reference, why not better establish the goals and geography?
We are thrust into the middle of a vast, vicious ground fight: the mighty Empirix Guard, backlit by the afternoon sun, and the scrappy Raiders, whose zeal somewhat compensates for their lesser firepower. From above, we can make out the serpentine battle line, neither side clearly winning.
That feels like Braveheart without explicitly calling it out. And by being more specific to your world, you don’t risk popping the reader out of the story to remember what that scene was like in Braveheart, and how promising Mel Gibson was before he started drunk-driving and crucifying people.
- Here’s the distinction: In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, there’s a very deliberate reference to 2001, with a Wonka bar replacing the black obelisk. That’s in the script, and in the movie. That’s not what we’re talking about here. ↩