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Blunt Force Drama: The Weird Things That Happen After Movie Characters Bump Their Heads

In honor of the common thread linking ‘Isn’t It Romantic’ and the upcoming ‘Yesterday,’ a look at other memorable films in which a head injury has been spun into a nifty plot device

Ringer illustration

Regarding getting bonked in the head in movies and something weird happening afterward: I like it. It’s a fun plot device. It’s a tidy way to reset a movie universe into literally any new thing that a filmmaker wants it to be. A screenwriter or a director or a movie star says, “We’re making a movie where a person gets bonked in the head and when they wake up they’re suddenly the smartest person on the planet”—and we, the viewers, get to go, “OK, cool. I understand the premise and accept it and am excited to see what happens.” And then the movie starts and it’s fun. (Occasionally it is bad, but even then it’s still a little bit fun.)

There are different levels of severity to the bonking and the weirdness, of course. Sometimes, the bonking and the weirdness are such that all of everything needs to be recalibrated. For example, in Rebel Wilson’s Isn’t It Romantic, a new rom-com about rom-coms, a woman gets bonked in the head, and when she wakes up she finds herself living inside a rom-com. She’s the feet-in-reality center of the movie, and everyone else around her is floating about in the sky.

A similar thing is going to happen in Yesterday, which will come out later this year. A man (played by Himesh Patel) will get bonked in the head, and when he wakes up he’ll be the only person in the world who remembers songs that were written and performed by the Beatles. (And he, of course, will use that to shoot himself into stardom, which is exactly what any of us would do, I suspect.)

Sometimes the bonking and the weirdness are such that only one specific person is affected, but that one specific person is affected in a ludicrous-enough way that it still makes for a good time. In What Men Want, for example, a movie that came out just a couple of weeks ago, a woman (played by Taraji P. Henson) gets bonked on the head and when she wakes up she can hear what men are thinking. (And she, of course, uses that ability to advance her career, which is what some of us would do, but only those of us that are career-oriented.) (Were I suddenly in possession of the ability to hear what women were thinking, I don’t think I would use it to help me in my job. I think I would use it to do a few magic tricks and that’s it, something like what Nic Cage did with his ability to see a tiny amount into the future during the first few minutes of 2007’s Next.) (To be clear, Next is not a head-bonking movie, but it could’ve been, and probably should’ve been.)

In 2018’s I Feel Pretty, a woman (played by Amy Schumer) gets bonked in the head, and when she wakes up she believes herself to be extremely attractive. That’s probably the next step to the left from What Men Want on this particular scale, if we’re arranging things left to right from Bonked In The Head And Something Weird Happens Afterward to Bonked In The Head And Something Very Weird Happens Afterward.

Just a few weeks after I Feel Pretty came out last year, so too did the remake of Overboard, a movie in which a rich man gets bonked in the head and wakes up with amnesia, and so a poor woman (played by Anna Faris) who he was previously mean to poses as his wife and picks him up from the hospital and then manipulates him as payback. (It’s a gender swap of the 1987 original, which is a very fun movie. But also I think that Kurt Russell, who poses as Goldie Hawn’s husband and then takes her to his house and makes her clean it and care for his children, is probably guilty of committing several crimes.)

When I asked my coworkers about movies in which someone gets bonked on the head and then something weird happens, Chris Ryan reminded me of 2003’s 28 Days Later, in which a man wakes up in a hospital after a bicycle accident and finds that a rage virus has turned the world into a kind of zombie apocalypse. And I’m not sure whether that kind of setup applies perfectly to the conversation here (I thiiiiiiiiiiink it does, especially if we’re including Overboard, though I’m not sure), but the movie starts with several shots of Cillian Murphy’s penis, which I found to be at least a little bit of a weird start when I sat down in the theater to watch a zombie movie, and so I’m inclined to give it the benefit of the doubt. (In an interesting bit of circularity, I’d like to point out here that Danny Boyle directed this movie as well as the aforementioned Yesterday.)

In 1996’s Phenomenon, a man (played by John Travolta) gets bonked in the head and when he wakes up he, among other things, finds himself to be a genius with telekinetic powers. (This one is wild because it turns out that the guy has a brain tumor and that brain tumor, which will kill him, is the thing giving him all of his abilities. And so it brings up an interesting question: Do you think it’d be worth it to die young but you get to live the last piece of your life as a genius with telekinetic powers? Or would you give up those powers to live longer?) In 1983’s The Dead Zone, a man gets bonked in the head and when he wakes up he, among other things, discovers that he can read people’s minds by touching them. (This one is wild because the guy who gets bonked in the head is in a coma for five years before he wakes up, and so it also brings up an interesting question that is adjacent to the earlier interesting question: Would you trade five years of your life for the ability to read people’s minds by touching them?)

There are certainly others (it happens in 1994’s The Pagemaster; and it happens in 2007’s The Sandlot: Heading Home; and it happens in 1939’s The Wizard of Oz, perhaps the most innovative of the Bonked In The Head And Something Weird Happening Afterward movies; and on and on and on), but the point right now is the same as the point has always been:

Regarding getting bonked in the head in movies and something weird happening afterward: I like it. It’s a fun plot device.