Some cinematic clichés just refuse to die. We’ve heard these lines a bajillion times, and yet still, “They’re everywhere!” (another cliché). “You just don’t get it, do you?” “Are you crazy?” “I’m getting’ too old for this shit.” Cool guys walk away from explosions without looking back; there’s even a song about that one.
Cool Guys Don’t Look at Explosions.
This supercut of supercuts identifies about 40 such overused lines; watch it and luxuriate in despair. But to my knowledge, no one has yet taken public issue with the screen’s dumbest advice ever: “Be careful.” This flogged-to-death line appears copiously in cop shows, science fiction thrillers, horror films of all types, and really, any scene where one character leaves another to do something else, which is everywhere.
For my money, there are two especially egregious offenders. First came Land of the Lost, which aired 1974-76 and then hung around for decades in syndication. If you’re over 25, you surely remember: Rick Marshall and his two teenage kids, Will and Holly, are paddling their raft down some river “on a routine expedition,” when “the greatest earthquake ever known” hits, scrambles space and time somehow and plunges them “a thousand feet below—to the Land of the Lost.”
The Land of the Lost Opening Theme
So of course, they’re stuck in ancient prehistory, where danger is ubiquitous and constant. Even just in the one-minute theme song sequence, they wake up to find “Grumpy,” an aggressive Tyrannosaurus Rex, yelling at them, presumably as a warmup to a big snack of Marshalls. They scurry away, finding last-second shelter in a natural cave, Grumpy’s breath on their necks. The song ends with Grumpy turning angrily from the cave mouth and roaring at us. Unfortunately, there’s no food in that cave. It’s a cave. The Marshalls have to scrounge for food all the time, which necessitates constant coming and going. Then too, they’re constantly looking for a way back to their own time, and the best clues all seem to be connected to the Lost City. Otherwise, there’s no defensible reason for their constant trips to, and into, the Sleestaks’ lair.
So: constant danger, constant need to walk into it. So: “Be careful,” says Dad Rick, several times per one-hour episode. “Be careful, Will.” “Be careful, Holly.” “Be careful.”
Here’s why that’s stupid: 1) It’s totally unnecessary! (as perhaps is this point). Not even an angsty, eye-rolling teenager—and Will in particular does that often—can ever need to be reminded to be careful. In that environment any creature big enough to be seen is still alive precisely because they are careful. (You can only live so long on luck.) Saying “Be careful” is like suggesting that someone wandering the Sahara Desert “Drink some water”: don’t worry, the idea will occur to them.
2) How does it help? Giving any advice implies that it is needed and/or useful—that without the advice, the advisee might otherwise not consider or prioritize that thought. Any situation dangerous enough to prompt someone to warn “Be careful” is self-evidently dangerous enough to have already made the advisee careful. If it’s not that dangerous, then the warning is prima facie useless anyway. “Be careful? How completely stupid do you think I am?” What does it mean, exactly? “Take fewer risks?” What if that’s not really possible here, or what if I’ve already considered my options and this one, risky as it is, is the one I’m determined to go with? “Be more vigilant?” Did you think I was skipping off between the dinosaurs (or mean streets, or black holes or whatever) with blind eyes and a singing heart? “Respect the danger more?” Am I not already pants-shittingly terrified enough now? What’s the ideal scenario, anyway: advisee receives advice, is magically inoculated from danger by the words themselves (because See Above: the advice is necessarily inherently useless), survives calamity that was otherwise fated to land square upon hapless advisee’s pointy head, all live happily ever after.
The other worst offender, Hill Street Blues, took the pointless “Be careful” to the next level. Each episode began with Sergeant Phil Esterhaus giving his squad news and assignments, ending with an admonishment along these lines:
“Hey. HEY. Let’s be careful out there!”
Take points #1 and #2 above and add the following:
1) The show makes a ritual, a trademark, of beginning with this pointless advice.
2) As in this specific example, Sgt. Esterhaus makes a point of stopping the officers’ murmuring and shuffling, waiting for total silent attention, and only then offering the pointless advice. Picture the desert explorer again: “Hey. HEY. [waits] Drink some water out there.”
3) Watch the Sergeant’s body language and face. He raises a finger and pauses—indicating special wisdom is forthcoming. He adopts a knowing expression—suggesting “I have extraordinary things, borne of my vast hard-knocks-type street experience, to impart to you.” He nods minutely after saying The Line—implying “That’s right, this incredible knowledge I just dropped on you all: that’s what I said.”
Well then, what does saying “Be careful” actually accomplish? It’s pretty insidious if you think about it.
1) It cheaply comforts the speaker. “I feel terrible about sitting here while this person I care about walks off into danger. I can’t really do anything to help, so I’ll just say this Pointless Thing. Okay now, good, I got that out of my system.”
2) It cheaply absolves the speaker—one way or the other. Let’s say terrible things happen to the advisee. “I told him to be careful!” Or say the mission is successful and injury-free: “[proudly] I told him to be careful! This triumphant moment is my doing!” It steals for the speaker, from the advisee, due credit. In this it reminds me of my high school basketball days. Lots of parents, or fans, spat out a constant stream of shouted advice from the bleachers. It made me laugh: did they imagine I was catching a pass, pausing, and listening to their advice about what to do next? Did they imagine I could even hear them?
“Be careful” should die a quick death. The poor thing is severely overworked.
And hey. HEY. Let’s be careful out there!