Great Debate #8: What are the best MacGuffins?

macguffin1Great Debate Number Eight has reminded me of some great (and bad) plot devices in film history.  Some of these MacGuffins are famous, like the illuminated “briefcase” in Pulp Fiction, but others have a more notorious reputation.  Which work the best?

A MacGuffin is a plot device sorely used to move along the plot in the movie.  It is usually the central focus of the plot, as the characters compete over it and try to acquire it.  It can be a painting, a fine statue, but more often, a MacGuffin is generalized as money or wealth.  The classic MacGuffins are objects however, such as the following.

1.  What’s in that Briefcase?

The Briefcase in Pulp Fiction could be the most famous modern MacGuffin.  It is a stylized source of trouble for John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson, as they try to deliver it to their boss.  What is inside is never revealed, although could be a wide range of things.  Travolta opens it at one point at gunpoint and a strange yellow glow eminates from inside.  What could cause such a glow?  Who knows, but the glow obviously represents some sort of wealth.  The fact that it is yellow gives us a clue that it is valuable, like gold.  I think knowing this is enough.  What it is exactly doesn’t matter.

2.  How much is a statue really worth?

Probably the most famous MacGuffin in the Maltese Falcon.  It is the definition of a MacGuffin and makes Humphrey Bogart’s life miserable, as he chases it, makes deals over it, and tries to get it out of his hair.  The movie says that it is an golden bird, caked with dark enamel, dating back to 1539.  It originated from the island of Malta, where it was made by the Knights of Malta as a gift for Charles V of Spain, until pirates seized it.  This short history gives the object some allure and the movie expands on how people have fought and died over it.  The movie uses every minute to make a small statue the most desireable object ever.

3.  What’s in the FedEx package?

Tom Hanks in Cast Away is stranded on a deserted island with a series of things, including a FedEx package.  Again, what’s in this package doesn’t really matter, as it serves mostly as a symbol in the movie.  Some angel wings on the front of the package serve as inspiration to Hanks and drives him forward even more than any contents could.

4.  Tom Cruise kills for a Rabbit

In Mission Impossible 3 or M:I3, Tom Cruise tries to hunt down the rabbits foot.  The guy must have had a lot of Red Bull for breakfast, because I’ve never seen somebody so passionate to find out just where something is.  As in other movies, everyone wants it, but in this movie, everyone fears it too.  It is never revealed what it is, but it can be safely assumed to be some sort of weapon, probably biological in nature.

5.  The Holy MacGuffin

Probably the most well-known MacGuffin to the general public, The Holy Grail is literally straight out of history, for use in more than one movie.  Monty Python and the Holy Grail is probably the most obvious and overt use of The Grail, but it has been used in The Fisher King, The Da Vinci Code, and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

6.  The Ring

The One Ring is a famous MacGuffin from The Lord of the Rings books by Tolkien.  It has a very long history and is the central focus of the first three movies.  Tolkien was himself a historian and student of language, so it is not a surprise that the One Ring has a deep background and cultural influence.  Tolkien held the belief that his stories were not allegorical, but it is not hard to see the One Ring as representative of power too great for humans, such as nuclear weapons.

7.  Do you want a sled for Christmas?

RoseBud – Citizen Kane has the most satirized plot device of all-time, a sled.  It is so built up over the course of the movie, no reveal could satisfy.  I think this is where all the hate comes from.

8.  Did you forget about The Necronomicon?

I’m not sure if people have forgotten about the Necronomicon or not.  It is a book from the Evil Dead series starring Bruce Campbell.  It causes him trouble just like every other MacGuffin in film history. It is somewhat gothic in nature, made from human flesh and filled with assorted mystical evils.  The idea of a Necronomicon is not original to Sam Raimi, but was first used by HP Lovecraft.

9.   Star Trek fans rejoice

Genesis has to be the ultimate Star Trek MacGuffin.   It is no doubt known to all Star Trek fans everywhere.  I don’t think anyone who loves Star Trek doesn’t know just what The Genesis Device is.  It is a fairly standard MacGuffin and there’s not much mystery around it, except through the idea of what it can do.

10.  Golden Eye is not very Golden

The powerful Golden Eye satellite takes the name of the 007 movie and it’s probably the best one of the Pierce Brosnan era.  It is a weapon that fires an electromagnetic pulse and blows up stuff.  It is pretty silly as MacGuffins go, and has no meaning beyond being just a weapon.  Fairly boring as far as MacGuffins go too.