Perceptive programming: software can tell which movie lines are memorable

Looking at lines from over 1,000 movies, computer programmers are cracking what makes us repeat a movie line over and over (and over) again.
Written by Rose Eveleth, Contributing Editor

Here's a quick test, which of these three lines do you recognize:

  1. "I'm going to make him an offer he can't refuse"
  2. "I'm king of the world!"
  3. "Why I should stick my neck out for you is far beyond my capacity!"

You probably recognized number one from The Godfather and number two from Titanic. But what about number three? It's from Star Wars, a New Hope (C-3PO is complaining, as usual), but it's just not that memorable. But what makes a movie line quotable? And, more importantly, can a computer figure out which ones will be quoted to death and which will be forgotten?

Scientists at Cornell say they can. Their computer program looks at everything from language patterns, unusual words, and word combinations to decipher which line will echo throughout pop culture, and which will fade to black.

To build the program they went to the same place you do for movie information: the Internet Movie Database (IMDb). They pulled memorable quotes from about 1,000 movies, 2200 quotes in all, and paired each memorable quote with an ordinary one that happens in the same context. This is important because let's say the quote happens in the middle of a big fight scene. The very fact that it's in a fight scene could effect its memorability. So they paired each memorable fighting quote (say, "I want you to hit me as hard as you can" from Fight Club) with a bland one (like, "I thought it fitting considering the rocky terrain" from The Princess Bride).

What they found was interesting. The things that make a memorable movie line are small - using pronouns, a rather than the, and verbs in the past tense all up the likelihood of making a memorable line. And memorable lines use ordinary grammar, but unordinary words. As Technology Review put it, memorable lines "contain generic pearls of wisdom expressed with unusual combinations of words if ordinary sentences."

Put to the test, the model accurately picked the memorable quote in the pair 64% of the time. Humans, on the other hand, did so 78% of the time.

You can take the test here. How did you do? I got an 8 out of 12. Then again, I hadn't seen any of the movies the quotes came from.

Via: New Scientist

Image: Wikimedia Commons, and yes, that's a possum holding a movie camera. You're welcome.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

Editorial standards