Why The Most Overused Movie Trope Is So Aggravating

By Robert Scucci | Published

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When action heroes try to breach enemy headquarters, they rely on stealth, intuition, and apparently, air ducts that are so clean that you can eat off of them! But I find it hard to believe that John McClane can travel through an air vent opening without coming out of the other end looking like Pig-Pen from Peanuts. Time and time again, this method of maneuvering is utilized for convenience, but I’m here to argue that this isn’t an ideal way to get around in real life. 

A Dirty Job

air vents

First of all, air ducts are filthy because, by design, they move around not only air, but also dust particles. In every single movie that uses this trope, however, the HVAC systems behind the air vents are spotless and shiny as if the building in question was just erected, or if the ducts were just cleaned out by a third-party contractor. But it’s worth noting that the National Air Duct Cleaners Association (NADCA) suggests that despite the lack of established industry regulations, it’s a good practice to clean out your system every three to five years. 

Given how most villains aren’t necessarily rule followers, I think it’s safe to say that they’re not maintaining a cleaning schedule while they’re trying to execute their world domination plots. Even if they stayed on top of their building maintenance, five years is a long enough time for dust, dirt, and grime to build up inside of an air vent. 

The Vents Wouldn’t Support You

Another issue that needs to be addressed is the supposed durability that these air ducts have in movies like Mission: Impossible. Any HVAC technician will tell you that popping off an air vent to crawl through the ductwork will yield disastrous results because HVAC systems are not meant to support human weight by design; their primary purpose is to move air around a building. Even Tom Cruise, who is an avid runner and on the shorter and slimmer end of the action hero spectrum, wouldn’t be able to crawl around without causing the entire structure to collapse. 

Somehow, Kevin James Got It Right

Sadly, the only somewhat realistic depiction of what would actually happen if somebody tried pulling off an Ethan Hunt can be found in 2009’s Paul Blart: Mall Cop, in which Kevin James’ character has a nasty spill because the duct can’t support his weight. It’s a troubling state of affairs when the folks at Happy Madison Productions appear to have a better grasp of how to sneak into an air vent than John McTiernan does. 

They Would Hear You For Miles

The network of interconnected ducts that air vents supposedly lead to are also deafeningly loud because they’re made primarily out of sheet metal– the same material that old-time radio show hosts used to shake around to simulate thunder claps during their broadcasts. As stealthy as Zoe Saldana’s Cataleya Restrepo thinks she may be in Colombiana, there’s no way she’s moving around undetected as she’s frantically crawling around on all fours trying to make a daring escape. 

Where’s Your Screwdriver?

air vents

Air vents are also screwed into the wall, and I’ve never seen an action hero who has a screwdriver readily available. Once they get inside the air vent, it’s implied that the ducts are connected to one another, which they are not. Air ducts are connected to a central location called a plenum (typically located in the basement or attic), meaning that all of the ductwork comes together at one central point, and you can’t crawl from room to room even if you wanted to. 

Just Use Doors Already

air vents

It’s high time that action heroes find a new way to get around because the air vent trope has been done to death, and I’m tired of being lied to. If you don’t believe me, try crawling through one yourself. You’ll be disappointed to find out that you’ll probably need to be airlifted to the nearest hospital wrapped in sheet metal because there’s no way you’re not getting stuck.