Verisimilitude, apart from being a long word that feels really nice to say, is about the appearance of reality or truth. This isn’t absolute reality, but the realty of the world in a film. When someone says, “That wasn’t realistic” about a film, what they probably mean is that it wasn’t realistic within the context of the film; verisimilitude (this is a good thing to correct someone on if you want a punch in the face).
Verisimilitude is enhanced by a filmmaker presenting certain facts and parameters of a film’s reality, then sticking to them. So, if we’re told at the beginning of the film everyone has spaceships and it takes about 40 minutes to get the moon at top speed, you can’t then show them getting to an emergency on Pluto in an hour. This is unrealistic within the context of the film.
If the audience feels confident in the facts and reality of the film world, then they can suspend their disbelief, accept what they’re seeing, and become immersed in the story and world the filmmaker is crafting.
To use an actual example, in Terminator 2 we start with a look into the future where we see the human resistance fighting against machines, we’re then taken back to the present day. This does two things to help foster the verisimilitude for the crazy shit that is to come; 1) we’re shown that time is fluid, 2) we see that machine’s are very advanced in the future and can fight in wars. With this established the audience is more likely to buy into the idea that a big humanoid robot with an Austrian accent can be shot up by the LAPD and keep on going. In reality that whole idea is absurd, but in the reality of Terminator 2 it’s believable. If however the Terminator had gone on to to run for office in an attempt to save humanity through politics that would have been unbelievable in the context of the film, as the audience is never shown that the machine has the aptitude for double-crossing and back-stabbing necessary for politics.
Verisimilitude doesn’t just apply to science fiction and action films set in fantastical world, it’s also crucial to the success of dramas, comedies and all other narrative fiction. Every story presents a certain view of reality and asks the audience to suspend their disbelief in some way, whether it’s the fugitive escaping from right under the cop’s noses or the couple in the romantic drama risking it all for love. These things may be unlikely in the real world, but if the filmmaker does their job well then we’ll believe they can happen in the film world.
And that’s verisimilitude, kids!