I was pretty mean to plot twists recently, but even while I was writing the post I found myself thinking of some of the better twists I’ve seen over the years. Everyone loves a good Top 5 list, so here are a few of my favourite unexpected developments. Needless to say, this list contains spoilers.
This would be higher up the list, but I think a modern audience would probably see this coming. The Planet of the Apes movie outstrips the novel it was based upon by transforming it into a post-apocalyptic nightmare tale. After a group of astronauts land on a desolate world, they are surprised to discover it is inhabited by primitive humans, ruled by intelligent talking apes. Melodramatic Captain Taylor desperately tries to convince the apes he comes from a world where man is the dominant form of life, only to discover that he has actually been on Earth all along. The image of the Statue of Liberty, broken on the beach, is one of the defining cinematic images of the 20th Century.
Agatha Christie’s Masterpiece, and probably her most divisive book. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd follows a retired Poirot as he investigates a tale of blackmail, murder, suicide and good old fashioned British scandal. The writing is Christie at her best, but the conclusion is an absolute stunner as Poirot points his Belgian finger firmly at the book’s narrator. The way in which Christie hides this from the reader, while keeping the narrator (mostly) honest is absolutely amazing.
It is a real shame that one of the most original, gripping science fiction novels ever written, could be written by a man so small. While I will no longer support Card financially, I will begrudgingly acknowledge that I love Ender’s Game. When the movie arrives, I’m sure a whole new generation will be blown away by one of the best plot twists in the genre. Sadly, I will not be among them. Following the young Ender Wiggins as he begins his training at Battle School, Ender’s Game takes us inside a boarding school where the only purpose is to train the perfect soldier. As he gets older, Ender begins to participate in grander battle simulations until he is training to command the entire fleet. The ruthless Battle School training kicks in on Ender’s final exam, when he succeeds in wiping out the enemy entirely. Only then does Ender discover that he has been controlling a very real fleet. The repercussions of this accidental genocide would be explored further in Card’s novels, but Ender’s Game is the best expression of this universe.
I know, I know, video games aren’t know for their great storytelling, and that’s usually for good reason. Narrative in Video Games is a very different sort of beast, taking a back seat to gameplay, but when it’s done well it can really surprise you. Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic was a game ahead of its time. Build by Bioware who would later adapt a lot of the gameplay for its Mass Effect series, Knights of the Old Republic is a vast Roleplaying Game. You take the role of a young anonymous soldier aboard a republic cruiser. When the ship is attacked, you are forced to evacuate on a planet controlled by the Sith. From there you form a party of the usual Star Wars cliches, the rogue, the alien, the robot, the princess, and start trying to save the Galaxy from the bad guys.
Video Game narrative is used very well here to create a two-layered story. The main plot focuses on survival, it is your key drive. Fight enemies and break into buildings to find what you need to reach safety. The second layer is more subtle and builds from smaller plot points as you play, it tells the story of your enemy, two Sith Lords, a master and apprentice, who fought the Jedi and disappeared. Years later, the apprentice overthrows his master and returns to destroy the Jedi. As the player reaches the climax they discover, in a plot twist that sounds a lot more predictable on paper, that they is the second Sith Lord and their memories have been wiped.
It sounds a little cheesy, and it’s a story that wouldn’t work on the screen, but Knights of the Old Republic is a vast game. It takes around 40 hours to complete, and most of the back story is provided to the player through immersion and conversation. Details that seem irrelevant all contribute to a plot twist that is genuinely surprising.
No plot twist list is complete without Fight Club. In a manner much like The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Fight Club turns the audience’s expectations on their head and introduces the unreliable narrator to the mainstream public. In the years that followed, Fight Club’s story of the split personality anarchist would be aped repeatedly and badly, but the original film still holds up very well.
After a bout of insomnia, our hero meets Tyler Durden, a laid back sort who makes a living selling soap made from a liposuctionists’ waste fat. Together they start a network of underground fighting clubs that soon become the basis of a subversive terrorist organisation. It all comes to a head when Durden disappears, and in the course of tracking him down, the protagonist discovers that he and Tyler Durden are one and the same.
That Fight Club spawned a lousy genre should not be held against it, it is a great film with a twist that offers more every time you see it.