Beth and I just finished the Nolan Batman Trilogy again. I have spoken about The Dark Knight Rises here before, but I’d barely walked out of the cinema when I wrote that. Back then I was more concerned with the film’s narrative weakness when compared to The Dark Knight. I’ve seen Rises twice since then, and I like it. It’s a fun film that borrows from some of my favourite Batman stories. But it’s easily the weakest of the Trilogy, hamstrung by Nolan’s desire to go out with a bang. The film has some great moments, but its weakened by contorting to fit a few feeble twists in the final act. I’m not here to talk about Batman, so I won’t go into spoilers here, but I think I can say that none of these twists knocked my socks off.
The cinema loves a good plot twist. Some are so iconic, their surprise is long forgotten. I’m sad to say I knew the ending to The Empire Strikes Back well before I saw the film. It’s a consequence of being the youngest in a large family, you’ve heard the all the best bits of all the best films long before you get to experience them for yourself. Sometimes you’re lucky. When I was eleven, I was lucky enough to see Hitchcock’s Psycho without any foreknowledge, and I was young enough to still find it scary. It was a great experience and the film is still one of my favourites, but otherwise I’m not a big fan of the plot twist.
People knock M. Night Shyamalan, but I’d say he’s one of the few film makers that gets the plot twist right. I don’t always care for his films, but the appeal of The Sixth Sense is not just that it ends with a surprise, but that the surprise is actually fundamental to a proper understanding of the film. My all time favourite twist is still Planet of the Apes, a blow that still catches a new viewer unawares since the dated B-Movie feel lulls you into a false sense of security. Here the twist is not only integral to the plot, but in retrospect, the only logical conclusion to the story. Planet of the Apes also gets bonus points for offering a twist ending that is so much better than the novel it was based upon.
But there are those other cinema twists, the kind that seem to be coming more and more common. Take Star Trek Into Darkness, an enjoyable film that crams the second half with twists that are neither surprising nor alter the course of the film. Where The Empire Strikes Back offered us a twist that changed the way we looked at The Hero and The Villain, Return of the Jedi offers us another familial twist that just seems confusing and without merit. One of the few things I liked about Man of Steel is that it tried to tell a clear, controlled story, but even that falls prey to the last minute attempt to jolt the audience’s expectations. In literature, Philip K Dick is still the master of the twist ending. Each of his short stories seems to terminate in an equally alarming conclusion. Funnily enough, though his work has been adapted to the big screen repeatedly, his twist endings don’t seem to survive the process quite so often.
I find the plot twist grating. I know that stories are there to entertain us, storytellers have a lot of tools at their disposal and surprise is one of them, but it is not my favourite. I read books, watch TV and go to the cinema to be entertained. For the money I pay, I usually expect to be entertained for the duration of the story. This means the narrative needs to be tight, flowing and with a sense of purpose. Take The Dark Knight as an example. The film is an enormous success because its plot construction is almost perfect. Every scene, every word of dialogue is place in the film with a clear intention. It leads to a climax that seems inevitable. Furthermore, it features only one real plot twist, about halfway through the film that naturally begins the events of the second half. Another of my favourite films recently was Dredd. This long overdue adaptation was a flop at the box office, and I still can’t believe it. It presents a small, tight story that takes place within a single building. Not a minute of screentime is wasted. It also features very little you could call a plot twist.
These are the kinds of stories I enjoy, careful and controlled. The plot twist weakens this control. The problem is that a twist relies on establishing certain expectations in the audience, and then defying them. Performed well, it can be the highlight of a story, but defying expectations is not easy. If, for example, you would like to present a character as an ally, only to reveal in the final moments that they are actually the villain, you are forced to present a very limited picture of the the character. Worse still, the temptation is to build the character up even higher to enhance the twist when it finally comes. Inevitably, plot holes develop. (e.g Why didn’t he just shoot him when they were alone together? He’s been around for months, why didn’t he just steal the Jewel etc. etc.) Even Doctor Who, my absolute favourite, has succumb to the plot twist. Swapping intelligent, well paced drama for an elaborate series of 45 minute chapters in an ever more convoluted story arc.
Plot twists leave me feel cheated. The lengths that creators travel to conceal them leave their stories bent out of shape around them. They are almost always spotted, and do nothing but dilute their stories in favour of a bit of cheap sparkle that will be forgotten as soon as the next sparkly thing comes along. It’s time to leave this narrative device behind, and explore pacing, plotting and characterisation instead.