Posted by Greg Ferrara on February 24, 2017
One of my favorite sci-fi movies of the last year was the Oscar nominated Arrival(2016). When I watched it, I was reminded how much the big reveal has become a part of modern science fiction. Being a big fan of science fiction, I also took in last year’s Westworld, the TV series, and was again struck by how much the big reveal plays into its story structure. Big reveals, also known as twist endings, though I don’t know if they’re necessarily interchangeable, are when key plot elements are revealed near the conclusion that were initially kept hidden. They aren’t necessarily fooling you, the viewer, just keeping vital information from you, while showing you everything else at the same time. La Jetée (1963), the short photomontage movie made by Chris Marker, relies almost entirely on the big reveal for its story to have any meaning at all. But is that a good thing?
(Be warned: SPOILERS FOLLOW!)
Increasingly with science fiction, the big reveal is a big deal. In the last five years, some of the best sci-fi movies, from Looper (2012) to Predestination (2014), rely upon revealing who certain characters are and what their situation really is at the end to force the audience to rethink everything that preceded it. In a way, it both spoils the suspense in rewatching but also encourages rewatching by revealing details of the plot. So when I watch Arrival again (I have seen it only the one time so far), I will know what those flashbacks are really all about, something I didn’t know going in. I will also know that I’m not necessarily watching things in the order I thought I was, which was kept from me the first time. Westworld does the same thing, only with more intensity. In fact, Westworld manages to have two completely different timelines happening concurrently without alerting the viewer that they are watching two different timelines until the very end of the first season. The two main stories running in the show in fact take place decades apart from each other!
Big reveals weren’t always standard. Science fiction envisioned futures, like Metropolis (1927) or Things to Come (1936), new technologies, like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), or good old alien invasion, like The War of the Worlds (1953) or Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956) without any big twists at the end. Even when there were cool secrets to be given up, like the fact that in Forbidden Planet (1956) it’s Morbius (Walter Pidgeon) creating the monster inadvertently from his id while he sleeps, it’s revealed pretty early on when Morbius wakes up after the first visible ship attack and the monster disappears. But then came The Twilight Zone in late 1959 and the big reveal/twist ending never had a better friend.
So by 1963, La Jetée had a target audience built in (if a movie done almost exclusively with still photos can have a target audience, that is). For those not in the know, the story of La Jetée takes place in a future Paris devastated and unlivable after a third world war in which the city became irradiated. A prisoner is sent back in time to encounter life before the war, and then to the future, to hopefully resolve the present day situation by using key technologies from the future.
SPOILER START - The one thing that will not leave his mind is a haunting image of something happening on a platform (the jetty) at the airport when he was a boy, something revolving around a man’s death. Actually, it’s a man’s murder. After traveling back to the past and forward to the future, he acquires the knowledge and technology necessary to fix the present only to find out he is now on a hit list and escapes to the past, where he runs towards the woman he fell in love with during his travels, only to be killed in front of his younger self. And so now we know, it was him the whole time. He was seeing his own murder and it wouldn’t leave his head – SPOILER END
Okay, so how does that help us out the next time we watch it? Well, for starters, it puts us inside a time loop much like the character himself. We can watch it all happen again and again but we can’t change it. Just as he cannot change the circumstances of his own death. If he could, that image would have never been there. Since it was, he seems destined to die in a very specific and concrete way.
But without the reveal, is the story worth telling? Could it have simply been the same story, minus the image and memory, and at the end he gets away by escaping to the past? Yes, but it may not have had any real dramatic impact. At the same time, maybe it would. There is no point in Blade Runner (1982), shortly before the climax, where it is finally revealed to the audience that Harrison Ford’s character is a replicant. There has been much speculation (okay, let’s be honest: rampant) but never a conclusive set of shots establishing that. So, in the end, the movie is what it is: a story taking place in the future in which the lead character escapes to a new life at the conclusion (well, in at least one of the 487 versions). The story doesn’t need a twist, but that doesn’t mean it might not have worked better with one.
Other big reveals, like the jaw dropper in Predestination (and if you haven’t seen it, I will not only not spoil it for you, I don’t think I could – it would take too long and be too unbelievable – you just have to see it for yourself) absolutely invite reviewings and expand the story far beyond its basic plot elements. But even if it didn’t, even if the ending spoiled any reason to ever watch it again, so what? When people complain that movies or TV shows with twist endings don’t work once you know the ending, I ask myself, “why does anything have to be rewatched in the first place?” I mean, I love rewatching certain movies but can’t a movie be created with the sole purpose of providing a one time only experience? I don’t judge a movie based on whether I’ll watch it again but if I thought it was good when I did watch it.
The Twilight Zone and La Jetée both made the big reveal a big deal. It was around before but in the early 1960s, it really took off. When the internet came around, La Jetée got a lot more attention as it was now easy to view it streaming (including FilmStruck’s offering under the Directed by Chris Marker theme and on The Criterion Channel). Before, there were few outlets for a 26 minute short film. And now the big reveal is with us for good. Is that a bad thing? No. If a movie deriving its whole meaning from a big reveal at the end ruins a second watching for some people, so be it. Sometimes, with the movies, it’s best to only live once.
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