After more than a century of film, most viewers who grew up with the medium can spot the plot developments of most films coming from a mile away. But things aren’t always so predictable. Some directors manage to transcend audience expectations and create plot twists so shocking that they become synonymous with their films, to the extent that almost no one with any knowledge of film can see the film unspoiled. Sometimes these twists seem cliched in retrospect, but that’s precisely because those films popularized them. We’re looking back with fresh eyes at five movie twists that had a notable impact on our pop culture landscape, in chronological order.
If, somehow, these films haven’t been spoiled for you, stop reading when you see a particular title and move on.
1. Citizen Kane
Commonly regarded as the greatest film of all time, the first directorial effort from Orson Welles concerns the legacy of newspaper tycoon and failed politician Charles Foster Kane modeled after William Randolph Hearst. An unseen investigator learns bits and pieces about the life of the enigmatic Kane after his death by speaking with those who knew him, but is ultimately unable to solve the mystery of his last word, which might lead to some revelation about who he was. In its final shot, the camera reveals the meaning of Rosebud to the audience. It was Kane’s sled from when he was a child, a symbol of the innocence he lost when his parents sent him to the city in hopes he would find success.
Nowadays, the twist is synonymous with the film, though the revelation works precisely because it doesn’t really matter. Rosebud the sled doesn’t explain who Kane was or why he was in a succinct package — not when the life of a man is so much more complicated than his final words.
There are two infamous twists within Psycho, Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece of suspense that is as much about misleading the audience as it is anything else. The unexpected plot developments were so essential to his vision that Hitchcock, in fact, sent specific instructions to theater owners not to let people in after the picture had started. The first part of the film focuses on the spontaneous flight of a woman, played by the famous actress Janet Leigh, who is then abruptly and violently murdered in the shower by an unseen woman in a scene so unexpected it has since become perhaps the most famous death scene in film history. Imagine going to a see a film ostensibly starring, say, Scarlett Johansson, only to have her killed off 40 minutes into the movie.
Thanks to Hitchcock’s skillful misleading, we believe the killer to be the decrepit, jealous mother of meek motel attendant Norman Bates. In a terrifying reveal of her skeleton and of Norman dressed up in drag, we eventually realize that he perpetrated the murders himself, driven to madness and murder by his conflicted relationship with his corpse of a mother and the women he cares for. Psycho actively and routinely deceives audiences in order to illicit a strong reaction, and most films with twists that aim to shock owe something to it.
3. Planet of the Apes
The Twilight Zone helped pioneer some of the most cliched twist within the modern-day film lexicon using its sci-fi anthology format. Written by Twilight Zone creator and narrator Rod Serling, Planet of the Apes is essentially a lengthened episode of The Twilight Zone with a bigger budget and broader scope, so it makes sense that it would end with an iconic twist. After finally freeing himself of the backward ape society that labelled him as a savage, Charlton Heston’s stranded astronaut discovers that the titular planet was actually a post-apocalyptic Earth, destroyed by nuclear war, as evidenced by the presence of a bombed-out Statue of Liberty buried in the beach. The twist is more than the iconic image, however, as it speaks to the struggle of Heston’s character to defend humanity from the corrupt apes before he finally condemns it in this final shot. Everyone knows this twist now, and it’s been parodied to oblivion.
4. Star Wars, Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back
The Empire Strikes Back remains the greatest Star Wars film for many reasons, and its big twist ending is most certainly one of them. During what might have been their final showdown, Luke Skywalker is unable to defeat the sinister Darth Vader due to lack of training. After Vader cuts Skywalker’s hand off, he reveals that he is his father. This unexpected familial relationship was shocking at the time, but it’s since become one of the foundations of the Star Wars universe. Every film since has touched on the same themes of betrayal, legacy, and conflicted father-son and mentor-protege relationships that was more or less established with the single iconic line “I am your father,” elevating what had previously been a straightforward hero’s journey into something far more complex and tragic, even Shakespearean in tone. Without that twist, the prequels and The Force Awakens might not exist, and if they did, they would be very different.
5. The Sixth Sense
Before he became known for inserting twists into all his films, M. Night Shyamalan directed perhaps the most thrilling and surprising films of the late ’90s with The Sixth Sense. Using past personal tragedies to explore ghost mythology, the film focuses on the relationship of child psychologist Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis) and supernaturally-gifted child Cole Sear (Haley Joel-Osment), as well as Crowe’s strained marriage. Crowe is revealed to have been a ghost for almost the entire runtime, whose presence is only acknowledged by Cole and no one else. His wife isn’t angry with him, as he believed — she’s mourning him. The “he’s been dead the whole time!” twist has been done countless times, but rarely has it been handled so effectively as it is in The Sixth Sense, where the revelation makes the supernatural elements of the film suddenly become far more applicable and poignant.
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