#2. It Turns Out You Can Change the Future
Source Code, Terminator 2, Deja Vu, The Lake House, Minority Report
The first Terminator film ends with Sarah Connor defeating the time-traveling robot, but also realizing that everything she did played into the future as Kyle told her it played out -- she was (as a result of the events of the film) now pregnant with the future leader of the human resistance and the nuclear war was still coming. In fact, all the Terminator's mission had proven was that the past could not be changed. Then in Terminator 2 they decided, no, fuck it, you can actually change it after all. Everything is fine, guys!
"All good, guys. Future's saved. Definitely no reason for me to travel back in another sequel, thanks."
In Source Code, Jake Gyllenhaal gets time machined back to the past in order to figure out who blew up a passenger train earlier that morning. In the mandatory scene where his handlers explain how time travel works in this particular universe, they make it clear that what they're doing isn't really sending him back in time, but allowing him to inhabit the memories of a dude who died in the explosion -- it's really just a recording he can interact with.
Through the course of what is essentially a really morbid version of Groundhog Day, Gyllenhaal falls in love with the girlfriend of the dead man that he's wearing as a skin suit. So of course he wants to save her life, despite it being repeatedly made clear to him that it's literally impossible to change anything in the real world from his sightseeing tour of the past. Gyllenhaal's professional opinion to the contrary is "You're wrong," and then he proves it by finally saving everyone on the train by trying really, really hard.
His trying really, really hard for butt stuff later that night would prove less successful.
That identical plot plays out in the Denzel Washington film Deja Vu (the title would be cruelly ironic if it hadn't beaten Source Code to the theaters by a few years). This time it's a ferry boat explosion, and Washington is sent back four days into the past in a way that (again) only lets him observe, once again for the purpose of catching the terrorist. And (again!) despite his superior's warnings that the technology doesn't allow them to change the past in any way, he saves the boat and gets the girl.
Why It Ruins Stories:
These are sci-fi movies, and while other genres can get away with being a little vague with the rules of the universe (how do Smurfs breed, anyway?), science fiction is all about establishing rules and playing by them. In The Matrix, there is a specific reason within the rules of that universe that Neo is suddenly able to fly -- it's all just a computer program, and the film is about him learning to master it. That's playing by the rules.
A deleted scene had the Agents calling him a racial slur, then breaking their controllers.
But in these time-travel films, they get their surprise ending by ignoring that, usually with no explanation whatsoever. The rules of their universe are just overcome by the power of ... love, or some shit.
In Deja Vu, Denzel Washington ignores some eggheads' eggheady explanation about how he can't change the past and does it anyway, while vocally deriding the scientists' complex language as bullshit because he couldn't understand it. Same with Source Code -- Gyllenhaal just ... does it somehow. There is no explanation. Because people who are pissed off by book learnin' are totally the target audience for sci-fi. It's actually worse in the Terminator franchise, since it creates a ridiculous loop where preventing the nuclear war also prevents the guy from going back to prevent the nuclear war.
"Screw nuclear war, just find me a way to travel back to stop myself from doing John Q."
But logical inconsistencies aside, it also undermines what, for most of the film, you thought was the central theme: that you must come to terms with the past, because you can't change it.
Remember, the plots of these movies are always ostensibly about fixing something else. The Terminator wasn't about going back to change the past, it was about going back to stop someone else (well, a killer robot) from changing it. Gyllenhaal's and Washington's characters weren't there to stop the bombing, they were there to find out who did it. When they tack on the happy ending, what's the moral then? That we really can un-kill our loved ones if we want it badly enough? That even the unshakeable laws of the universe can yield to the awesome power of the human spirit? That no tragedy can stand up in the face of poor test screenings?
#1. The Twist Just for the Hell of It
The Saw series, anything written by M. Night Shyamalan, and virtually every thriller for the past decade
In The Sixth Sense, it turned out that Bruce Willis was dead the whole time. There's a spoiler in the previous sentence, in case you've been living on the moons of Saturn since 1998. But with this one incredible bombshell, M. Night Shyamalan did for twists what Avatar did for 3D -- every movie needs to have it now.
Hell, we were just talking about the twist ending to a Batman movie. Yes, if ever there was a franchise that lent itself to mind-bending plot twists, it's the one about a guy in a hat with bat ears who walks the street at night punching murderous clowns. The Saw movies rely wholly on the fact that there is some massive twist at the end of all of them (they even had their own "this is the twist" theme music). And of course, Shyamalan has been trying to recreate his most famous twist ending in every movie he's done since, to the point where it's become a running joke.
"The twist is that I was a hack all along."
Why It Ruins Stories:
And that is exactly the problem. Of course, a twist ending only works if it's unexpected, and it's only unexpected when most movies aren't doing it. When seemingly 80 percent of your genre has a twist ending, or when a TV series is based entirely on twists, the audience just winds up sitting back waiting for the real story to reveal itself. The movies can't foreshadow them anymore, because the moment something weird happens, the audience is like "Welp, I wonder if this scene is only taking place inside the main character's imagination? Or if the villain is actually a split-personality version of the hero?"
New Line Cinema
"Actually, the real villain is whoever greenlit this."
Speaking of which, can you imagine that Fight Club would have been as good if it had been made in the age where every other thriller had to have a split-personality twist? We've now seen it in Black Swan, The Machinist, Secret Window (despite the fact that Stephen King wrote the story it was based on back when that twist was original), Hide and Seek, The Uninvited, Perfect Stranger, Identity, The Number 23 ... and probably more we can't remember.
20th Century Fox
"I am Jack's rehashed third act."
It's almost like they've forgotten that there are all sorts of ways to surprise the viewers and keep them guessing without resorting to a cheap "Everything we told you up until now was bullshit!" trick. Hell, at this point, not yanking the rug out from under us at the end would be the most mind-blowing twist of all.
S Peter Davis is the author of the book Occam's Nightmare, a history of conspiracy theories and strange ideas, available here.
If you're pressed for time and just looking for a quick fix, then check out 5 Weirdly Specific Scenes You See In Every Marvel Movie.
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