I Love a Twist!
A CultureMap®
by Stephen Brewer
Published on 10/27/14

Moviegoers love a twist ending—a revelation that suddenly turns the plot upside down or that keeps us wondering long after the lights come up. How could he not know he was dead? So they’re the same guy? Those crackers are made of what? Here are some of cinema’s biggest surprises [spoilers ahead!] and why we love being shocked by them.

“You blew it up!”  (Planet of the Apes | Franklin J. Schaffner (dir.) | film | 1968)
to  “Soylent Green is people!”  (Soylent Green | Richard Fleischer (dir.) | film | 1973)

With climate change and other dire prospects looming, the future can look awfully grim. Of course, things may turn out even more horribly than we think. In Planet of the Apes, lawgiver orangutans, scientist chimpanzees and warrior gorillas lord it over human beings. In Soylent Green, the population is so out of control that 40 million souls are crammed into New York City alone. But being pawed by a “damn dirty ape” or having to stake out living space on the stairway of a dilapidated apartment house isn’t the worst of it, and in each film it’s actor Charlton Heston who delivers the really bad news. At the end of Apes, a loincloth-clad Heston, playing space explorer George Taylor, comes upon the half-buried Statue of Liberty. “You maniacs! You blew it up!” he bellows, realizing he’s on not an alien planet but a postapocalyptic Earth. In Soylent Green, Heston, as detective Robert Thorn, sneaks into a factory where he sees human corpses being converted into the world’s most popular foodstuff. It’s hard to keep a gruesome discovery like global cannibalism to yourself. Seriously wounded and fighting for his life, Thorn gasps out the truth that “Soylent Green is people!”

“Soylent Green is people!”  (Soylent Green | Richard Fleischer (dir.) | film | 1973)
to  “You’re Tyler Durden”  (Fight Club | David Fincher (dir.) | film | 1999)

Profiteers have been getting a bad rap ever since Jesus chased the moneylenders out of the temple, but Soylent Green and Fight Club take the evils of profit making to all-time lows. The Soylent Corporation is onto a sure thing when it corners the market on the world’s last source of nutrition. Talk about demand: When the Soylent Green supply runs out, police have to call in earthmovers to scoop up rampaging shoppers. Even so, disclosing the secret of Soylent Green may disprove the old business axiom that there’s no such thing as bad publicity.

The grungy cinematic parable Fight Club preaches that an obsession with material possessions can wreak havoc on a guy’s masculinity. And, as we learn in the film’s big twist, it can force a milquetoast like the IKEA-obsessed narrator (Edward Norton) to develop a testosterone-driven alter ego (Brad Pitt), who sells beauty soap made from an ingredient hardly less revolting than Soylent Green’s—human body fat from liposuction clinics. It’s his way of flipping the bird at a world where “advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need.”

“I am your father”  (The Empire Strikes Back | Irvin Kershner (dir.) | film | 1980)
to  “You’re Tyler Durden”  (Fight Club | David Fincher (dir.) | film | 1999)

Fight Club’s Tyler Durden is a natural-born evangelist who enlists men in a war against “celebrity magazines, television with 500 channels, some guy’s name on my underwear” and every other emasculating aspect of contemporary consumer culture. Darth Vader, the masked, black-cloaked villain of the original Star Wars trilogy, sets his sights on becoming emperor of the Galactic Empire with the same zeal Durden employs in urging his acolytes to rebel against being the “by-products of a lifestyle obsession.” Vader’s quest pits him against a brave young good guy, Luke Skywalker, who turns out to be his offspring. Just as Durden informs the members of his fight club that they are the “strongest and smartest men who’ve ever lived,” Vader encourages Luke, “You have only begun to discover your power.” Durden is tough on his recruits—“Listen up, maggots. You are not special.… You are the same decaying organic matter as everything else”—but Vader goes further, adopting a “spare the rod and spoil the child” approach by cutting off Luke’s hand. Still, Vader’s parental pride shines through his steely exterior when he tells Luke, “Together we can rule the galaxy as father and son.”

“I am your father”  (The Empire Strikes Back | Irvin Kershner (dir.) | film | 1980)
to  “Mrs. Bates...?”  (Psycho | Alfred Hitchcock (dir.) | film | 1960)

In Psycho, the seeming mama’s boy Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) informs motel guest Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) that “a boy’s best friend is his mother,” but it’s soon clear that the Bates household is not a model of domestic tranquility. Old Mrs. Bates, heard offscreen, chastises Norman for inviting Marion to dinner: “I won’t have you bringing strange young girls in for supper! By candlelight, I suppose, in the cheap, erotic fashion of young men with cheap, erotic minds!” The Bates family’s troubles, however, go far beyond a squabble over the younger generation’s morals. By film’s end, we know Norman has a split-personality disorder and is ventriloquizing his mother, whom he murdered years earlier.

When Darth Vader (played by David Prowse, voiced by James Earl Jones) tells Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), “I am your father,” the announcement elicits a horrifying scream from Luke, who hurls himself into the void rather than accept his pedigree. These extreme parent-child dynamics recall an observation actor Bette Davis once made: “If you have never been hated by your child, you have never been a parent.”

“You’re Tyler Durden”  (Fight Club | David Fincher (dir.) | film | 1999)
to  “Mrs. Bates...?”  (Psycho | Alfred Hitchcock (dir.) | film | 1960)

In the final scene of Psycho, Norman Bates sits in a jail cell, wrapped in a blanket. As Mrs. Bates, he has worn a frumpy housedress and bad wig and wielded a butcher knife to kill anyone who threatens to come between mother and son. Now his mother has completely taken over his personality—and turned against him. We hear her talking, in a soft, creepy voice: “It’s sad when a mother has to speak the words that condemn her own son, but I couldn’t allow them to believe I would commit murder.”

The bland, nameless narrator in Fight Club has psychological problems too. He’s a suits-and-khakis kind of guy, an automobile company drone who finds his possessions-oriented life to be meaningless. He unconsciously creates a bad-boy alter ego, Tyler Durden, who follows a nihilistic dictum (“It’s only after we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything”) and gets his thrills watching guys beat the crap out of one another—and getting the crap beat out of himself. But Norman and Tyler don’t just shock us; they fascinate us, too. For a memorable movie character, two personalities can be better than one.

“They don’t know they’re dead”  (The Sixth Sense | M. Night Shyamalan (dir.) | film | 1999)
to  “Mrs. Bates...?”  (Psycho | Alfred Hitchcock (dir.) | film | 1960)

Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho has made generations of moviegoers skittish about stepping into motel room showers, and the film doesn’t do much for mother-son relationships, either. We’re still recovering from the shock of the shower scene when we get another surprise: The woman who makes her son’s life hell is a mummified cadaver propped up in a chair. Norman has poisoned his mother and kept her corpse around their spooky old mansion, a twist that enshrines Psycho as one of cinema’s most riveting thrillers.

The twist at the end of The Sixth Sense is the revelation that child psychologist Dr. Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis) has been dead ever since the first scene, when he encountered a gun-wielding intruder in his bathroom. Of course, we should have known; for one thing, the only person who ever acknowledges Crowe’s presence is Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment), a boy who sees dead people. Cole sort of lets the cat out of the bag when he says the dead don’t know they’re dead, but until the final scene we never imagine the affable Crowe is one of those ghosts—just as we believe all along that Mrs. Bates is a living, breathing old nag.

“They don’t know they’re dead”  (The Sixth Sense | M. Night Shyamalan (dir.) | film | 1999)
to  “You blew it up!”  (Planet of the Apes | Franklin J. Schaffner (dir.) | film | 1968)

From 1959 to 1964, week after week, writer-producer Rod Serling served up one scary twist after another in the television series The Twilight Zone. Serling also cowrote the script for Planet of the Apes, and his mastery of the supernatural twist seems to have inspired M. Night Shyamalan’s Sixth Sense. In Planet of the Apes, simians rank higher than humans, and what seems like a faraway planet is actually Earth. Such tricks are old hat to Twilight Zone fans who remember the pig-snouted monsters who ostracize a beautiful woman for her ugliness, or the astronauts who crash-land on an asteroid that turns out to be the Nevada desert. The shocker at the end of The Sixth Sense comes as no surprise to anyone who remembers The Twilight Zone’s department store mannequins that take turns living as human beings, or the little boy who communicates with his dead grandmother through a toy telephone. Serling promised his viewers a “journey into a wondrous land of imagination”—just the kind of trip Shyamalan, who wrote as well as directed The Sixth Sense, takes us on.