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Nov 05 2013

The curse of surprise film endings

I recently watched two films The Prestige (2006) and Now You See Me (2013). The former was recommended to me as one of Hugh Jackman’s better films to observe his acting capabilities and he does give a good performance. In fact, both films have excellent actors (the great Michael Caine appears in both) and one is never bored while watching. But what I want to focus on these two films is how otherwise pretty good films get ruined for me by the desire of the filmmakers to spring surprise endings on the viewer, even if those endings ruin the credibility of what came before. (There will be major spoilers for The Prestige after the jump. In fact, I pretty much give away the whole story.)

Both of these films are about magic, which immediately put me in a favorable frame of mind even before I started watching. I really like magic but what I like most about it is the fact that it is not magic at all and that what seems like a violation of the laws of science turn out to be cleverly designed and constructed illusions. And this is one way in which The Prestige let me down.

The central plot is about the bitter and brutal rivalry between two magicians (played by Jackman and Christian Bale) at the dawn of the twentieth century to see who is the greater magician. In particular they seek to have the better version of a teleporter trick where the magician disappears in one location and then appears almost instantaneously at another location, certainly quicker than would be taken by going through hidden passages.

What bothered me is that Jackman’s more spectacular version of the trick involves using a device that actually creates a duplicate of an object but at a different location. This is flat-out impossible because it violates all manner of the laws of science and yet the filmmakers treat it as if it were merely a clever new invention. Although the film takes place in England, Jackman goes to Colorado Springs to get a scientist to build it. Furthermore, in order to give this idea added verisimilitude, the film has as the scientist Nikola Tesla (played by David Bowie), a real and famous scientist who actually did live in Colorado Springs around 1900.

In addition, both the Jackman and the Bale magicians had elaborate secret double lives. Jackman was also a rich nobleman. Bale had an identical twin in disguise as his assistant and they switched identities periodically to achieve his teleporter trick, resulting in them sharing the fame as a magician as well as sharing a wife and lover and child. We are supposed to believe that both Jackman and Bale successfully hid this fact from everyone close to them as they were each going through a magician apprenticeship, building up their careers from obscurity to fame over many years, and getting married along the way. Their double lives are revealed only at the very end.

Rather than being wowed by the surprise revelations, I was left feeling annoyed at the end because it treats the filmgoer as an idiot.

In Now You See Me there was no magical hocus-pocus like the teleporter machine and the spectacular tricks that are revealed are seen to be done by cleverness and nothing more is claimed, although even here some of it was highly implausible. But the whole plot is utterly preposterous as we are expected to believe that a mysterious person planned the whole scheme down to its last detail decades in advance. What is worse is that it involves yet again a secret double identity that is sprung on the viewer at the very end. While not magical, this one was utterly unbelievable and again left me feeling annoyed rather than impressed.

I blame M. Night Shyamalan for this trend. Ever since the massive success of The Sixth Sense (1999), some filmmakers have been overly desirous of producing a gasp-inducing surprise ending. But the surprise in The Sixth Sense was done well and seemed natural, once you swallow the central plot idea introduced right at the start that there actually are people who can see the spirits of dead people still appearing in the form of their former bodies.

The surprise endings in the two films discussed here seemed to be designed to create great surprise, which they undoubtedly did, at the cost of making the audience (at least me) feel like I was swindled. Shymalan’s later films suffered from the same problem, in which creating a big surprise ending, however contrived, seeming to be the main goal instead of it being an organic part of the plot.

Even films that are not suspenseful seem to be tempted by the surprise ending disease. Robot and Frank (2012) was a wonderful film that I reviewed earlier. This was a pure human-interest story, not fast moving and with no glitz. But even here, about three-quarters of the way through, they sprang a surprise that was somewhat implausible and, what was worse, totally unnecessary. It did not completely spoil the film but it did cheapen it slightly for me.

There should be no need for such things. This kind of deus ex machina shows a lack of imagination and creativity on the part of the filmmakers. The classic Alfred Hitchcock film Psycho (1960) shows how surprise can be done in a way that is plausible and wraps up the story in a satisfactory and non-supernatural manner.

31 comments

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  1. 1
    tso

    I feel the Prestige gets a bit of a pass being based on a novel. I’m sure it ends a bit differently tho.

  2. 2
    unbound

    @tso – Actually, the novel has the Tesla teleporting machine in it. Not sure if the movie (I’ve only seen pieces) stuck with the novel in that the original body is left lifeless in the process and are called “prestiges” (hence the name of the novel).

    From descriptions I’ve heard of the movie, it seems to stick pretty faithfully to the novel.

  3. 3
    rq

    Yeah, I didn’t like Now You See Me for the reason you mention – the idea that someone has been organising revenge for decades with such intricate detail stretches my credibility. I didn’t like The Prestige because incredible science aside, having a technological wonder to perform the trick seemed like the easy way out… I’m not exactly sure why, but it felt like a betrayal of the competition between two magicians to include a technological wizard on one side of the conflict.
    For a really beautiful and heart-wrenching magic-and-love movie, try The Illusionist with Edward Norton. It’s far more low-key than the two you mention here, and even with the surprise-twist ending, it’s not as much of a stretch to believe it could be done. This one is my favourite magician movie (until, of course, someone comes along and explains why it doesn’t work… ;) ).

  4. 4
    Mano Singham

    In the film, the original body is still alive which requires still more convoluted plot devices to solve the problems that creates!

  5. 5
    Reginald Selkirk

    I blame M. Night Shyamalan for this trend. Ever since the massive success of The Sixth Sense (1999), some filmmakers have been overly desirous of producing a gasp-inducing surprise ending. …

    Notably, most of Shyamalan’s films since then have failed to live up to expectations. To the point where most viewers fail to have high expectations for a Shyamalan film.

  6. 6
    Ben Wright

    Actually, I think the twist in The Prestige is, if not sign-posted, then hinted at all through the film. In particular, the two brothers are not of the same personality. The ‘good’ Bale has the wife and child, the ‘bad’ Bale has the lover, ties the different knot in the water tank trick and sabotages the bird-cage trick.

    It explains his seemingly inconsistent behaviour. It also neatly explains why Good Bale can’t remember which knot was tied (because he wasn’t the one who tied it), why Bad Bale is good enough at make-up to sneak onto Jackman’s stage, and of course everything that happens when Bale’s ‘assistant’ is kidnapped.

    So while the double life might stretch credibility, it does at least have plenty of support throughout the film. The twist, in this case, is like a magic trick – ‘so that’s how it was done’.

  7. 7
    deepak shetty

    I must be the only person who felt that Unbreakable was a better movie than sixth sense. It did use super hero comic book logic for its twist ending so it was internally consistent. The sixth sense on the other hand had a contrived twist?

  8. 8
    deepak shetty

    > it seems to stick pretty faithfully to the novel.
    Its been a long time but from what I remember the ending is completely different in the book v/s the movie

  9. 9
    TGAP Dad

    For surprise endings, my favorite is the 1987 Kevin Costner spy thriller No Way Out. It’s smart, plausible, significant, and I absolutely did not see it coming.

  10. 10
    invivoMark

    [Spoiler alert for Sixth Sense]

    I will never understand why the ending of The Sixth Sense surprises people. The movie actually shows the character dying in the very first 2 minutes. I thought it was supposed to be understood the whole time that the guy was dead. I don’t see how it is possible that someone could misunderstand that.

    Because I knew the “surprise” ending, of course, the scene where the “surprise” is “revealed” seemed like some of the most amateurish pieces of film I’d ever seen. It was overacted, overdramatized, and overly long.

    I have not seen The Prestige, but I am glad to have read its reveal here, rather than waste my time on such a stupid plot. Any show in which one or more characters are magicians should not contain actual magic, unless it is understood from the setting that magic is real (a la Gandalf) or magic plays a central and obvious role in the plot.

    I do enjoy surprise endings, but a movie can’t rely only on its surprise, since some people will inevitably guess the ending. The Usual Suspects and Fight Club are among my favorite movies. The endings of both were surprising to me the first time, but they are both solid films even without those twists.

  11. 11
    brucegee1962

    Here’s what I didn’t like about The Prestige. Jackman travels to Colorado Springs specifically because he thinks that Tesla will be able to give him a clue as to how Bale does his trick. (This doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, because Bale was doing the trick with two doors and a red rubber ball, long before Tesla got involved with the special effects.) But sure enough, he finds that Tesla does, in fact, have technology which makes the trick possible, so it seems that his hunch was right all along.

    Then, later on, he finds out that, even though Bale is in prison, someone is still messing with him. Since he now has every reason to believe that Bale does the trick the same way he does it, why not is it such a big surprise for him to discover that Bale has a double? Wasn’t that pretty much exactly what his whole investigation proved?

    And one other thing. Why the heck go through the whole process of killing the doubles, disposing of the bodies, etc.? Why not just go through the process once, then once you’ve created your twin, go on and live a double life like Bale does?

  12. 12
    mnb0

    I thought Now you can see me a bore and didn’t make it to the end. Fortunately at the same time another Surinamese broadcast station had the cute little indie Best Man Down. Now that’s a movie every non-believer should watch, because it’s about how the average clumsy Joe and Jane try to make the right ethical choices and somehow succeed. Without the help of any Holy Book. But with doubting every step.

  13. 13
    Reginald Selkirk

    Off-topic, but may interest you:
    We finally know why warm water freezes faster than cool water

  14. 14
    mnb0

    The Usual Suspects by no means is bad, but I had figured out who Kayser Soze was within 45 minutes. So no surprise for me. The idea is taken from Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. There is also a crime novel woven around the theme of Punch and Judy with the same idea.

  15. 15
    invivoMark

    I agree with you. Not only do I think Unbreakable’s twist was better written than that of Sixth Sense, it was simply more entertaining, better acted, better written, etc. Sixth Sense lives and dies on its twist. Unbreakable has some substance to it.

  16. 16
    invivoMark

    I have known two people who guessed the end of Usual Suspects. Both agreed that despite this, the movie was enjoyable to watch.

    I think twist endings are more enjoyable (and less predictable) for people who have not been exposed to so many movies and books. As you say, it is easy to predict an ending if the ending is similar to that of another story with which one is familiar. And even if the twist is not modeled after another story, there are common themes and tropes that will often give away the ending to anyone sharp enough to pick up on them.

    But there are still movie twists that work. Cabin in the Woods is full of twists, and even if you can guess the plot’s final twist (not that hard), the movie will still surprise you.

  17. 17
    trucreep

    I have to say Unbreakable was BORRRRRRRRRING. My GOD was that a boring movie.

  18. 18
    lochaber

    It’s been a while since I’ve seen The Prestige, so I’m fuzzy on a lot of the details.

    I felt that an important part of the movie was Jackman’s character’s ability/willingness to kill himself, repeatedly, for the sake of fame (and ‘prestige’?).

  19. 19
    Rob Grigjanis

    The title Now You See Me reminded me of Don’t Look Now, an excellent adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s short story, starring Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie. Talk about unexpected twists. And no insulting the audience, IIRC.

  20. 20
    Mano Singham

    Thanks for the recommendation. I’ll check it out. I like both Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie as actors, so that’s a plus.

  21. 21
    Mano Singham

    To me, that was the most interesting feature of the film, that it raised the question: Am I willing to die a terrible death by drowning with the faith that I would be cloned immediately? His courage to do so came from Michael Caine falsely(?) telling him that a drowning death was peaceful

  22. 22
    Mano Singham

    I have to agree with trucreep that it was a boring movie.

  23. 23
    Mano Singham

    Thanks for the tip for Best Man Down. I am always looking for suggestions for good but little known and offbeat films.

  24. 24
    Mano Singham

    Those are excellent questions that had not struck me.

  25. 25
    Mano Singham

    I thought that he was seriously hurt but did not die and recovered.

  26. 26
    invivoMark

    I’ve heard people say that, but if he was only hurt and then recovered, what would be the point of showing him getting shot? Why would there be no other reference to the shooting, a hospital trip, or any of the necessary recovery time for the entire rest of the film?

    In movies, when someone gets shot, they either die or they survive because they’re a protagonist and had a lighter in their front pocket.

  27. 27
    filethirteen

    My experience of the Sixth Sense was of spotting the twist early in and having to suffer through the rest as more and cruder hints are thrown at the audience until finally all is revealed and… was that it? We had to endure all that just to see what had become obvious ten minutes in? I loathed that film.

    Agreed that The Usual Suspects and Fight Club are great movies. On the subject of twists in movies, I’d just like to mention three other fine suspense films. I’d say more but they’re just too good for me to spoil.

    Memento: highly recommended
    Blood Simple: disguises itself as a formulaic bore until the first bombshell is dropped
    Run Lola Run: German (Lola rennt) with subtitles, possibly my favourite film of all and I’ve seen many

  28. 28
    invivoMark

    I loved Lola rennt, and only partly because I watched it in my high school German class when the teacher didn’t want to bother assigning us classwork.

    Have not seen Blood Simple. Maybe I will check it out.

  29. 29
    Reginald Selkirk

    It was so boring that I have to admit that I never saw it ;>

  30. 30
    Reginald Selkirk

    How about a post on movies that were great right up until the last scene? I’ve already got a candidate in mind.

  31. 31
    Mano Singham

    I hadn’t thought of a post on this but I might open up a topic on that for discussion. Stay tuned!

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