Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Top 10 Plot Twists


Bruce Willis is a ghost. Rosebud is a sled. Robert de Niro is the Devil. Darth Vader is Luke’s father. Soylent Green is people. There’s a reason all these are legendary. In a fictional story, few things stir the audience like a sudden, out-of-nowhere plot twist. Sometimes it can dazzle you. Sometimes it pisses you right the fuck off. But you can’t deny that the movie, show, book, or game wouldn’t have quite the same impact if the plot hadn’t taken that neck-snapping turn. It can move mountains. As I write this first paragraph, I’m eagerly waiting to hear fan reaction to “The Rains of Castamere,” a new episode of Game of Thrones in which [SPOILER] and [SPOILER] will be [SPOILER] by [SPOILER] in the event known as [SPOILER McSPOILER]. In this case, I know what’s about to happen, but many fans will get to experience the awe and heartbreak for the first time. I know by the time I finish and post this, people still won’t be over it.

Seems only fitting that I should lay down a list of story turns that, for whatever reason, blew me away.


Chrono Trigger: Chrono Dies
So I hear Aeris croaks in Final Fantasy VII. I hear it because it’s brought up all the damn time, as though it were the plot twist of the decade or something. Not to stomp on what is certainly a tragic and poignant twist, but for me, the bigger impact came in Chrono Trigger, the spiritual cousin to the Final Fantasy series, in which the hero, Chrono (I refuse to spell his name without an H), sacrificed his own life while fighting the evil Lavos. This would’ve been shocking enough if it had come at the climax, but it happened like two-thirds of the way through the game. Up until that point, the entire game had been from Chrono’s POV, and suddenly, his merry band of sidekicks were bereft and leaderless. Seriously, how many games kill off their sole main protagonist partway? Okay, yeah, obviously he comes back to life later. Except when he doesn’t, because the game has multiple endings and you, the player, can totally choose to rush to the final boss and leave Chrono permanently deceased. I love this game for the unexpected directions it takes with its plot, and I’d say Chrono’s sacrifice tops the Holy Shit meter.

Fables: Wait, The Evil Mastermind Is WHO?
The Fables comic series has thrown some pretty crazy twists at its readers, but for sheer bizarre brilliance, you can’t beat the initial reveal of the Big Bad. The backstory is that the characters of myth and fairy tale had to flee their homelands, which were taken over by a mysterious evil overlord known as the Adversary. Who is he and where did he come from? After fighting an army of wooden puppets, the good guys guess that Pinocchio’s father, Geppetto, must be enslaved by their enemy. This theory holds until Little Boy Blue undertakes a quest into the Homelands to assassinate the Adversary, which he does with rather suspicious ease. He soon learns the truth: the Adversary, a big scary dude with horns and red eyes and shit, is merely another puppet. The true Adversary, the power-hungry psychopath who killed and conquered his way to near-absolute power, is one sweet old woodsmith. Yep, Geppetto is the bad guy. And he has been the whole time, hiding behind various wooden minions. Not only that, he has the Blue Fairy locked in his closet and constantly milks her for her life-giving magic. There was plenty more to come after this revelation, but it’s hard to believe that ANYONE saw it approaching. I sure didn’t.

The Family Tree: Time-Traveling Humans From the Future Aren’t Human
Books have one fantastic advantage over other media: because you only know what you read, the author can trick you, and if it’s pulled off well, it can result in a twist of stunning impact. The Family Tree is an unassuming sci-fi novel by Sherri S. Tepper that’s so poker-faced, its twist hits like a literary orgasm. It follows two storylines in two time periods: the present day, and a postapocalyptic future. In the latter, an eccentric band of adventurers set out to find a monastery where they might travel back in time. For the entire first half of the book, nothing seems amiss. Then the future folk leap back, the two storylines converge, and we learn that the “people” who inhabit Earth down the road.......are animals. Sentient animals. Thanks to genetics gone haywire, they will run the world, whereas humans will revert to dumb beasts of burden. Somehow, Tepper writes the future scenes without letting on that she’s writing about monkeys, cats, otters, and the like. It’s so sublime that the rest of the book is almost lame by comparison. But it’s worth it. And it could never work on a screen.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban: Ron’s Rat’s a Dude, Hermione’s Been Time-Hopping, and Harry Saves His Past Self
The Harry Potter series, for all its flaws, has some pretty slick plot twists, often falling into the template of “So it was YOU the whole time!” Prisoner of Azkaban, which many would say is the strongest entry (in the film series, for sure) is wonderfully merciless in the way the third act piles on twist after twist. Crazy enough to learn that evil, psychotic Sirius Black is a wronged hero, but how about learning that Ron’s beloved pet rat, Scabbers, is actually a villainous human in disguise? These things alone would serve most narratives, but J.K. Rowling’s only revving up. When shit goes bad, good old Hermione reveals that she’s been fucking TIME-TRAVELING all year to get to her classes, and then she and Harry go back in time, witness everything that already happened, and (in Harry’s case) save the asses of their past selves. This is not without plot holes (if wizards can time-travel, why don’t they ever?), but it’s such mind-bending fun. The time-travel is well-forehadowed, but since Ron’s rat has been a “character” this whole time, who could have guessed he was Peter Pettigrew? I love when twists go exponential; sometimes it’s not so bad to be jerked about.

Gone: Welcome to the Human Zoo
While we’re on the topic of juvenile fiction, Michael Grant’s Gone series is an action-packed killfest that’s darker and more gruesome than many Stephen King novels. The premise is that a chunk of California coastline is suddenly surrounded by an opaque, unbreakable barrier, known as the FAYZ. Everyone over fifteen is booted outside, leaving only teens and kids, some of whom develop X-Men-style powers. Civilization on the inside crumbles, buckets of blood are shed, and then, in the fifth book, the desperate US army tries to nuke the FAYZ. I’m leaving out a lot of details, but the important thing is the startling result, which completely shakes up the rules of the story. The FAYZ isn’t destroyed -- instead, it turns as clear as glass. Suddenly, after months of isolation, the youngsters inside the dome are visible to the outside world. They can see and communicate with their loved ones, but can’t get to them. And considering that they’ve been living in a monstrous mash-up of Lord of the Flies, Heroes, and Hell, the rest of the human race isn’t exactly delighted to get a look inside this freak biodome. Although the final book kinda fumbled its chance to really explore the implications, it was still a fantastic twist and one helluva direction for the endgame to take. When you gaze into the abyss...

Life of Pi: Truth is Shittier Than Fiction?
Not done with literature yet, though this one works if you’ve only seen the movie. To recap, resourceful young Pi Patel finds himself on a lifeboat with a zebra, a hyena, an orangutan, and a Bengal tiger. Only Pi and the tiger make it, surviving for months through luck and improvisation. At one point, the plot enters true dream logic when they discover a floating carnivorous island populated by thousands of meerkats. Weird as shit, right? That’s what Pi’s rescuers say. They don’t believe him and demand the “truth.” So Pi tells another story, one that makes sense. One where the animals are people. And when you hear him tell it, you realize that this is probably the objective truth. There was no tiger, no fantastical island. Pi spent months in utter isolation, long enough to lose his mind and gain it back. The question the book dares to ask is, can there be more to the truth than what literally happened? If reality hurts too much, can we be faulted for rewriting it? Pi asks his rescuers which story they like better, and they admit to preferring the one with the tiger. And since no one else witnessed it, since no one can prove it didn’t happen, well...facts ain’t everything. This is one of those twists that makes us rethink the story -- all stories, in a way -- and it’s sublime.

Lost: “We Have to Go Back!”
Hey, I tried. But I simply must stick Lost on this list. It’s a show that loved to throw curveballs at the audience, and each season finale has its HOLY SHIT moments, but none were quite as startling as the cap-off to Season Three, basically the show’s halfway point. See, up until then, Lost had followed the same format: present-day hijinks on a mysterious island, mixed with flashbacks into the lives of the cast. Why wouldn’t we expect anything different? So the Season Three finale gives us a flashback of heroic spinal surgeon Jack Shephard as he spirals into depression, attempts suicide, and pleads with an unknown somebody on the phone. Man, when in Jack’s life did this bad shit go down? Heh. I can clearly recall the stunned silence that filled the room as my friends and I watched Jack meet up with the voice on the phone -- who turned out to be fellow castaway Kate. It took a few seconds for us to realize: this isn’t the past. This is the future. Jack and Kate were rescued from the island, and now Jack, in a complete reversal of his character, is desperate to return. The season ended with him screaming, “We have to go back!” and NOTHING was gonna be the same after that. You had to be there.

Rant: Buster Casey is His Own Father
Can I spoil Fight Club? Everyone knows that one: the nameless narrator and nutjob Tyler Durden are actually the same person. This was pulled off awesomely in both the book and the movie, but let me offer you a twist from author Chuck Palahniuk’s later novel, Rant, that mopped the floor with my expectations. Rant is hard to describe, but it’s basically a dystopian oral history revolving around a messiah/revolutionary/gang leader named Buster Casey. From his humble beginnings to his mysterious disappearance, after apparently discovering time-travel. Yep, time-travel makes its third appearance on this list, but Palahniuk’s take is....wow. Just wow. Bottom line? Buster Casey went back in time to before his own birth, met and raped his mother, then stuck around to help raise...himself. In the weirdest fucking paradox ever, he is his own goddamn dad, and by time-traveling multiple times, he is able to set the course of his younger self’s life from many different angles. In fact, it turns out another supporting character in the book is also Buster Casey in disguise. WTF, Palahniuk. Why does crazy shit like this make me love you even more?

The Shawshank Redemption: Longest, Most Patient Prison Break Ever
This one’s awesome because The Shawshank Redemption is not a prison break movie. It’s about the life and trials of Andy Dufresne as he spends years, decades, behind bars for a double murder he (probably) didn’t commit. So much happens to him, and the whole time, he’s in the process of escaping, ever so patiently. I love how the narrative shows us his escape after the fact, allowing us to be as confused as the other characters, then flashes back to explain how he did it. And it’s all so damn simple. Hiding his slowly-growing escape tunnel behind a series of cheesecake posters. Keeping a rock hammer in his Bible. Getting cozy enough with the corrupt warden that he can steal his spare clothes (“You never look at a man’s shoes,” Morgan Freeman intones with a wink). And busting out during a thunderstorm so no one hears him break into a sewage pipe and slither through a river of feces to freedom. By God, did he EARN it. And it’s so wonderful to see how humble Andy fooled everyone, including us viewers. The fact that he exposes the warden’s crimes? Icing on the cake. Well played, Andy -- you got busy living.

Silent Hill: Shattered Memories: Well, It’s Kinda Right There In the Title...
Twists in the Silent Hill series are hit or miss. To me, none come close to the ending of the experimental pseudo-remake that is Shattered Memories. The game is, or seems to be, about poor Harry Mason as he trudges through a blizzard, searching for his little girl, Sharon, in the wake of a car crash. Monsters chase him, reality shifts, and we suspect that a lot of what he sees is only in his head. The gameplay is intercut with sessions in a psychiatrist’s office where the patient is not identified. But the implications don’t sink in until the final scene, when Harry stumbles into the office and we realize that the patient is not him, but Sharon, grown into a troubled young woman -- troubled, in part, because her father died when she was six. Our hero, Harry Mason, is not a living man. He’s not even a ghost. He’s a series of incomplete fragments, an attempt by Sharon to piece together some portrait of the father she barely got the chance to know. The whole game took place inside her head. This revelation is followed by several possible endings, but the point is how wonderfully the twist ties together, not only the game’s mysteries, but also the open-ended gameplay and subtext. Honestly, Shattered Memories isn’t even a survival horror game; it’s a bold concept brought to evocative life.

You see how the best twists can make you love and respect the story even more? I have to grin when the wool is pulled from my eyes and new layers unfold for my consideration. This blog post, for instance. The twist ending is that...

Nah, I’m not gonna spoil it.

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