5. Planet of the Apes
This still stands as one of the most shocking plot twists of all time, even though endless sequels and parodies have since rendered the revelation that it was Earth all along ineffective. We all know the twist now, but that’s only because it was so brilliant that it entered the popular culture lexicon.
Moviegoers back in 1968 were floored by it. They spent a whole movie thinking they were watching astronauts land on some faraway alien planet populated with intelligent apes, only to discover at the very end – thanks to a half-destroyed Statue of Liberty – that it was actually a nightmarish future vision of Earth the whole time.
The shocking twist ending was one of the few elements that the producers retained from Rod Serling’s rejected script. It makes sense that the ending was Serling’s idea, because the surreal, mind-boggling, harrowing revelation that we have lost our world and most of humankind has been wiped out and there are wider themes and ideas at play in the science fiction story we’ve just sat through is befitting of an episode of Serling’s masterful anthology series The Twilight Zone.
There’s a hopelessness about the ending that is both beautiful and haunting. It was safe to say that moviegoers leaving the theater wouldn’t be forgetting about Planet of the Apes for a while.
The ending is what everyone remembers about the movie. It suddenly recontextualizes the whole thing and forces you to watch it again with a new perspective. That’s what all the best twists do – they change what came before and put it all into a new light, effectively yanking back the curtain to reveal something that will stun them. It’s this kind of cinematic, gut-wrenching moment that encapsulates what going to the movies is all about.
4. Fight Club
David Fincher’s adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s debut novel Fight Club was not a huge box office success or particularly well-received by critics when it was first released, possibly because it is such a demented movie, but it has since become a revered cult classic.
Most viewers remember the film for its plot twist, which reveals that the central duo of the Narrator and Tyler Durden are actually one person. Tyler is a figment of the Narrator’s imagination and doesn’t actually exist. The twist works so well because it supports the film’s message, that anarchism is bad and we shouldn’t give in to our darkest urges. Tyler embodies all of the Narrator’s darkest urges and what we see the character do in the movie is what happens when you let those urges get the better of you.
Ever since Fight Club, the “it was all one person” twist has become tired and overused, but all of those movies stigmatize multiple personality disorder without properly exploring it. Fight Club is still the only one that has done it right.
The best way for your plot twist to shock audiences is for it to be incredibly dark. Roman Polanski certainly kept that in mind when he was making Chinatown, the tale of a private eye investigating corruption in the California water supply, because his plot twist involved incest and rape.
Gittes begins to get frustrated as Evelyn’s story about Katherine keeps changing. At first, she says she’s her daughter, and next, she says she’s her sister. As far as any moviegoer knows, she’s just a typical unreliable femme fatale who is manipulating our hero. But as it turns out, it actually goes much darker than that. She was right both times – Katherine is her daughter and her sister. She had a sexual relationship with her father when she was fifteen years old, got pregnant, and gave birth to her own sister.
Until that twist comes along, Chinatown is more or less a predictable, formulaic crime story that is elevated by Jack Nicholson’s electrifying lead performance. But after the harrowing revelation of the twist, it quickly becomes a dark exploration of people’s sexual urges. All of a sudden, a typical neo-noir story has a psychological layer added to it.
Alfred Hitchcock always liked to mess with his audiences, so there are a few plot twists in Psycho. The first one comes about halfway through the movie, when Janet Leigh’s character Marion Crane is brutally murdered in the shower by an unseen assailant. We’ve been watching her relationship with her boyfriend and her embezzlement plot at work and her going on the run for about forty-five minutes, and then out of the blue, she is stabbed to death in the shower.
All of a sudden, we realize we’re not watching the movie we thought we were. This isn’t a movie about romance or embezzlement – it’s a movie about murder. No movie had killed off the main character like that before, so it was not only groundbreaking, but also rather unsettling.
All throughout Psycho, widely regarded to be the first ever slasher movie, we are led to believe that Norman Bates’ jealous mother had murdered Marion and that Norman is covering up for her, and so we think we’re in on it while the other characters investigate the killing. Little do we know, we’ve got the wrong end of the stick.
Norman killed Marion, but the wider story goes much deeper than that. He was jealous of his mother having relations with another man, so he killed them both a long time ago, then mummified his mother’s corpse and started dressing up as her to do her bidding. It’s a truly disturbing twist.
1. The Empire Strikes Back
This plot twist does not have anywhere near the same impact today that it did when the movie first came out. Now, everybody knows that Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s father, especially thanks to an entire trilogy that was dedicated to fleshing out that fact, and the shocking scene being parodied and studied and analyzed to death over the past forty years. But back in 1980, before the internet, moviegoers headed down to the theater for the next Star Wars movie having no idea what was in store for them.
The first Star Wars movie had introduced Darth Vader as the evil overlord of the galaxy, while Luke Skywalker is shown to be something of a nobody who leaves behind his humble upbringing to take on the bad guys. Little did we know that Luke had such a personal connection to the main villain. We had been told some vague story by Obi-Wan about how Vader had killed Luke’s father and that was it.
George Lucas didn’t even tell Mark Hamill the twist until they shot the scene. His “That’s not possible!” response was genuine, reflecting the reaction of the viewers themselves sitting in the theater, totally taken aback by the revelation.
Writers and filmmakers ever since then have been trying to come up with their own twist that’s as shocking and powerful as Darth Vader’s reveal that Luke is his son, and none of them have succeeded. What with the internet and its penchant for sharing spoilers, they probably never will.
The Empire Strikes Back’s twist works so well because it adds a new layer to the conflict of the saga. We had the external conflict of the Rebel Alliance trying to stop the Galactic Empire, but that was a huge intergalactic war. The Skywalker family drama added a more personal and intimate angle to the conflict.