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Twisting and Turning... on the Audience

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Wednesday, Nov 28, 2012
The twist ending in recent films: Delightful? Or Disingenuous?

There is nothing new about the trick or “twist” ending. Long before Pam Ewing ‘dreamt’ an entire season of Dallas or the Ape Planet turned out to be Earth all along, filmmakers and novelists were pulling the rug out from under unsuspecting readers/viewers with their last act switheroos. In general, people like a good plot ploy. Being able to see events in a totally differently light can bring both clarity and a sense of calm. Suddenly, the weird way a character was acting is explained away. Similarly, a side element not easily recognizable quickly comes into focus, arguing for its ability to con you just as easily as the creative wizard working behind the media scrim.
In two recent examples, however, the gimmick given seems a bit…cruel? Maybe that’s not the right word. Cynical and snide are perhaps better. Yes, this piece if going to delve into a pair of current releases and dabble in MASSIVE SPOILERS, so be forewarned. In one case, the end ruse is well established in the source novel…and perhaps reads better than it plays out onscreen. In the second, the filmmakers took a meaningful moment filled with talk and threat and turned it into a supernatural Battle Royale. If you haven’t guessed already, we will be looking at the “animals vs. humans” reveal in Life of Pi, and the epic smackdown between The Cullens and the Volturi in The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2.

Taking on Yann Martel’s story of a shipwrecked Indian boy and his battles with an onboard Bengal tiger had to be daunting for Oscar winner Ang Lee. Many considered the bestselling novel on spirituality to be “unfilmable.” Yet thanks to advances in CGI and digital photography, Lee transports us to a lifeboat in the middle of the Pacific, and we watch as Pi, his feline pal Richard Parker, a wounded zebra, an aging orangutan and a hyperactive hyena struggle to survive. Within minutes of the accident, the predators have made mincemeat of the others. Soon, only the tiger is left. As we watch Pi’s tale being dramatized, we get a sense of man coming to grips with nature, and nature reluctantly letting him. There are also questions of faith, fate, and God.

But the biggest issue in the film is the question of whether or not Pi actually “experienced” what he said he experience. It is a tall tale, filled with shark infested waters, angry wildlife outbursts, massive storms, day-glo fish, and enough amazing magical realism to challenge even the most devoted viewer’s suspension of disbelief. Even so, thanks to technology and his skill behind the lens, Lee gets us to believe. We find ourselves falling into that most comforting of aesthetic traps - emotional investment. We know that Pi survives (we see him, as an adult, telling the story) and we hope that his furry pal Parker does as well. We marvel at the last minute savior that is a school of flying fish and wonder how an island can be both docile and deadly.

And then Life of Pi punks us. It defies our diligence. After spending 110 minutes trying to convince us (and succeeding, mind you) that a young boy made it 227 days on a boat with a deadly maneater, it resets and says, “No, sorry. That’s not what happened.” Indeed, the new story centers on the ship’s villainous cook (Gerard Depardieu, in a cameo moment), Pi’s mother, an injured crewman, and the young boy himself. Apparently, they were the real refugees on the lifeboat, not the animals. Instead, the cook killed everyone else, cannibalized their bodies, and set upon our hero before Pi could thwart his murderous efforts. Eventually indulging in the taboo as well to stay alive, the narrative asks that we are give him a pass based on his obvious displeasure in having to do so.

“So, which story do you like better,” the character asks at the end, allowing us the option of sticking with the four legged legend instead of realizing the identity of the “real” animals…which, of course, is man. Now, on paper, this must have been beyond powerful. All the while, you’ve visualized and crafted the various survival scenarios out of Martel’s prose and, then, in a few short sentences, everything you’ve done is destroyed. The reset is not that harsh, especially since you didn’t have a filmmaker manipulating your thoughts via his own unique images. In the film, we never once believe that Pi’s story is false (remember, it is constructed in such a way as to make it 100% believable), so the twist becomes something beyond trickery. It taints Life of Pi in a way that will have at least a few audience members audibly grumbling.

At least Breaking Dawn, Part 2, plays the con for fan fulfillment. Those familiar with the novel know that the Volturi want to destroy the Cullens for giving birth to “an immortal child” - a half human, half vampire so uncontrollable that it could/would spark mankind’s interest in the undead, and threaten their very existence. Of course, Bella and Edward;s kid is no real issue, but that doesn’t stop the two groups (with the help of the hunky Native American werewolves) from heading to a frozen lake for a last act standoff. Gathered together and packing superpowers ala The X-Men (one can control fire, another the elements, etc.), we wait for the moment when monsters go gonzo for the sake of their own society.

In the book, they merely talk, and upon introducing a pair of half human, half vampires from the jungles of Brazil, realize that this proves the Cullen baby is no danger, and that’s that. Reluctantly, the Volturi follow code and toddle off. But that’s not good enough for a Hollywood franchise finale. No. We want the promised action, and when it arrives, it’s amazing. It’s the best moment in the entire Twilight twaddle. Vampires fly and heads roll. Werewolves snarl and cavernous pits open in the ground, as if Hell itself wants to get in on the act. Many of the more hissable villains in the piece are punished is ways so satisfying it makes audiences applaud in glee, and the whole thing feels like the proper way to end an otherwise dour and depressing bit of spinster lit.

Eventually, a few of our favorites have fallen and the Volturi are vanquished…or are they? Indeed, it turns out that all the marvelous mayhem we have just witnessed didn’t really happen - it’s merely a projection of what COULD happen should the villains pursue their illogical course against the Cullens. All the blood. All the falling bodies. All the kitschy kung fu fighting was for naught. A joke. A glorified ‘gotcha.’ Granted, it works better than Life of Pi‘s twist, but it still seems rather disingenuous to your audience - especially those who adored Stephenie Meyer’s mythology. Having these creatures battle it out, mano-y-macabre-mano makes sense, until the reveal. They it seems like a slick, cynical way of catering to both crowds - the Twi-hards and the mainstream populace - all at once.

Life of Pi‘s twist problem runs much deeper. Indeed, the narrative would have us believe that all the magic and wonder we witness is actually part of one desperate man’s fertile imagination - of him trying to make sense of a senseless situation. There was no iridescent sea life, no glow-in-the-dark whale…just four people on a boat, plotting against each other for survival. In the case of Breaking Dawn, Part 2, it’s all panacea. It doesn’t rewrite the entire storyline, just a small, insignificant section of it. Sure, it harkens back to all the good and bad we’ve seen over the entire series, but we don’t suddenly realize that Edward is a boy with a terminal illness who Bella “fantasizes” is the neckbiter of her dreams. In one cinematic circumstance, the application of a twist, while wicked, works. In the other, it destroys everything the movie originally strived for…and then some.

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