Recently, as I started watching a movie on video, a scene came up just before the opening credits of a character having a supremely happy and exciting experience. In that moment, I knew for certain that the character was doomed — in fact would probably not survive past the opening credits.
In another recent viewing experience, I saw a supremely self-possessed character — one who had never been defeated — go confidently into battle, expecting an easy victory. Before the contest had even begun I was already cringing with dread at the horrible defeat I knew the character would suffer. The only question in my mind was how much the writers would pile on the shame and ignominy.
I don’t think it’s that I have ESP. Rather, I believe each of these scenes was designed in such a way that the audience is subliminally tipped off about what happens next.
In a sense, most commercial films are designed on rails: The audience wants to be surprised, but the filmmakers artfully ensure that on an unconscious level the audience will see the surprise coming. I believe this is thought of as good commercial filmmaking.
What if a commercial film were to offer a true surprise — without secretly telegraphing its punches? Could it still be successful?