When Good Foreshadowing Goes Bad

>A long time ago I heard the following quote that I just found again in Wikipedia:

“An example of foreshadowing might be when a character uses a gun or knife early in the play/film/narrative. Merely the appearance of a deadly weapon, even though it is used for an innocuous purpose – such as being cleaned or whittling wood – suggests terrible consequences later on.”

When I first heard it, it was credited to Alfred Hitchcock, though I’m not sure if he’s really the source. Ever since then, I’ve noticed this done in movies—which is bad because it really shouldn’t be something you notice. There are many times when I see this at the time of the foreshadowing and at that moment I try to figure out how that’s going to come into play later, thus taking me out of the movie watching experience.

My first, most obnoxious example is from the movie Paycheck, starring Ben Affleck. There is a moment when he sits down with his boss who gives him a cigar. Ben Affleck’s character makes a point of looking up at a smoke detector and the camera zooms in close to it as he asks his boss if the cigar smoke is going to set off the alarm. The close up of the alarm and the dialogue about it made me feel like the filmmakers were whacking us over the head with the fact that it was important and we needed to remember that later. It was used later, though not as importantly as I thought it would be.

Another example of when foreshadowing goes bad is actually done in two movies that I otherwise really liked. I guess we can call it the “superior officer pep-talk.” It occurs in the movies U-571 and The Core.

In both movies, the highly qualified and willing junior officer has a moment where the superior officer tells them why they are being passed up for a command position. They are both told that what they lack is the experience making the “hard decisions.” Both of these end up being resolved by the commanding officer getting killed, and then the juniors are put in a position where everyone is going to be killed if they don’t order or allow one crewmember to die.

If you ever see a movie where someone gives someone else that kind of “you’re not good enough because you haven’t been tried” speech, you’d better believe there’s going to be some trials experienced (and overcome) before the credits roll.

It’s not that I don’t appreciate foreshadowing, but I really wish it wasn’t used as a cheap gimmick that sends up a flag as if to say, “Woohoo! Look at me, I’m going to be important later!”

I like the kind of foreshadowing that has it’s own purpose at the time, but you forget about and then it surprises you when it becomes important. An example of this is in The Family Man, starring Nicolas Cage as Jack. In the beginning, the character that starts him on his “glimpse of what could have been” gives him a bicycle bell. Jack thinks that it’s a tool to call this guy back when he needs help, but when it doesn’t work his daughter takes it and thanks him for the gift. It isn’t until the end of the movie when we’re feeling as comfortable as Jack is with his alternate life, that his daughter rings the bell on her bike and our hearts sink because we know that even though it was good, it’s not going to last.

So, have you experienced any intrusive foreshadowing? Have you ever been pleasantly surprised by how something resurfaced in a way that you weren’t expecting? Feel free to leave a comment and we’ll talk about it!

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