Foreshadowing refers to offering a futuristic hint of events or their outcomes in a movie. It is a film technique where elusive clues lead viewers to a possible outcome that may not yet be so obvious at the start of the film.
Foreshadowing provides pointers that a seemingly meaningless conversation or prop, among other elements, may have a huge part to play later on. It’s a filmmaker’s way of leaving trails of breadcrumbs (using subtext) for the viewers to follow.
The tactic serves to build suspense and keep viewers guessing and engaged. Foreshadowing sparks uneasiness and curiosity, inviting audiences to join the dots and earn the emotional satisfaction of being proven right or wrong.
Sometimes, foreshadowing is laid out in an obvious manner, leaving little room for the audience’s imagination. Other times, the future is concealed in a hazy, metaphorical crystal ball so that nothing is certain. This leads us to the different techniques of foreshadowing, primarily direct and indirect foreshadowing. There are other options in between as well. We’ll be taking a look at why and how filmmakers implore various foreshadowing strategies.
Direct foreshadowing can be executed in many forms. Some films offer foreshadowing, right off the bat from the movie’s title. For example, titles like The Great Gatsby, The Terminator, and No Country for Old Men basically tells viewers what the movie’s going to be about even before the story gets going.
From The Great Gatsby, we expect a character that’s great or superior to everyone else in some way. The Terminator hints at an action movie plot that involves a lot of killing. Meanwhile, the title No Country for Old Men also reveals what the film’s going to be about and one of the protagonist’s struggles. An aging sheriff tries unsuccessfully to keep up with the modernity of crime and the criminal mind. He eventually hands in the towel and retires.
The narrator may also be a channel of direct foreshadowing, telling us exactly what’s going to happen. The film’s mystery now becomes unraveling the why and the how.
In Fight Club, we’re given a huge sign that not all the events in the movie may be real or that everything isn’t as it appears.
The big reveal (not so much when you pay attention to the details) at the end —
The narrator says that one can’t trust that everything is really real when they have insomnia. So, from the get-go, we are already warned that the events onwards from that point should not be taken as the absolute truth of reality. And that makes a whole lot of sense when we get to the explosive twist of an ending that blows more than just our minds.
Fight Club also contains another option for direct foreshadowing and that’s the pre-scene. In simple terms, a pre-scene is a snippet of a key scene, often drawn from the film’s climax or most significant point of conflict.
We are shown a short clip of what’s going to happen, typically at the start of a movie. The film then goes back to its original whereabouts and builds toward that moment. In Fight Club, the pre-scene happens right after the opening credits. We get a view of the nameless narrator, who is the protagonist, sweating profusely at the end of a barrel.
The wonderfully worked close-up shot conceals the hand holding the gun in a way that also hints at the drastic plot twist at the end. The movie is as much about internal conflict as it is about fighting in a special club.
While all that happens, the narrator says, “People are always asking me if I know Tyler Durden.”
Our instant question is who he is and why people ask about him. Maybe he is important, perhaps a big-time criminal that the narrator got on the wrong side of? We’ll have to wait and see. Further, the narrator reveals and explains the film’s ending in his dialogue. He is held captive by a yet-named character.
The building he is in is rigged to blow in a few minutes. As he tells us this, the pre-scene also compounds the direct foreshadowing. It dives to the underground parking lot to show us a white van with concealed explosives. “I know this because Tyler knows this,” the narrator concludes his monologue. That was also a subtle giveaway of the narrator’s dissociative personality disorder.
Covert or indirect foreshadowing isn’t as straightforward as its direct counterpart. While the latter can be thought of as a straight path from one point to another, covert foreshadowing flows and meanders like a river. Most of the time, it flies over the majority’s head until that point when the predicted event plays out.
From the Star Wars website:
Sometimes it even takes a second watch to pick up on these crafty hints. A great example of indirect foreshadowing would be Luke’s figurative vision in The Empire Strikes Back. In it, he sees his own face behind Darth Vader’s mask. At first glance, the audience thinks nothing of it, discarding it as a nightmare. It turns out to be a significant form of foreshadowing as he eventually discovers that his father and Vader are one and the same.
Sometimes, the setting can also tell the viewers more about what is to come. Nature or the state of weather can suggest what the audience can expect from the subsequent events in a movie. This technique of foreshadowing in film is known as pathetic fallacy foreshadowing. Pathetic fallacy itself means giving meaning, often in terms of emotion, to nature and its elements.
Fallacy foreshadowing is a strategy that’s heavily implored in Disney’s animated films. An opening scene of sunshine and greenery is often used to precede a period of happiness and peace. A turn in the weather and the death of vegetation may suggest that bad times lie ahead.
Indirect foreshadowing may also come in the way of a figurative dialogue. It still keeps us in the dark of a couple of details but generally points us in an expected direction of events.
In The Dark Knight, one line from Harvey Dent sticks with us throughout most of the film. He often says that people either live long enough to become the villain or die early as the hero. That statement was a hint at his own future and how the tragic turn of events would push him to switch sides between good and bad.
He didn’t know that at first, neither did the audience. We gradually see that light of goodness extinguished from his life as the main antagonist proves a point.
When we meet Harvey he is the symbol of justice, the embodiment of a better tomorrow and a brighter future. He stands for everything good and pure in the world. Gotham city’s cut-throat, crime-riddled world shapes him into a killer and later on an antagonist.
He had initially seemed to be on the hero’s side, a smart man who would protect the law with everything he’s got. However, after barely surviving an explosion that took from him all that he held dear, he transforms into what his almost prophetic one-liner hinted at.
The use of prophecy is a variation of direct foreshadowing because it directly predicts what is going to happen. A vision of the future maps out a chain of events or a key event that plays out according to what is stated with little to no deciphering needed.
There’s no room for doubt or uncertainty. Everything is laid out and it’s just a matter of time before things eventually fall into place.
Sometimes, a prophecy from a supernatural being details what is going to happen in the future and the plot path sticks to the mapped-out course.
That is an example of its literal use and one that shepherds the storyline of 1967’s film adaptation of the popular Greek tragedy Oedipus Rex. Other times the prophecy may come in the way of a dream or premonition from one of the characters. That vision is strongly compounded by the belief that it’s going to happen.
If you are unfamiliar with it, the Oedipus story goes that a king kills (or rather tries unsuccessfully) his son because of a prophecy that his son will kill him and marry his wife. In the film version, a soldier abandons his son in a desert, and he is taken in by another family. During his childhood days, the young boy is told of his fate.
Ultimately what the oracle predicted comes to pass. Oedipus Franco in the end murders his father and marries his mother, although unknown to him who either means to him during their first encounters.
The storyline is quite ironic because it’s his father’s actions in trying to avoid the prophecy that actually causes its fulfillment. This leads us to the alternative of prophetic foreshadowing and that’s dramatic irony.
Dramatic irony is a film technique where the characters are unaware of something that the audience knows about. An example of the use of prophecy in foreshadowing would be knowing that a killer’s in the house, while an unsuspecting victim has no idea. Maybe there’s a bomb under a car, set to explode in three minutes, as a couple rides around town oblivious to the threat.
A wandering camera lets us in on the secret while passengers haven’t the slightest clue in the world. When that car eventually bursts into flames and the characters die, this dramatic irony is a fulfillment of that prophecy.
Sometimes the use of prophetic foreshadowing can seem counterintuitive. In film school, filmmakers are advised to surprise the audience as much as possible. However, like in the car bomb example, it adds to new levels of suspense and tension.
We keep wondering if they’ll get out of the car in time, and it’s a nail-biting wait. That frantic panic keeps us on the edge of our seats, hoping for the best but expecting the worst. That’s why it works.
Symbolism in film entails giving objects the feeling that there’s more to them than meets the eye. It entails imbuing these objects, sometimes even animated ones, with a hidden meaning. A prop, color, music, among other elements may be used for symbolic foreshadowing.
This strategy may be described as implicit compared to the preceding technique above which is rather explicit. Nothing is outrightly stated, nothing is clearly defined, yet they loom over the backdrop in a way that the keen cannot miss.
Normally though, this type of foreshadowing is often so subtle that the majority of cinephiles often don’t notice until someone else points it out. Symbolic predictions aren’t as on the nose as other more direct alternatives.
They make the audience work for the reveal with little help in the way of clues and are perfect for stimulating curiosity, jogging the mind, and hooking viewers.
What does an owl howling in the night as an establishing shot of a horror film settles on a lively house deep in the woods mean to you? It probably speaks to something evil or death being in the offing. That’s an example of symbolic foreshadowing in film using animate things. Other times, music may also serve such purposes. The alternating tunes of the tuba in Jaws spoke to the presence of the shark even when it was not visible.
Colors and marks can also build symbolism over time, especially when continually used to precede certain events. The continually showing of a red wall/car/accents etc., for instance, before each sinister event tells the audience that when the color appears, something bad is not too far off.
2018’s musical drama success A Star is Born features loads of symbolism that warns us about the future. If you’re unfamiliar with the plot, an alcoholic country singer battles with matters of sobriety and the strains of a career that demands a lot. In the end, Jackson Maine succumbs to the pressures of his job and a failing lovelife, eventually taking his own life by hanging.
Backtrack to the first couple of minutes of the film and you’ll catch a view of this image from Jack’s window in a car.
It’s almost impossible to decipher what it means when you watch the movie the first time. Knowing how it ends now, you’ll realize the nooses on the billboard foreshadow Jack’s suicide.
Additionally, on the same billboard, there’s a rainbow pattern behind the four nooses. At this point in the film, Jack is yet to meet Ally, his future wife. He meets her in a drag bar where he went out for drinks after a night out on the road.
She’s working as a waitress and performs a tribute to a famous Edith Piaf song, “Somewhere over the rainbow.” Taken aback by her talent, Jack takes her under his wing. Their romance blossoms and she ends up marrying him. The rainbow stripes on the neon billboard gave the audience a hint of how the protagonist would run into his better half.
The 2006 American thriller is one of Martin Scorsese’s greatest works of film, enjoying great financial success at the box office. A strong cast meets an exceptional crew powered by the genius of a legendary director. A spy and an undercover agent infiltrate the Irish mob and struggle to keep their identities secret in the face of heinous crime and death.
A story of betrayal and the workings of the underworld is crafted to perfection. The talented director brings together a holistic film complete with wonderfully worked symbolic foreshadowing that many people miss until the second time of asking.
If you pay close attention to the movie, you might have noticed there were some “X” marks, although not in the most obvious ways. They came in all forms and sizes, including architectural designs, lighting tricks, and other times they were outrightly painted (or taped) onto a wall.
The symbol became a motif for death, pointing out which characters were going to die by the film’s end. Often, the X came right before a character was murdered and they were hard to notice because the director kept getting creative with the symbols so they didn’t stick out like a sore thumb.
Scorsese borrows the idea from Scarface. Howard Hawks frequently used the symbol to illustrate how life as a criminal meant living with a mark over your head. Hawks uses the mark to foreshadow death and Martin Scorsese borrows a leaf from the same book. Frank Costello appears in front of two shadowy beams that cross into an X at the beginning of the film. Colin Sullivan also stands before an X beam whilst on a balcony.
Sean Dignam walks atop an X-marked carpet during his final moments in the film. There is also an X taped to the wall in the elevator scene featuring Billy Costigan Jr. All these characters ended up getting killed not too long after the mark’s appearance.
This dark crime thriller featured a psychopathic killer who chose his victims per the seven deadly sins they represented, hence the name of the movie. Two detectives named David Mills and William Somerset work to foil the antagonist, but not before he reveals one last, bitter trick up his sleeve.
John Doe, the nameless serial killer in the movie, hands himself over to the police after accomplishing his mission. He confesses to one final killing and offers to take both detectives to the burial site of the murder. A package is delivered to the detectives on arrival, and Somerset intercepts the box and opens it. He loses his mind at the sight of what’s inside.
So what’s in the box?
The director offers hints of that through foreshadowing by cinematography. David Mills is married to a girl named Tracy who, unknown to David, was pregnant and had reservations about raising a child in the city. She befriends Mills’ partner William and confides in him about her fears.
Through the film, Tracy is commonly shown in a series of close-up shots, where we constantly see her from the shoulders upwards. In fact, in one particular shot, she is figuratively placed in between wooden beams so that her face appears to be in a box.
It turns out, Doe had killed Tracy and it was her head that was in the box. According to the killer, she was a representation of the sin of envy, as William envied his partner’s wife.
The morbid twist at the end was predicted all through by the film’s clever cinematography work. A berserk Mills shots Doe severally to exact vengeance, completing his part as a depiction of the final deadly sin, wrath.
This timeless sci-fi told us right from the get-go just how the big bad of the movie would meet its end. Only that it has to happen so that it hits you over the head with surprise and acknowledgment. Aliens (1986), not to be confused with its 1979 prequel Alien, offers a somewhat prophetic prediction of how the antagonist would be defeated.
The sole survivor from the first film, Ellen Ripley, returns to the moon, the place of the first alien encounter with a new troop for further investigations. She had been in stasis for almost 60 years and the company that sent her crew out had intercepted her escape shuttle from the first movie.
During her first encounter with the marines, Ripley recounts how a strange creature attacked and killed all her crew. Her stories are met with skepticism, as the soldiers believed her to be delirious. She jumps on a power loader, an exoskeleton that elevates the wearer’s abilities for cargo loading purposes, to prove her skills and usefulness to the team.
Ripley demonstrates her excellence with the machine, setting up the showdown between her and the alien, and also providing exposition for how she knew her way around the power loader. It’s also worth pointing out that she is also instructed to double-check the airlock for the door behind her. Both these aspects were foreshadowing the film’s ending, which involved both the airlock and using the exosuit.
When it eventually boils down to a battle between Ripley and the xenomorph queen, she uses the power loader to fight off the creature’s attacks. The exoskeleton helps her get the better of the enormous creature and they fall into an airlock chamber. With the suit damaged and pinning down the enraged queen, Ripley scales the walls to pull a switch, opening an airlock and expelling the alien into space.
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