These days, audiences are savvier than ever to the Machiavellian machinations of the macro movie marketing machine, which has rendered genuine surprise an all-but extinct aspect of modern mainstream filmgoing.

It takes a film-making titan of J.J. Abrams' stature to provide the increasingly rare exceptions. His well-established reverence for a secret kept allowed Star Wars: The Force Awakens to provide at least one decent shocker in the theatre.

It was one of the few instances in contemporary cinema where a genuine surprise was revealed to the (vast majority of the) audience while they were actually watching the film. More often than not, a surprise of this magnitude seeps out long before a film is released.

John Goodman, Mary Elizabeth Winstead and John Gallagher star in the movie 10 Cloverfield Lane.
John Goodman, Mary Elizabeth Winstead and John Gallagher star in the movie 10 Cloverfield Lane.

We can't really blame Hollywood entirely - the internet's collective hunger for informational titbits combined with the increased scrutiny applied to the film development process tends to lay bare the kinds of reveals that used to stay behind closed doors until a film actually spooled-out.


And of course the increased, unprecedented emphasis on marketing demands that anything worth seeing the film for is cited ahead of time as a reason to see the film.

Many films attempt to save something for the cinematic experience, but the temptation to use anything juicy to increase the allure of said film is often all too great.

This week sees the release of 10 Cloverfield Lane, a J.J. Abrams-produced follow-up of sorts to 2008's found-footage monster movie Cloverfield. Both films embody Abrams' admirable and singular commitment to holding back in the aid of properly surprising a broad audience.

The first film announced itself via a trailer that had no title attached to it, and concealed the nature of its central MacGuffin (i.e. a big-ass monster) in the trailers.

Although it began life as a spec script named The Cellar, by the time 10 Cloverfield Lane went into production last year under the title Valencia, its connection to the 2008 film appears to have already been determined, yet that connection remains unclear as the film is about to open.

I am writing this ahead of seeing the film, and the ambiguity is intoxicating. The potential for surprise has me giddy. I should probably be less primed, but it's very exciting to see a storyteller put this much effort into the story actually playing out in the actual theatre as opposed to in the marketing.

Also advance word keeps mentioning The Twilight Zone, for which Abrams has also shown a commendable reverence going all the way back to Felicity. I love The Twilight Zone and anything Twilight Zone-y, so I couldn't be more amped for 10 Cloverfield Lane.

Even if the film ends up having no tangible relationship to the original Cloverfield, I'm just as excited for the prospect of an ongoing series of films connected by nothing more than a commitment to secret-laden storytelling.

This all got me trying to identify other instances when audiences were genuinely surprised in a major way by something that was revealed via the process of watching the film, as opposed to the selling of it.

The three big examples from the past few several decades of cinema have to be the paternity reveal in The Empire Strikes Back, the gender reveal in The Crying Game (1992) and the corporeal status reveal in The Sixth Sense (1999).

In the second and third cases, the existence of a surprise was central to the marketing of the films, but in those more innocent, less information-saturated times, it wasn't all that difficult to make it to the theatre without having the secret spoiled.

I remember being genuinely blown away when Sean Connery showed up as King Richard at the end of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991) - it's almost impossible to imagine that kind of superstar cameo remaining under wraps these days.

Ditto: Bruce Willis and Julia Roberts at the end of The Player (1991 was a banner year for cameos) and Luke Perry in The Fifth Element (1997).

In my estimation, the last celebrity cameo that really blew everyone away was Bill Murray in Zombieland (2009). A lid was kept on that for a surprisingly long time after the film was released.

Jesse Eisenberg and Woody Harrelson in a scene from the movie Zombieland.
Jesse Eisenberg and Woody Harrelson in a scene from the movie Zombieland.

Johnny Depp showing up at the end of 21 Jump St was a proper surprise I suppose, but I can't shake the feeling that it was just a little too pleased with itself, as great as the film is.

Some sly maneuvering on the part of director Jon Favreau allowed the fateful extra scene at the end of 2008's Iron Man to remain a secret right up until release, making it one of the all-time great cinematic surprises. It's the kind of surprise that has never really been recaptured in the many Marvel post-credits scenes since, given that we all sit there with our arms folded waiting for them expectantly. That said, I don't think anybody saw Howard The Duck coming at the end of Guardians.

Nothing in the marketing of District 9 (2009) prepared me for the waterfall of awesome that flowed over me the first time I saw it. That felt very surprising.

In extremely general terms, the internet as a whole feels better behaved these days when it comes to spoilers and surprises compared to say, 2008, when Iron Man came out.

The collective culture is clearly invested in the joy of a genuine surprise experienced in a theatre, so it's now up to more film-makers to follow J.J. Abrams suit and use their clout to save the storytelling gravy for the theatrical experience.

What were the biggest surprises you experienced in the theatre? Comment below!