When viewing entertainment such as theatre, movies or TV, we typically see the fictional world via the figurative fourth wall. Performers are confined to the three more literal walls, into which the curious viewers peer.
However, this division between fiction and reality – between the action and the viewer – is sometimes broken when the character becomes aware of their fictional nature. The most recent and talked-about example of this is Kevin Spacey, portraying the Machiavellian anti-hero Frank Underwood in the hit TV show House of Cards. At crucial, unexpected moments he turns his head and looks directly into the camera to address the audience and say something like “If you don’t like how the table is set, turn over the table” in his best southern drawl.
This technique is much older than cinema itself – it’s was first conceptualised by French Philosopher Diderot, and was common in 19th century theatre – but it has been used in modern times to create magical and memorable moments on screen.
12. Gremlins 2
There is nothing more annoying than loud and obnoxious people in the cinema. After all, you’ve just paid a king’s ransom for a cramped seat, a giant bucket of popcorn and a drink that contains more ice than liquid.
The creatures from Gremlins 2 decided to take this to the next level and attempted to break through the fourth wall and ruin your cinematic experience, but they failed to notice that a man called Terry – better known to us all as Hulk Hogan – was in the audience.
The Hulkster is not known for walking away from conflict. So, he decided to take matters into his own hands to save the movie. He stopped just short of saying “Watcha gonna do when Hulkamania runs wild on you brother?!”
11. The Great Dictator
In this digital age of CGI and summer blockbusters, it often feels like older cinema is not only underappreciated but irrelevant or uninteresting to many moviegoers in these celebrity-obsessed times. However, this incredibly powerful monologue – from a movie that was arguably Chaplin’s finest hour – feels more relevant now than it did in 1940 and feels strangely prophetic.
Charlie Chaplin stops the film to address the audience in one of the most powerful speeches in the history of cinema. He passionately talks about fighting against the rise of fascism in the world. Many modern viewers might recognise the words as those that were sampled by musician Paolo Nutini for his track Iron Sky:
“Our knowledge has made us cynical; our cleverness, hard and unkind. We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery, we need humanity. More than cleverness, we need kindness and gentleness.”
Viewers cannot help but see the parallels between 1940 and 2015, when the sentiments ring universally true and timeless. Sadly, despite the advances in technology, we really haven’t progressed very far in the 75 years since the film’s original release.
Mel Brooks has made a career of breaking the fourth wall in cinema, in classics such as Blazing Saddles, but the parody movie SpaceBalls took this to another level. The characters stop to promote their merchandise and even accidentally kill a member of the film crew during the epic lightsaber battle between Lone Star and Dark Helmet.
But who could forget the scene in the Star Wars parody SpaceBalls when the cast obtains a VHS copy of the unfinished movie you’re watching? They proceed to fast-forward to the scene where the heroes crash-land.
9. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
Marvel have brought back the post-credits easter egg, but it’s not a brand new trend. When a film ended back in the 80’s, viewers carried on watching the credits, checking the soundtrack details and secretly hoping to be rewarded with a little snippet that everyone who rushed home would have missed.
Although Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is famous for breaking the fourth wall throughout the film, it was the scene that appeared after the credits that most of viewers will always remember. Ferris walked up to camera looking a little confused saying “You’re still here? The movie is over, go home!”
This character that viewers could all relate to was so much like themselves that he knew they would be watching the credits, waiting for that little hidden nugget.
8. Top Secret
This was a long time ago, and many people have forgotten that Val Kilmer hasn’t always been the size of a house and didn’t always take himself so seriously. Jim Abrahams and Jerry Zucker even convinced the future Iceman to appear as Nick Rivers in the parody movie Top Secret, which Weird Al Yankovic proudly calls his favourite film.
The plot is surreal, as the main character heads to East Germany to perform at a cultural festival, and bizarrely get involved with the French Resistance. But Hillary confirmed what we were thinking when she said “I know. It all sounds like the plot of some bad movie” – as the characters pause and slowly turn to look at the camera.
7. Return of Killer Tomatoes
Who would have thought a young George Clooney would go on to great things after appearing in the cult sequel, Return of the Killer Tomatoes?
Sporting a mullet that Martin Riggs would be proud of, this infamous fourth wall-breaking scene humorously tackles the shady world of product placement. This was before Wayne’s World hit the scene, and the subject matter still hits a nerve in a world where it seems everyone in the movies owns an iMac.
Despite the serious message delivered in a comedic way, most viewers will simply be fascinated by a young George Clooney and that mullet.
Back in the swinging sixties Michael Caine was blissfully unaware that his character Alfie that spent copious amounts of time talking to viewers by directly looking into the camera would actually go onto inspire films such as Ferris Bueller’s Day off to break the fourth wall.
Although Alfie could be labelled a self-centred womaniser, the way in which engages the audience with warmth and cockney charm rescues him from offending us all.
5. Fight Club
It doesn’t happen very often, but sometimes when you are least expecting it, a movie will completely blow you away. If you arrived at the cinema to see this movie in your sports car and a bulging wallet in the back of your khakis, Tyler Durden had a very harsh lesson for you to learn.
Fight Club not only breaks through the fourth wall, it completely obliterates it – leaving you questioning everything about this life that you thought you understood.
4. High Fidelity
Relationships are infamously difficult sometimes and at some point we will probably get our heart broken and every sad song that you wouldn’t ever dream of listening to suddenly feels like it was written just for you and the predicament you now find yourself in.
In High Fidelity our protagonist played by the always watchable and everyman John Cusack who seems to embrace breaking the fourth wall and finds it therapeutic to share matters of the heart with you the viewer.
What came first, the music or the misery? People worry about kids playing with guns, or watching violent videos, that some sort of culture of violence will take them over. Nobody worries about kids listening to thousands, literally thousands of songs about heartbreak, rejection, pain, misery and loss. Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?
Sometimes, in those most melodramatic and sentimental moments of life, love and relationships, there are occasions that evoke sheer frustration or disbelief. In circumstances like this, comedically rendered in Airplane, viewers can certainly empathise with the simple, reductive but oh-so-apt; “what a pisser”. Airplane delivered some excellent fourth wall-breaking, but this was the most succinct, unexpected and hilarious.
2. Monty Python and the Holy Grail
This classic is often regarded as the first traditional, full-length feature film from the Python team. The 1975 comedy packed with memorable, quotable lines is a parody of the legend of King Arthur’s quest to find the Holy Grail.
The inglorious end of King Arthur’s quest involves the cast attempting to storm the castle. The proceedings are brought to a halt when the police bizarrely intervene, breaking down the fourth wall in a surreal scene that’s archetypically Python.
1. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
At the end of this unusual movie, Robert Downey Jr. returns to the screen to thank us for watching. He attempts to wrap up the film in his own eclectic style, as the character reveals complete awareness that he’s in a movie – much to the audience’s delight.
It’s hard to imagine anyone else pulling this off effortlessly like Robert Downey Jr. does, but when a confused Val Kilmer returns, the scene becomes all the more memorable.