Author of the Time Rep Series and Note To Self

Breaking the fourth wall

If there’s one thing I always love in movies, it’s when they break the fourth wall. Now, for the uninitiated of you out there, let me briefly explain what this means. Breaking the fourth wall is where a character on the screen acknowledges the world outside of the one in which the movie is set. It is usually done by a character either talking or looking directly at the audience. Of course, the two greatest examples of this are as follows:

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (in which he constantly advises the audience on all matters pertaining to being awesome):


Trading Places (when Billy Ray turns and gives a long look to the camera after being told he might find bacon in a ‘bacon, lettuce and tomato’ sandwich):


There are of course other examples, but these two are my favourite. So why do I like it so much when movies do this? I’m not sure, but I think it may have something to do with the fact that it happens so rarely. It’s almost as if the film is breaking some sort of code that prohibits it from happening, so when it does, it’s like the film is being a bit naughty.

The same cannot be said however, for movie posters. In movie posters, it seems almost mandatory that the characters acknowledge the outside world, and they way in which they do so is carefully designed to tell you all you need to know about the film in the two seconds you spend looking at it on your way to work. So far I have identified four different categories that these posters fall into:

1) The characters look embarrassed / ashamed / confused / annoyed about the situation this movie has put them in

These films are generally mindless, high-concept capers in which the main characters are thrust into a situation that takes them out of their comfort zone, with ‘hilarious’ consequences. Everything is resolved in less than 110 minutes (or should be), and all the characters grow into being better than they were at the beginning of the film. Nobody dies, and somebody usually falls over at some point. Vince Vaughn generally stars.

Notable examples: The Internship, Delivery Man, The Dilemma, Sex Tape, The Five Year Engagement:    Posters1

2) Loads of characters are in shot, and most / all of them are looking directly at you. The poster makes you feel as though you have arrived just after an interesting incident that you will only find out more about if you watch the film.

These films are again high-concept capers, but generally with a more adult theme. There will be at least three gross-out moments, one of which will probably involve somebody’s penis. There may also be a joke involving a pet being used to cover someone’s bum.

Notable examples: American Pie, The Hangover, Brides Maids (that’s two words, idiots):   Posters2

3) The characters look knowingly at the camera with a wry smile, their faces are usually cast half in shadow. If there is more than one character in the poster, the scale goes all weird as if everyone secondary to the plot has just been miniaturised accidentally.

These films are typically action movies where loads of cool shit happens. Things blow up, there is usually an exciting opening sequence, a girl will get undressed at some point for no reason, and the third act will involve a fight on an unconventional means of transport. The movie will also be 25 minutes longer than necessary.

Notable Examples: X-Men, Iron Man, Star Trek, any Bond film, Pirates of the Caribbean:     posters3

4) Only the main character is aware of the world outside the movie. Everyone else in the poster is preoccupied by something or someone else.


These films generally have a more complicated plot, and not necessarily a happy ending. You may generally dislike the main character and wish that they get their comeuppance.

Notable examples: The Hundred Foot Journey, The Wolf of Wall Street, Home Alone:  posters4


I’m sure there are more categories, but that’s all I can be bothered to come up with for now. So why do movie posters break the fourth wall so often, even though most films do not? Well obviously it’s to get our attention. You see, as human beings, we can sense when somebody is looking at us, and feel a compulsion to look back. It harks back to the days when we were constantly scoping out our surroundings for threats, and as such we have no choice but to look at these posters. It’s instinctive, much like the urge to switch off the television whenever The X-Factor comes on.


So in other words, you could say these posters are designed to exploit a primeval fear buried deep inside the recesses of our mind; a fear that we are being hunted. And I suppose we are being hunted in a way, only the predators in this case are movie executives, circling around us with their posters, their billboards, and those adverts you see on the sides of buses. And Vince Vaughn.


Nice to know, isn’t it?

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