Welcome to Beginner’s Guide, a feature in which we give newbies an entry point into some music, film, or television realm of our pop culture universe. As Wet Hot American Summer: Ten Years Later gets ready to drop on Netflix, Steven Cohen offers a crash course in meta-films.
“That’s so meta.”
It’s a saying you may have heard your film buff friend throw around every now and then, usually while chuckling a little too enthusiastically to themselves during a movie. But just what the hell are they laughing about? And what does meta even mean?
Well, in the strictest sense, a meta-film is a movie that draws attention to the fact that what you are watching is a movie. In other words, the film is self-aware and self-referential, often featuring direct instances where characters break the fourth wall.
In looser terms, meta-films can also include movies that use their narratives and style to provide commentary on frequent conventions found in cinema, analyzing clichés and archetypes, often through humor or satire — even if none of the characters feel the need to actually shout, “Hey, stop texting, you’re watching a movie!”
In one way or another, meta-films can be interpreted as movies about movies. In some cases, this is handled rather literally, resulting in stories about filmmakers making films, and in other cases this is carried out in a more implicit manner through genre deconstruction, using an audience’s built-in familiarity with movie tropes to offer clever observations about form and storytelling.
And, since there’s nothing worse than not being in on a joke, we’ve put together an introductory list of quintessential meta-films tackling a variety of genres. Featuring everything from snarky superheroes breaking the fourth wall to neurotic writers putting themselves into their own movies, these flicks will all have you smugly snickering, “That’s so meta” in no time.
Meta Focus: Sci-fi flicks
In its simplest form, the most prevalent type of meta-filmmaking is the parody. By making fun of a specific movie or movie genre, parodies are inherently self-aware of their place in the medium, and while there are plenty of great examples filled with meta-gags, Mel Brooks’ Spaceballs just might feature the most meta moment in all of cinema. As a goofy spoof on sci-fi flicks and the Star Wars trilogy, the film offers a host of genre jokes, but during one sequence in particular, the story’s villain, Dark Helmet (Rick Moranis), actually pops in a VHS copy of the movie in order to find the heroes. After fast-forwarding through the opening credits and a few embarrassing early blunders, he ends up stopping on the very scene he is in — watching himself watch himself on the tape, basically becoming the very definition of meta on screen.
The Princess Bride (1987)
Meta Focus: Fairy tales
Stories within stories are a hallmark of many meta-films, but few handle the technique with as much wit and charm as Rob Reiner’s The Princess Bride. Told through the framing device of a grandfather reading his sick grandson a fairy tale, the movie frequently plays with fantasy tropes and the very act of storytelling. Full of characters who both represent and lovingly subvert many classic archetypes, the narrative brings a few decidedly post-modern sensibilities to its otherwise old-fashioned yarn. And taking its meta aspects even further, the grandson actually interrupts the story several times throughout, cringing at kissing scenes and crying foul when it looks like the hero has died — directly toying with audience expectations about what a fairy tale is supposed to be and how one is supposed to be told in a manner that can only be described as inconceivable! I think. Wait, am I using that word right?
The Cabin in the Woods (2012)
Meta Focus: Horror movies
Five friends go on a trip to a secluded cabin. They party, make dumb decisions, and then get picked off one by one by a sinister threat. It’s the basic plot to countless horror flicks — but in Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon’s Cabin in the Woods, this familiar premise gets a clever meta spin, deliberately drawing attention to the genre’s clichés while even giving them an essential purpose within the story. To this end, the characters are actually tricked into following a standard horror formula and their stock archetypes (jock, stoner, sexpot, virgin, etc.) are revealed to be necessary components of a ritual sacrifice — all at the behest of ancient demons who apparently have a big thing for old slasher flicks. Scary and amusingly satirical, the film plays with every horror trope there is, from flesh-eating zombies to horny teens, turning the runtime into a bloody love letter to all things that go bump in the night.
Meta Focus: Classic sitcoms
In the pristine world of an old-fashioned ’50s TV show, the weather is always sunny, families are always chipper, and any conflict can be easily resolved in 30 minutes or less. But in Gary Ross’ Pleasantville, that seemingly flawless existence is turned on its head when two modern teens are transported into a classic black-and-white sitcom. Using TV conventions and idealized clichés as metaphors for stagnation, the filmmakers play around with the empty façade of small-screen pleasantness, exposing the tragic downside to sitcom perfection. As the simple stock characters break free from their limited pre-written roles, they literally bring color to the screen, creating an obvious yet still effective meta representation of progress. Dinner might not always be ready on time anymore, but that’s a small price to pay for a little red, yellow, and blue.
The Game (1997)
Meta Focus: Thrillers
In David Fincher’s The Game, Nicholas Van Orton (Michael Douglas) receives one of the most elaborate birthday presents of all time — a specially designed real-world entertainment experience complete with props, risky stunts, plot twists, and actors. In other words, Nicholas is thrust into his own bespoke Hitchcock thriller. And as the protagonist navigates through increasingly dangerous clues, red herrings, and femme fatales, Fincher essentially creates a suspense film within his own suspense film, using the exact same techniques to guide, entertain, and manipulate his audience as the game makers use to guide, entertain, and manipulate Nicholas. And in this sense, the film becomes a meta-deconstruction of those very conventions, highlighting the cinematic trickery and tools of the trade that directors employ to make audiences gasp. But though Nicholas’ birthday peril might end up being the result of seemingly harmless movie magic, if I had to choose between a surprise party and almost drowning in a car … I think I’d just pick the cake.
Wet Hot American Summer (2001)
Meta Focus: ’70s and ’80s teen comedies
Though it has since earned cult classic status, Wet Hot American Summer was apparently a bit too meta for its own good when it first hit theaters back in 2001, failing to connect with audiences thanks in large part to its absurd and exceedingly self-aware sense of humor. Spoofing classic summer camp flicks like Meatballs and raunchy teen comedies like Animal House and Revenge of the Nerds, the movie exaggerates and lampoons every genre trope in the book, dialing its assortment of goofy clichés all the way up to 11. Add in some intentionally cheesy production errors (stunt guys are hilariously obvious), and this one probably just left most viewers scratching their heads. But now, in a post-Adult Swim climate where anti-comedy is creeping into the mainstream, the flick’s ironic sensibilities have turned it into an increasingly influential meta-farce, complete with Netflix prequel and sequel series. Not too shabby for a box-office bomb.
Day for Night (1973)
Meta Focus: Filmmaking
Making movies is no easy task. From creative differences and technical snafus to clashing egos and budgetary restrictions, film sets often waver between palpable tension and familial intimacy. Flipping the cameras back around on the filmmakers themselves, Francois Truffaut’s Day for Night tackles this backstage world of cinema head on as a French movie crew attempts to make a typical melodrama. And as one might expect, this leads to plenty of meta-references about the process, often exposing the artificial nature of filmmaking as the fakery behind each shot is revealed and the fictional cast’s off-screen relationships put the movie in jeopardy. And if that isn’t meta enough for you, Truffaut even stars in the flick as the director of the movie-within-a-movie while also handling actual directing duties for the real movie. Talk about a control freak.
Last Action Hero (1993)
Meta Focus: Action flicks
Writer Shane Black and director John McTiernan know a thing or two about action tropes. After all, as the men behind flicks like Lethal Weapon, Die Hard, The Long Kiss Goodnight, and Predator, they basically created them. And with their 1993 box office dud, Last Action Hero, the pair lovingly lampoons their own work, creating a meta parody of blockbuster filmmaking that, ironically, failed to become a blockbuster itself. Focused on a wide-eyed kid who gets transported into a generic action film, the movie features a world full of muscles, bullets, scantily clad babes, one-liners, cartoon sidekicks, and constant explosions — all without any lasting consequences. But when the action flick’s larger-than-life star, Jack Slater (Arnold Schwarzenegger), ends up tearing through the screen and into the real world, the brawny hero must adjust to genuine life-threatening dangers, allowing the filmmakers to cleverly juxtapose silly movie logic with reality. Add in a climax that involves Schwarzenegger’s Slater crashing the premiere of his own movie while running into the real Schwarzenegger playing himself, and the film hits all the major meta beats.
Meta Focus: Screenwriting
What’s even more meta than a screenwriter writing themselves into their own script? Well, how about a screenwriter writing themselves into their own script about a screenwriter writing themselves into their script about a screenwriter writing themselves into their own scrip about — well, I think you get the idea. Probably the quintessential meta-film of the modern era, Adaptation dives head first into the neurotic, anxious, and deeply insecure writing process of Academy Award-winner Charlie Kaufman as he tries to adapt a non-fiction book titled The Orchid Thief. But writer’s block forces him to improvise, and soon the runtime becomes a fascinating mixture of the novel’s true story, Kaufman’s restless attempts to write the screenplay, and an absolutely bizarre fictionalized intermingling of both worlds. All the while, Kaufman begins to deliberately subvert fundamental scripting rules before eventually starting to embrace them right before our eyes, turning the movie into a self-aware critique and celebration of every screenwriting text book I ever bought in film school.
Meta Focus: Superhero movies
From the moment its main title sequence hits the screen, filled with such playfully self-aware cast credits as “a hot chick” and “the comic relief,” audiences know exactly what kind of experience they’re getting themselves into with Deadpool. The infamously meta “Merc with a Mouth” is notorious for breaking the fourth wall in the Marvel comics he originates from, and his first (proper) big-screen outing follows suit. Packed with frequent references to common superhero movie clichés, confusing X-Men series continuity, and star Ryan Reynolds himself, the movie uses its frequent asides to the camera to turn ample snark into fun genre commentary. And as the second-highest-grossing domestic R-rated movie of all time, the flick is now responsible for bringing meta into the mainstream like never before.