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?