Anton Chekhov stated that there should be nothing significant in a story that is either unnecessary or replaceable:
Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.
You know the kind of thing…
Daniel’s crane move in Karate Kid.
The glasses in Chinatown.
Buzz Lightyear’s ‘falling with style’ in Toy Story.
But this kind of foreshadowing can go in good and bad directions.
Great movies set up elements you’re generally unaware of because they exist in nuance and character:
In There Will Be Blood Daniel Plainview accepts the story of the man who pretends to be his brother because he invests great importance in the connections of blood that have thus far eluded him.
In Schindler’s List Oskar Schindler saves 1300 Jews from the Holocaust by using the deceit and subterfuge that made his fortune in the early years of the war.
In Citizen Kane Kane’s ultimate unhappiness comes as he searches fruitlessly for the father he was taken from at the beginning of the movie. (Rosebud is another gun in the first act, but as it is mentioned all the way through we can hardly forget its existence or watch it make an unexpected reappearance.)
But bad movies… Shit… They chuck them in there like monkeys flinging turds:
My least favourite is in the film Signs. Just watch this clip and see how little trust the director has in the audience; how many shots telegraph the bat, and the line ‘Swing away’, which is another first-act gun in a collection that looks like the woodshed of an NRA fanatic:
Just as poor is Jurassic World: the moment in the beginning where Owen calms the raptors is repeated towards the end. Then again, the whole thing is a dismal remake of the 1993 original.
Finally, in Pixels Brenner has to win an ‘important’ Donkey Kong game because he lost an ‘important’ Donkey Kong game as a kid. Yawn.
All films use the start of the movie to create the end, but if that use is artless and crass the whole movie can feel like a lazy mess.
So there you go: make your guns as subtle as possible and they won’t go off in your face.