Pop Off: The Spoils of Spoiler Alerts

One of the things I enjoy the most about movies is the discussion I get to engage in with people about the medium. Whether it’s predicting trends, debating quality or delving into the careers of actors and directors, it’s both a learning experience and a satisfying opportunity to tout one’s knowledge. However, recently I’ve noticed an annoying habit that impedes these discussions. It boils down to two sacred and vexatious words: no spoilers.

In fact, when I think of “Game of Thrones,” “Breaking Bad” or “The Walking Dead,” there aren’t two other words that I instantly associate. Spoiler paranoia is definitely a product of the last few years. DVR, streaming, torrenting, and social media have changed the rules. It used to be that when you missed an episode of your favorite show, unless you recorded it on a blank tape, you had no choice but to find out what happened from friends the next day. Now, there is such a determination to avoid the slightest revelation of plot information, it’s become toxic.

I’m aware that I’m talking about television, but the custom has worked its way into movies as well. Recently, a friend who had not seen the film asked me why I didn’t enjoy “American Sniper.” All I could get out of my mouth was, “Well in one scene…” before he ducked his head and covered his ears.

First of all, we all know, or should know, how “American Sniper” ends. Chris Kyle is murdered; it was national news when it happened. Since he was a soldier, you can figure out by basic logic that he was involved in combat in the Middle East, and then suffered from PTSD when he came back. There is honestly nothing that I can say that could constitute a spoiler.

This is troubling because I review movies, and in doing so I have to provide reasons for my approval or disapproval. Failing to do so would make me a poor writer. I have always favored revealing as little as possible about the plot. Generally, my rule is that anything in the first third is fair game, because that’s the expositional phase. If I have to use any other important details as evidence, I’ll remove the context so it won’t be apparent that it’s coming up when one watches the film.

There are exceptions to these rules of course, with movies like “The Cabin in the Woods” or “Gone Girl” where the plot twists are essential. In movies like this I make sure to reveal nothing about the plot. If I do feel that I am giving away something important that could be detrimental to the viewing experience, I will be sure to include a warning.

Here’s the other thing about spoilers: they are historic and beloved parts of our culture. How many times have you seen the, “Luke I am your father” scene from “The Empire Strikes Back” referenced and parodied? I did, several dozen times before I actually saw the movie. Did it ruin anything for me? I also knew that Rosebud was a sled before I saw “Citizen Kane,” and that Bruce Willis was dead before I saw “The Sixth Sense.” The important thing about surprising endings and plot swerves is that it’s the action that makes them great, not the buildup and the payoff.

I knew that Jaye Davidson’s character in “The Crying Game” (SPOILER ALERT, see, told ya) was born a man, so while deprived of the initial zap of shock; I instead get to see how masterfully Davidson plays the transsexual role, giving me a better understanding of Forest Whitaker’s and Stephen Rea’s characters while the film is unfolding.

Allowing me to notice the signs and implications one normally doesn’t get to see until the second viewing on the first. I think that’s a fair exchange.

Now let’s take a movie that handles its twist poorly, “The Village.” At the end of the film, and this spoiler is common knowledge so I have no problem revealing it, what we thought was a town living in the 19th century was actually a secluded one in modern times. The problem is that the twist is revealed and nothing happens. It doesn’t resolve any character arcs, the story doesn’t branch off of it, it just exists. Sure it solves the mystery of what the monsters in the forest really were, but it’s a classic attempt to mask a story’s lack of meaning with surprise. That’s a spoiler that you could have revealed to me beforehand and it wouldn’t have made a difference.

I understand the desire to stop a story from potentially being ruined by spoilers. But I truly think that it’s not the spoilers that are detrimental to the experience, but the viewer resigning to the notion that they will be. Knowledge of a plot, even when it’s minimal, will just open up a different perspective and allow us to notice different pieces of the picture, which we can share with each other and synthesize afterward. Creating a bomb shelter to avoid whatever details pass before our eyes and ears is just unnecessary.

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