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What Constitutes a Spoiler?

What constitutes a spoiler? I mean, really? Is discussing anything about the ending of a film a spoiler? What about talking about a twist earlier on, or an underlying theme or premise that pays off at the end? Is that a spoiler? How long does a movie have to be out before you can talk about it without worrying that you’ll spoil the ending for some poor unsuspecting individual who deserves to see the movie and take it in without having their perception coloured? Some stuff got me thinking about this and I’m not really sure I know where the line falls.

I see a twist coming...

I see a twist coming...

Spoiler: This article contains spoilers. Lots and lots of spoilers. But that was kind of obvious from the header, wasn’t it? I wonder if anyone ever actually heeds these warnings. Tell you what, cycle down to the end of the article and leave a comment if you do. Nah, I’m just kidding, but still… spoilers ahoy!

Anyhoo, the thing that really got me think was catching up on my Sky+ over the weekend. To celebrate both the release of Inglourious Basterds and the screening of Deathproof, Sky Movies allowed Tarantino to take over for the weekend. Basically he screened some films with lovely little intros from the man himself. I love the guy’s enthusiasm. He’s very aggressive, very assertive, but he’s also very energetic and actually seems like he loves what he’s doing. It’s hard to hate a man for that, even if you disagree with his opinions or have reservations about the quality of some of his work. But I digress.

He was listing his top twenty films since 1992 and he got to Unbreakable. This quite surprised me, because – although I love Unbreakable – the consensus seems to be that M. Night Shyamalan’s undesputed classic is The Sixth Sense. Anyway, before I go off on a tangent again, Tarantino explains his love for the film and explains how it should have been marketed: basically ‘what if Superman came to earth and didn’t know that he was Superman’? It isn’t a shockingly big spoiler (given that it isn’t actually the twist at the end), but letting people in on that secret undermines what I got from the film. I think Shyamalan was attempting to look at how the audience would treat a superhero film that wasn’t a superhero film. Part of the joy of watching it is gradually figuring out what the movie actually is. It rewards rewatching (as any twist does), but it works well (and only once) as a mystery for the viewer to figure out.

So, did Tarantino spoil Unbreakable? I don’t know. It’s hard to go into any film knowing absolutely nothing (though, based on the trailer, Christopher Nolan may be attempting this approach with Inception). And it’s nigh impossible to properly discuss a Shyamalan film without discussing the inevitable twist at the end. I like to read basic plot summaries, though I inevitably spoil myself, accidentally or otherwise. I was able to figure out the ‘twist’ to Moon (which, in fairness, is revealed twenty minutes in) before setting foot in the cinema and I’ll admit that I probably would have enjoyed it more had I been completely unsuspecting. I loved The Prestige because I had no idea what I was letting myself in for when I first went to see it. It twisted and turned like a rollercoaster and I was completely unsuspecting.

So, in an ideal world, that would be the way that we would all see movies: completely blind. Alas, this is not an ideal world. Because we all have a finite amount of money and time, we like to choose which movies we see, rather than seeing all of them. Because we don’t trust critics completely to give us a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down, we like to make our judgement on what we go to see based on plot summaries. If you don’t do subtitles, you should be able to tell if the movie is foreign. If you don’t like horrors, you should be able to tell if the movie is a horror. If you don’t like those mindless romantic comedies that don’t do anything but eat two hours of your life while giving you cliched characters, you should be able to know whether or not the movie you are considering seeing is one of those films. But it’s a fine line you have to carefully walk.

Still, there are some basic rules: don’t talk about the ending to a film that hasn’t been released in your country or the country of your audience; don’t talk about television shows that haven’t aired, etc. Still, outside of that there’s a pretty big gray area. And I say this as a person who has been accidentally spoiled more than once in the past. It does diminish your enjoyment of the film or show a bit. Particularly if it is a film where the twist ending was the entire point. Even if it wasn’t, it’s still fairly crap.

Okay, there’s a greater need to worry about spoiling new films. What about when we’re talking about ‘classic’ films? I think that certain endings are sacred. Thou shalt never spoil The Usual Suspects – and I drafted my review accordingly. However, can you mention that there is a twist? Or does that put the audience on guard and make them suspicious. It makes them more likely to be hunting for the twist while watching the film, rather than watching the film. And – if they catch the twist – does it mean that they’ve cheated, if they’ve been clued in before hand?

What about a movie that everyone knows the ending to? Sure, Romeo & Juliet lays its cards on the table in the opening monologue, but I’m still reluctant to mention that the lead characters die at the end because I’m fairly sure that someone somewhere doesn’t know. What about sequels or follow-ups? Is it reasonable to assume that all those reading a review are familiar and have watching the first film, so you can discuss the twist or details revealed at the end of that film in talking about the subsequent movie? For example, Absolute Sandman 3 ends with an implied funeral for the lead character (you don’t see who is in the coffin, but you see who isn’t). However, the first arc of Absolute Sandman 4 follows the lead character to his death. In neither case is it a sudden thing (it’s foreshadowed heavily), but I wonder if anyone reading the 4th book doesn’t know that.

Part of this is pure selfishness. Really good twists and endings deserve discussion. I would love to examine The Usual Suspects as a criticism of narrative, but doing so would give away the twist. Similarly, even labeling Unbreakable as a superhero movie somewhat diminishes it, even though it would be a great piece to use in any detail discussion of the evolution of the cinematic superhero. There is a tonne of stuff that I would love to just rant and rave about, but I worry that it will somehow spoil someone else’s enjoyment of something. And – as someone who enjoyed the experience themselves – don’t I owe the author (and the future reader) the joy of keeping the twist secret. Maybe I should try what Roger Ebert does, from time to time – he tells the reader to see the film and then come back and read the review.

Alas, I’ve no witty twist ending to end this meandering thought upon.

2 Responses

  1. The esoteric-ness of your posts continues to impress. And I’m glad you threw in the commandment about “The Usual Suspects” — though it’s been out more than a decade, the end must be kept secret (and sacred).

  2. […] were very much on my mind, as I considered what constitutes a spoiler when a reviewer is commentating on a film, and I also took a closer look at the rather brilliant […]

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