The Usual Suspects

It’s pretty much impossible to avoid movie/TV spoilers these days, and that’s just a sad reality. Is it the worst thing? Not even close, but that doesn’t mean that those who partake in the spoiling are anything less than pricks. Still, is it possible they’re simply confused pricks? Pricks unknowingly trafficking in the art of premature infojaculation?

The past week has seen two interesting discussions arise on the subject, and both of them stem from Tom Cruise’s new film Oblivion. The first one appeared on Twitter as people who had seen early screenings of the film shared their 140-character-long opinions as to what other movies this one reminded them of. They weren’t explicitly stating plot points, but in naming certain, specific movies in their comparisons, those plot points were made implicit and obvious.

The second issue was voiced a few days ago by Calum Marsh in a post on Film.com about how film critics shouldn’t care about spoiling a film for their readers. There’s a kernel of truth to his point, but it’s drowned out by the rest of what he says (and how he says it).

In both cases the originators claim these circumstances aren’t worthy of being called a real spoiler. In both cases these people are wrong.

Before we go any further though, know that there will in fact be spoilers below for Oblivion and Moon as well as a handful of older movies (I’m talking decades old), so consider this your spoiler warning. See how easy that is, pricks?

First things first. Let’s define what constitutes a spoiler.

A part of the problem is that the definition of a spoiler has grown so vague and all-encompassing that the mere mention of a character smiling at the dinner table becomes reason to bitch and moan for some. Hop on Twitter on any given Sunday night, and you’re bound to see people reacting violently to someone’s tweet about Don Draper being bitten by a zombie in the meth lab, but while that would be a legitimate complaint, they’re just as easy to set off with utterly innocuous mentions of a what a character’s wearing in the episode. The liberal application of the term has effectively neutered its effect to the point that the internet has become a haven for little boys and girls to loudly cry wolf way too often.

But there are real spoilers out there. A legitimate spoiler is simply revealing something of real value in the story or plot beyond the setup outside of a (metaphorically) hermetically-sealed discussion. It should go without saying that anything in a film’s third act is off limits, but even second act events of revelatory importance should be off the table without a warning to the reader. The only malleable factor at play here is the time frame since there obviously needs to be some kind of rational expiration date for when a spoiler is no longer a spoiler. When people have to start swimming at their own risk while those who know open the flood gates. Just as some people might think hearing that Sheriff Rick loses his hat in an upcoming episode is a spoiler, others may take offense at learning Rosebud is a sled. Those people are idiots, but the statute of limitations is an honest question. So how long is it? Five years? Twelve months?

The correct answer is 42 weeks.

The ongoing flurry of tweets about Oblivion offers up a mix of positive and negative comments, but two things that many of them have in common are the (correct) opinion that the film is derivative and the seemingly obligatory comparison to Duncan Jones’ Moon. A few examples:

Why so much math?! This last one is a particular favorite:

There’s no denying that Oblivion borrows quite a bit from many other films, and comparing it to Wall-E or The Omega Man doesn’t reveal anything a casual glance at the film’s trailers hasn’t already shared. But Moon? The implied similarity is clearly in reference to one thing and one thing only, and it’s not that the robot in Oblivion is voiced by Keyser Söze.

Comparing most movies is harmless as it rarely involves specificity, but just as saying something is like The Sixth Sense or Jacob’s Ladder tells us the protagonist is probably dead the whole time, drawing a direct comparison to Moon means Tom Cruise is probably a goddamn clone. None of these films deserve to be boiled down to a singular plot point, but in filmic shorthand and the mathematical examples above, that’s exactly what has happened. Suggestions that this was bad, nay prickish, form on their part was met with indifference or the defense that comparisons are “fair game.”

Twatters.

On another front, Calum Marsh’s post, “Spoiler Alert: Critics Shouldn’t Care About ‘Ruining’ a Movie,” moves the conversation to movie reviews themselves and was inspired by a studio request that reviewers not mention certain plot points from Oblivion‘s climax (remember? the clones!). A harmless request to be sure, but also a somewhat unnecessary one. It’s worth noting that Marsh complied in his own review of the film, but he takes issue with the request and its supposed consequences in his followup post. After a brief “understanding” of why spoilers are unwelcome by so many people he attacks the studio’s motive as being falsely altruistic. (Well, duh.) But then he gets into the meat of the matter:

“Consider the real issue here: if you haven’t seen a film and you are concerned about spoilers, the onus is on you to not read reviews before seeing the film. It’s not only unfair to demand that critics pander to people who shouldn’t be reading their work yet in the first place, it’s absurd; it presumes that a critic should be talking around a film instead of talking about it, and it makes the practice of criticism useless except as a vehicle of undescriptive opinion.”

So two things: critics can’t review movies unless they can talk about absolutely everything, and perhaps more damning, reviews should only be read by people who’ve already seen the movie while everyone else can just suck an egg?

He’s essentially saying that critics are shackled if they’re unable to breech topics in their reviews which could be labeled as spoilers, and that all they can do is “simply offer a yay/nay declaration of its quality.” As someone who not only writes reviews but reads others as well, I find this a patently ridiculous comment to make.

Film reviews can say a lot more in 600-1000 words than simply shoving a thumb up or down, and they can do so without ruining key story elements for the audience. Read James Rocchi’s lovely review of Upstream Color or William Goss’ nimble one for The Cabin In the Woods and you’ll find passionate writers discussing films that feature closely guarded plot points and doing so without spoilers. In place of those spoilers you’ll instead find wit, film knowledge, insight and opinion. (In Goss’ case you’ll probably also find puns, but he’s not legally allowed to write more than two paragraphs without one.)

Marsh is correct in his assertion that readers assume responsibility for what they read, but asking them what exactly they were hoping to find in a review for a film they haven’t yet seen shows a startling ignorance as to the purpose of film reviews. There’s a reason newspapers (and online media) have always published reviews on opening weekends: to help readers decide what to go see. This isn’t pandering. This is educating, enlightening and sharing of an opinion.

Rather than let them read a review that he believes should be “intended to be read by people who have seen the film under discussion” he directs people to Rotten Tomatoes. Thus, instead of finding a critic whose writing you enjoy and whose opinion you often find yourself aligned with, he suggests placing your faith in whether a film is “rotten” or “fresh” with no variation or nuance in between.

Marsh’s desire for the ability to discuss films openly is not the problem; in fact it’s a desire I share. Commentary untethered by spoiler-concerns is a gateway to fascinating reads and conversations about artists and their art, but let’s not pretend this is an either/or situation. We can have reviews designed to inform readers as to whether or not a movie is worth their time and money, and we can still have separate pieces that offer up more of a detailed dissection of a film to foster real conversation. He’s correct in stating that “criticism is there to help you make sense of what you saw, to offer validating or challenging opinions, to make you think about the film differently or better,” but he’s wrong to think that has to be its only purpose. Some people read reviews for guidance, others read them simply because they enjoy the writer’s work… and both groups deserve to reach the end without being spoiled.

Simply put (I know, too late), comparing Anne Hathaway’s Passengers to Carnival of Souls is a spoiler. Mentioning Gwyneth Paltrow’s head in a box within your review of Se7en is a spoiler. Discussing any of this outside of a review and inside of a film-related article is an opinionated rant. And now my rant is over. I’m off to watch the final season of Lost. Don’t tell me what happens.


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