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The Four Types of Spoilers and How Reviewers Should Handle Them 

A rough and inevitably incomplete guide to the taxonomy of spoilers

Thursday, Oct 31 2013
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Recommendation: Don't hint, don't tell. But if you have to, label them with barbed wire.

FORMAL SPOILERS

Sometimes the mere disclosure of the method by which the story is told or the genre it occupies can steal a pleasurable sense of discovery from the audience. These instances occur infrequently enough that many critics might not even think of them as spoilers. Many critics also evidently believe something I don't: that reviews should be comprehensive, addressing every aspect of the work under consideration, whether the critic has something interesting to say about it not.

click to flip through (2) A narrative spoiler in Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back
  • A narrative spoiler in Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back
 
 

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These two factors probably explain why most critics over-described Mr. Burns' latter parts. The 2012 horror film The Cabin in the Woods is a good, strong example of this type of spoiler. Most critics wrote about it with appropriate caution. Movie critics seems to be better at this than theater critics are—or at least they've got more practice thinking about it.

But what about, say, the 15-minute "Dawn of Man" prologue to 2001: A Space Odyssey? Or the dinosaur interlude in Tree of Life? These are not elements audiences would have been expecting, based on these films' marketing or their directors' prior work. Or the fact that last year's terrific sci-fi thriller Looper settles down to spend its last act on a farm, just like Witness? I would have preferred not to have known about these things in advance. You can intelligently assess these films' merits without divulging these surprises.

Some measure of description—albeit far less than is frequently given, in my opinion—is required both to promote plays and movies and to critique them substantively. Writing about theater, I feel obliged to participate in the Consumer Guide function of criticism, because, for the majority of the audience, the live experience of a play or a musical is inconvenient and expensive. You can't wait for them to show up on Netflix or borrow them from the library for free. One of the things I have enjoyed about reviewing pop concerts is that the critic is completely removed from the purchasing calculus. Because most acts play only one night and then move on to the next city on the schedule, they were already gone by the time my review appeared. The piece could simply be a subjective attempt to record something of the event for posterity.

Recommendation: Say as little as you can while keeping your argument understandable. Also, be cool. If you're all, Hey, there is a big secret I'm not telling you here, tee hee, then you're kind of spoiling. Use your judgment: Reviewing art isn't a science, it's … another thing.

CASTING SPOILERS

Duh.

Recommendation: If an actor is famous but not named in the opening credits, don't name that actor in your review.

FAKE SPOILERS

A film professor I studied under once began a class by saying, "Rosebud is the fucking sled. If you think I've just ruined Citizen Kane for you, please get out." His point, I think, was that if you're only watching a film because you want to know how it ends, you're closing yourself off to all its other, non-narrative expressions of artistry.

My point is different: "Rosebud" is the MacGuffin in Citizen Kane. The reporter trying to discern the meeting of Kane's final deathbed utterance cares what it means, but do you? Did you care any more about it at minute 90 than you did at minute 15? The extremely low-yield reveal of Rosebud's identity tells us Kane's dying thoughts returned to his early memories, which doesn't seem at all unusual. If it's intended to illuminate Kane's character, well, we'd already seen plenty of evidence that he remained selfish and childlike as an adult. Who doesn't yearn for the simplicity of their childhood?

Moreover: Who names a sled, anyway? Now, if "Rosebud" really were, as Gore Vidal has claimed, William Randolph Heart's nickname for his mistress Marion Davies' lady parts … that would an item of interest.

To offer a more recent, less prurient example, Star Trek Into Darkness had a spoilable secret, but it wasn't the name of its antagonist. Director J.J. Abrams and his usual entourage of writer-producers wanted fans to believe for half the movie that Benedict Cumberbatch's villain was a ne'er-do-well named John Harrison. But when he monologues to Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock that he is, in fact, duh-duh-DUUUUH Khan Noonien Singh, the name is as meaningless to them as "John Harrison" is to us: In this clean-slate iteration of Trek, they've only just met the guy. He could've said, "I'm Batman," or, "Bond, James Bond," or, "They call me Mr. Tibbs." Sure, some largish portion of the audience is coming in with the knowledge that in a prior telling, Khan became the franchise's most flamboyant villain. But the net effect within this movie is that a guy we thought was a bad guy is actually … a bad guy.

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