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Calum Marsh

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Calum Marsh is a purveyor of essays and criticism and a generally lovable dilettante. He lives in Toronto and was born in Great Britain, though regrettably he lost the accent.

Spoiler Alert: Critics Shouldn’t Care About ‘Ruining’ a Movie

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Late last week, a few hours before the American embargo on “Oblivion” reviews lifted, Universal’s publicity department forwarded critics and journalists the following polite recommendation:

“During the course of your reviewing or reporting, we request that you not reveal plot points toward the film’s climax and conclusion so that those surprises are retained for the audience.”

At first glance this would appear to be a reasonable request: the film, after all, opens in wide release imminently, and, because its narrative is uncommonly laden with sudden twists and turnabouts, it’s likely to play better to a first-time audience if they can retain the sensation of surprise. There’s a reason we call revelations of important plot points “spoilers”: there’s a shared sense that knowing this information in advance of seeing a film will somehow spoil the experience of watching it. We tend to think of movie spoilers the same way we think of, say, hearing the final score to a football game we recorded but haven’t watched, which is to say we strain to avoid them while we can and feel deflated if we find we cannot.

Part of the problem with Universal’s request is that it betrays a certain anxiety toward the buying power of intrigue. It’s nice to think that a studio has only the moviegoing pleasure of its target demographic in mind when it urges critics to forgo spoilers, but I suspect it’s more likely that, at the end of the day, Universal is more concerned about dissuading prospective ticket-buyers than it is with preserving the artistic integrity of “Oblivion” and its myriad twists. If the appeal of “Oblivion”, at least from the perspective of a potential audience member being lured to the theater by marketing, is the mystery at the heart of the story, it stands to reason that knowing the answer to the mystery in advance—and maybe even being disappointed or put off by that answer—will be enough to keep the now-sated audience member at home. This isn’t a guarantee, mind you; knowing, for instance, that Bruce Willis was dead along (spoiler alert) might not be enough to deter people from rushing out to catch “The Sixth Sense”. But “The Village” might seem less attractive if an opening-day review lets slip the fact that it all takes place in the modern day (oh, um, also spoiler alert).

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In other words, when a critic elides spoilers simply because a movie studio demands it, a critic is helping the studio more than the audience—and doubly so in the case of bad movies, which don’t have as much to fall back on once their secrets have been spilled. Only the thinnest and cheapest films can be truly spoiled by knowing their twists ahead of time, which is why, for instance, “Citizen Kane” seems no less great if one knows that “Rosebud” is the name of a sled. The kind of pleasure offered by plot twists are by nature superficial: it’s a momentary feeling of surprise and perhaps astonishment, a quick gasp that hardly lingers after the end credits role. It’s a nice feeling, one that we hope is preserved but not needlessly prioritized.

Also check out: Our (spoiler-free!) review of “Oblivion”

Preserving the surprise isn’t necessarily a problem for broadsheet journalists authoring quick-hit capsules as a kind of consumer guide for what to see over the weekend, since this sort of thumbs-up/thumbs-down reviewing wouldn’t benefit from drifting into spoiler territory in most cases. But being thoroughly averse to spoilers on principle does present problems for long-form film criticism, which by its very nature demands full disclosure and the ability to engage seriously with every aspect of a film, including major plot points and, indeed, even the ending. Film criticism is supposed to help illuminate a film, not simply offer a yay/nay declaration of its quality, and in order to do so well it needs to assume that its readers will be familiar with the material in question in full.

This, of course, raises an important point that typically goes unmentioned: film criticism is intended to be read by people who have seen the film under discussion. That isn’t a hard rule, mind you—people are free to read whatever they’d like, and if someone finds reading about a film in advance of seeing it helpful or even just interesting, so be it—but it should at least be an assumed truth of the practice, which would allow critics to tailor their writing to a knowledgeable audience and allow readers to be aware of what they’re getting into in advance. It would also almost single-handedly obliterate concerns about spoilers in criticism—concerns which, frankly, are altogether unfounded.

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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. While a spoiler warning is an easy courtesy for those readers who enjoy tempting fate, the responsibility remains their own (this, of course, applies only to articles with which a reader has voluntarily engaged, and not a tweet that appears from the blue like a broadside attack).

If you spent any time last week reading reviews of “Oblivion” without having seen it, you should ask yourself an obvious question: what exactly were you hoping to find in those reviews? If you wanted nothing more than a sense of the quality of the film, reading an 800-word essay is probably unnecessary. Review aggregators like Rotten Tomatoes and MetaCritic exist, in part, to offer a fleeting summation of professional opinion, a quick measure of a film’s critical temperature that gives a clear (if imperfect) indication of whether a given film is worth your time and money. While those aggregators catch a lot of flack from film critics, it’s crucial to reckon with how they empower us to speak to our audience as though they’re looking for insight rather than broad opinion. Reading more ought to come after the fact: the 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. “Spoiling” the plot should be irrelevant.


Categories: Features

Tags: Citizen kane, Oblivion, Op-ed, Spoilers