The trouble with spoilers … and the magic of discovery.
Last week I screened Pixar’s new movie Brave with my oldest daughter Sarah. I’m still under embargo and can’t tell you what I thought of the film until next week — but I can tell you this much.
Reviews from the Hollywood trade journals (Variety, the Hollywood Reporter, etc.) and perhaps other sources are starting to appear … and they all freely reveal a key second-act plot twist that I went into Brave not knowing. And I’m sure that more reviews, as they come out, will do the same.
What these reviews treat as basic background information came as a complete surprise to me — a surprise I’m grateful for. It’s not in the trailers, which mostly focus on the first act, culminating in an archery tournament. It’s what happens after that, as the story moves into the second act, that makes Brave the film that it is.
Unfortunately, the twist in question is out there in other ways … and I gather lots of kids already know about it. I understand it’s on the packaging for Brave-related toys in toy stores. Kids who go into Brave knowing what’s going to happen may never know how they’ve been short-changed … but those lucky kids (and adults) who go in unspoiled will have a more magical experience.
I admit that as a critic I tend to be fastidious about spoilers (particularly, I confess, when I like the film, but I try to be as fair as I can to every film whether I like it or not). A friend of mine has long been struck by the fact that in reviewing Pixar’s Up I wouldn’t even use the word “balloons,” even though it was all over the marketing. My reasoning was: Why should I mention it? If you know, you don’t need me to tell you — and if you don’t, why should I deprive you of the thrill of discovery?
Perhaps it goes back to an experience in childhood.
Many Star Wars fans my age remember the shock of that iconic moment in The Empire Strikes Back when Darth Vader revealed the secret of Luke’s parentage. I remember the moment — but, alas, I wasn’t shocked.
I saw The Empire Strikes Back early in its run, possibly on opening weekend. Yet I had been spoiled on the biggest movie revelation of my youth by a brief synopsis of the film that inexplicably appeared in some magazine or circular that my mother had, which I naturally, foolishly devoured.
“No, Luke” wasn’t the only moment in the movie I was spoiled on. I knew that Obi-Wan would appear to Luke on Hoth. I knew that the strange green swamp gnome who promised to bring Luke to Yoda was Yoda himself. I knew that Luke would lose his hand in the saber battle with Vader. One thing that did catch me off-guard was Harrison Ford’s famously ad-libbed response to Leia’s declaration of love (“I know”). The synopsis I read (following the original script, I suppose) had Han trying to grin and saying, “Just remember that, Leia, because I’ll be back.”
It was my first experience being spoiled … and I didn’t like it.
On some level I learned that day that there is something special about seeing a movie for the first time.
I don’t mean only with respect to tricky plot twists or puzzle-solving revelations à la The Usual Suspects or The Sixth Sense, as if the whole point of watching a movie were to be fooled. If that were the case, there would be little point in watching movies more than once.
I mean that a first encounter with a worthwhile film is an act of discovery. After you’ve seen it, of course, a movie can no longer surprise you in the same way, and it remains to be seen whether it can stand up to repeated viewings. A movie with enduring value doesn’t need the element of surprise to be worthwhile. But there is a right way and a wrong way to discover what a movie has to offer … and the right way is by watching the movie.
Incidentally, when Return of the Jedi came out three years later, I made sure I saw it that first weekend, and my main memories of that first screening are the thrill of discovery at key points — when Luke turns the tables on Jabba from the very edge of the plank; Obi-Wan’s revelation about Luke and Leia’s relationship; and of course the redemption of Darth Vader. That was the way to discover that film.
I know not everyone feels the same way. Some people like to fill their heads with critical commentary before they go into a film. That seems crazy to me; it strikes me as the best way to short-circuit one’s ability to receive a film that I can imagine. Certainly after I see a film I’m eager to engage critical commentary across the board — positive, negative and in between — to challenge and sharpen my initial response. But the last thing I want in my head while watching a film for the first time is a lot of other people’s analysis of it.
At any rate, I try to write reviews that work for readers whether or not they’ve seen the film. If they haven’t, I try not to spoil it; if they have, I try to provide context and insight that enriches their response to the film, whether positive or negative.
At any rate, rest assured that my review of Brave, when it appears next week, will not spell out the second-act twist.
How do you feel about spoilers? Do you care at all? Do you like to read reviews before or after you see films? Do you have a spoiler-related trauma in your past? Or something you were glad to know about a film going in?