Spoilers, and the Many Ways a Film Can Be Spoiled

From trailers and showy-off friends, to just hinting there's a twist, movie spoilers come in many different forms...

Spoilers: this article hints at spoilers for Fight Club, Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, Murder On The Orient Express. To stay on the safe side of spoiling films by using stills from them, we have illustrated this article with pictures of dogs.

This article first appeared on Den of Geek UK.

While it rarely skirts controversy to proclaim that movie spoilers are bad, it has not evaded my keen Crow-like senses (and I mean that in the Hawk the Slayer sense rather than the Brandon Lee sense) that one’s definition of what actually constitutes a spoiler is rather more open to interpretation. I know this because while I’m rarely goaded into shouting matches over mismatched political ideals or how the Lethal Weapon films rank in order of merit, I have been known to erupt into a tsunami of indignant rage and spittle following the bewildered utterance of the phrase: “What? That’s not a spoiler…”

And so, in the interests of maintaining peace and harmony between those who possess knowledge of a film’s plot and those that do not wish to be edified, I have attempted to identify and classify the many species within the kingdom of spoilers. My intention is to lay bare, once and for all, each and every conceivable way that a person may have their enjoyment of a movie curtailed, compromised or even ruined through advanced disclosure of the unwanted variety.*

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For the sake of brevity I’m not describing the media through which spoilers are dispersed – whether they be poorly written reviews, overly revealing trailers, or excitable colleagues – more the specific ways one can be spoiled. Some are obvious joy-killers; some are nefariously subtle. Some you may not believe constitute a spoiler at all. But they all have one very important thing in common: Latin binomial nomenclature. (Let’s do this properly…)

*Please note: probably doesn’t contain each and every conceivable way to be spoiled. Feel free to contribute to this important scientific appraisal in the comments below.

The big reveal (Apocalypsis profero)

The cardinal moviegoer sin. If a film has a big surprise, a killer twist, a shocking revelation or a devastating ending, it’s probably best left discovered during the film itself, yes? On that I’m sure we can all agree.

Only protesters trying to discourage patrons outside a movie theatre with twist-adorned placards jump on that bandwagon. And my mum, of course. Sample conversation:

Me: “I’m going to watch tonight.”

Mum: “Oh, is that the one where it turns out… etc.”

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The forewarned twist (Torquent monitus)

A particular bugbear of mine: if a film has a cracking twist, best not tell everyone that it has a cracking twist. Two reasons: it makes it more likely that you will work the twist out if you know there’s one coming, and it can completely undermine your immersion in an unfolding plot when you’re viewing it like a puzzle to be solved rather than a story to be enjoyed.

If it’s your birthday and I tell you to look out for a big surprise when you get home tonight that you simply won’t see coming, the most unexpected thing would be if there wasn’t a surprise party waiting for you. And you’d be pretty annoyed if there wasn’t. Either way, your birthday has been spoiled.

The plot description (Fabula explicatio)

The scourge of bad reviews and press releases, outlining the story beat-for-beat is not the same thing as telling us what the film is about or what the basic premise is.

The beauty of some films is that they don’t reveal themselves until late into the running time – sometimes only in the final moments. Some drip-feed details and context throughout the movie’s duration.

If you know in advance where a story is heading, it often takes the joy out of getting there. So before trying to encapsulate the events of a film to someone who has yet to see it, ask yourself: am I revealing more than I knew going in? And would that have moderated my enjoyment?

The genre classifier (Genus ratio)

Some of the most delightful cinematic experiences you can have are when a film takes a wholly unexpected shift into completely unexpected territory. It can leave you thrilled and discombobulated in equal measure, changing the rules and giving you the sense that anything could happen.

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Unless you’ve been told in advance, of course. Because nothing undermines a shift in tone or the surprising nature of a revelation than someone helpfully pointing out that the film you are about to see “introduces sci-fi elements in the third act” or “takes a decidedly darker turn for what is initially a frothy romantic comedy.”

The assumed knowledge challenger (Opinio provoco)

This is a subtle one, often committed by those reviewers who are merely striving for accuracy in their descriptions, but it still has the ability to unnecessarily skew our expectations and divulge surprising plot points ahead of time.

If a character is described as “seemingly benign” we can deduce that at some point in the film they will be exposed as anything but. If an actor is portraying “a character who we assume to be the protagonist’s father” then it is clear this relationship is not a truly paternal one.

The point being, if it weren’t for the pointless heads-up, we the audience would be none-the-wiser. If this character is “seemingly benign” it’s because the filmmakers want the audience to think the character poses no threat up until the point it is revealed otherwise. Likewise, if you assumed that character was the protagonist’s father then most people in the audience would have, and that was probably the intention.

Taking pains to cast doubt on relationships, characters, or scenarios that an audience would otherwise have no reason to question is as good as telling us that there’s a concealed truth. And that’s not cool.

The joke teller (Iocus recito)

Does the following line sound familiar?

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“I don’t want to spoil it, but there’s this one great gag where…”

Here’s some friendly advice for anyone uttering such an opening gambit: if the joke is such that you remember it – especially if it’s from a comedy filled with other jokes – then it’s probably one of the best gags in the film. If you don’t want to spoil it, don’t tell it – especially since your delivery might not be as good as Ricky Gervais’ or Bill Hader’s or Tina Fey’s.

Oh, and movie critics: it’s enough to tell us that a film is funny; that it has good jokes; that you laughed several times. Please don’t feel the need to write down one of the gags to prove it. Film is a visual medium; it’ll probably land better in the cinema.

The film buff’s folly (Magister prudens)

I know it’s very hard for the cine-literate to restrain themselves from pointing out similarities between different films and the various influences a movie may have drawn upon, but if doing so reveals more than the filmmakers possibly wanted, then please don’t do it.

Saying the finale “has shades of Close Encounters” makes alien vehicular interaction almost inevitable. Describing a central partnership as Fight Club-esque will immediately set alarm bells ringing with regard to precise nature of that relationship. And suggesting that the denouement of a murder mystery “owes much to Murder On The Orient Express” leaves one in little doubt that the perpetrator of the crime probably had help.

They’re spoilers-by-proxy; but they’re spoilers nonetheless.

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The cameo exposer (Adventor indico)

Personally I find cameos a little lame, although there are some notable exceptions that it would be patently hypocritical for me to detail here. But by their very nature, the thrill of a cameo is rather slight; it usually works on just one simple level:

“Look, it’s Thingy! I wasn’t expecting to see Thingy. And yet there Thingy is! Ha ha ha… Thingy… In a context I really wasn’t anticipating. Cuh, Thingy, eh?”

I postulate that this rather modest reaction is lessened somewhat when possessing the foreknowledge that “Thingy” is due to make a fleeting appearance.

The clever dick (Sibi placens patefactio)

You know that road sign for loose chippings that shows them scattering off a car tire? Well up until about a month ago, I thought that was supposed to represent a pneumatic drill. The point being, what is obvious to one person (or, indeed, many) may not be obvious to everyone. So your smug presumption that the English guy was the villain all along, or that the perpetrator of a crime was screamingly apparent, is no excuse for you to share such revelations with those who may be less likely to cotton on.

Even suggesting that a plot or revelation is obvious or clichéd forewarns someone viewing the film that the most likely or seemingly obvious resolution will be the one the filmmakers have opted for.

The statute of limitations (Secreto emeritus)

A tricky one this: how long does a film need to be in the public domain before it’s acceptable to discuss potentially spoilerific content?

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Well, the safest recourse is to decree ‘never’. It’s really simple: if you want to talk about an old film with someone, check if they’ve seen it first and ask their permission to go into story details. And if you’re writing an article, give readers the chance to avoid the divulgence of plot points and twist reveals with a friendly forewarning.

Everyone I know who’s my age has either seen The Usual SuspectsBut here’s the thing: that film is now over 20 years old; there are 20-year-olds that were not yet born when that film was released. Now The Usual Suspects is a fine film, but it’s no iconic classic like Citizen Kane or Psycho – it hasn’t been pastiched and entered into the pop-culture subconscious. In other words, many in the next generation will have no idea about that movie’s many tricksy delights unless they see it for themselves… or we tell them. Let’s encourage the former option, eh?

The adaptation assumption (Accommodatio sumptio)

Another minefield… When a film is adapting a book or a play or a real-life event or even another movie, there is often an assumption that story details are fair game for espousal, given the plot details already exist in a different medium.

Which, of course, is rubbish. Fans of the Game Of Thrones books and those that have exclusively enjoyed the television series have already had this dance, and the ultimate consensus was “I don’t think we should talk to each other until season six.”

Even films based on a true story should be treated carefully. Cultural and historical bias means that while the events of films like Foxcatcher, The Perfect Storm, and even The 33 are matters of public record for some, they are surprising and shocking accounts of real life events for others.

The soundtrack listing (Symphonia titulus)

Those who, like me, share an interest and enjoyment of film-based compositions would do well to avoid enjoying the soundtrack of a movie before having seen the film in question. While some artists are very good at cloaking plot points via cryptic or elusive track descriptions, your more old-fashioned composers might be happy to simply name one of their cues “Qui-Gon’s Funeral.” Indeed, you should be forewarned that some track listings provide a handy précis of an entire movie’s plot, should such things bother you.

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The visual aid (Imago promo)

Last, but certainly not least, there are the spoilers that prove the old movie-making adage “show, don’t tell” is as well practiced by film-ruining marketers as it is by our finest visual storytellers.

I mean, why spoil a film by telling someone about its best moments when you can just show ‘em? The modern vessel of choice being, of course, the trailer.

Somewhere along the line – around the early ’90s – the humble movie trailer went from an intriguing tease that would give you a sense of a film’s content to a fast-edited précis of the film’s entire plot.

There is apparently an acknowledged rule in movie marketing that anything in the first two acts is fair game to feature in a trailer. Even if this rule were strictly adhered to (which it frequently isn’t) why would I want the dramatic beats and reveals in a film’s first 75 minutes spelled out for me in advance?

And this folly isn’t just associated with trailers – some movie posters have selfishly given away salient plot points because a representative image looks cool on a quad. And never underestimate the daftness of a small number of movie marketers in providing magazines and newspapers an incredibly revealing still to use next to their write-ups.

In conclusion…

Remember folks: the first step towards prevention is education. It’s not possible to engage in discourse about movies and completely avoid all advance knowledge of a film’s content, but by identifying the ways – no matter how slight – that the enjoyment of a film can be diminished, may we choose our words a little more carefully.

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Lead image: BigStock