The lost art of viewing films cold

Are reviews and marketing campaigns playing fair when it comes to spoilers? Why is it news now when a film's plot twist remains a secret?

This piece contains implied spoilers for The Usual Suspects. There’s also Terminator 2 discussion, and marked spoilers for Cold In July.

When was the last time you watched a film with truly no sense of what you were about to see, beyond perhaps just the genre or the cast or a recommendation from someone you trust?

For me, I’d have to go back as far as The Usual Suspects for a cinema trip where I genuinely knew nothing going in. No plot synopsis, no cast list, no ‘and watch out for a great twist at the end’ reviews… not a sausage. And it was glorious. I was pulled along for the ride unencumbered by expectations and predictions. At one point I thought the film might even be heading into supernatural territory, such was my blissful ignorance. And of course the ending blew me away.

Delving into the reviews having seen it – hell, even reading the synopsis in the listings – I was struck by how much plot detail was casually strewn across material designed to make others want to see this film. One review I still remember to this day ended with the words “I cannot recommend this film highly enough”, and yet the author had spent a good deal of his word count delving into character motivations, plot revelations and even signposted that legendary ‘twist’.

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It bothered me then and it bothers me now.

I’m not necessarily talking about ‘spoilers’ here, although everyone has a slightly different definition of that word. For me, a spoiler is a piece of information – the nature of a twist, the identity of a mystery character, the final reveal – and something that undermines what the film-makers are trying to achieve because they are relying on us, the audience, to be in the dark about something in order to maximise our entertainment. So maybe I am talking about spoilers, just in far broader sense than they are usually discussed.

I was watching Terminator 2 the other day, and while trying to reconcile how Robert Patrick’s liquid metal T-1000 was able to travel through time when the first film clearly stated that it’s only Arnie’s cocoon of flesh that allows his model to do the same, something else occurred to me…

The entire first act of the film is played as if the reveal of Arnie being the good guy this time around is a massive revelation for the audience. Think about the way the opening is structured: Robert Patrick isn’t shown to be a Terminator; he is not shown to injure anyone beyond an apparent punch to the gut; he’s focussed but polite, uses brains rather than brute force to conduct his manhunt. Had we known nothing about this film, his motivations would be ambiguous at worse, but most likely we would have him pegged as the good guy. Not a single thing alerts an unsuspecting viewer to the fact that – spoiler alert – he’s a terminator.

Then there’s Arnie. A few moments after arriving from the future he’s stabbing people, burning them; breaking their fingers… oh and in the previous film he played that decade’s most iconic villain. Again, with no knowledge other than the events that transpired in the first film, you’d be in no doubt that this was the guy to be rooting against.

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Even that first confrontation in the shopping mall corridor, in the way it’s shot and edited, James Cameron constructs the scene as if his audience is still a step behind. The slo-mo build-up, the way Arnie seemingly points a shotgun at John. Sure, there’s an argument to be made that Cameron is simply representing the assumptions of the characters rather than the audience, but I’m not sure I buy that. Everything that builds to this point, and more specifically the information that has been omitted, would leave an unknowing viewer to think exactly what poor John Connor thinks – that an Arnie-shaped robot from the future is attempting to explode his head with a boomstick.

Now imagine being that viewer. Imagine sitting in the cinema knowing only that you were watching the sequel to an 80s classic. Imagine the initial confusion and subsequent exhilaration as Arnie says “Ghet daown” and makes a mercury mess of Agent Doggett’s shirt. How amazing would that have been? How punch the air, holy shitballs, WTAF would that have been?

Is there a human being on the planet that got to sample that pleasure?

I very much doubt it. Between the trailers, the plot synopses, the marketing, the reviews, I can’t imagine anyone not knowing that Arnie had turned protector for the sequel. It certainly wouldn’t be classified as a ‘spoiler’ even by today’s standards. Which begs some questions: why was the opening act structured the way it was? Was the idea of keeping Arnie’s allegiance a secret ever discussed? Were we, the audience, robbed of an amazing moment in cinema because of marketing concerns?

To stay genuinely ‘cold’ when it comes to an anticipated movie is nigh on impossible these days, and the premature reveal of information is reaching irritating levels of saturation.

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Let me give you another, more recent example. Spoilers for the aptly-named Cold In July follow in the next paragraph, so please skip it if you wish to avoid plot details (a friendly warning I wish I had been afforded).

I enjoyed Cold In July, but nowhere near as much as the person I was watching it with. In discussion afterwards, my movie partner cited the fact that the plot kept twisting and turning and that you really didn’t know where the story was going as huge positive points. Perhaps I would have concurred had I not known that, at some point, the sinister character stalking Dexter for the best part of the film’s first half was going to team up with him and Don Johnson, that they would arm themselves to the teeth and then go on some kind of “job” together.

I knew this because all three characters tooling up and chatting like chums was one of the clips the marketing company had provided to the mainstream media to promote the film. Hell, I accidentally saw it playing under Gavin Esler chatting about it on the BBC News channel – hardly an obvious place to protect myself from plot spoilers. So for me there was no real tension in the film’s first half, no great shock when the two antagonists eventually teamed up, and no excitement as the film morphed into its ‘men on a mission’ dénouement. Had any of those things remained revelatory rather than expected, I might have got a lot more out of it.

So… elephant in the room time. Isn’t it a bit rich writing this article for a website like Den Of Geek, a purveyor of filmic news and movie development titbits? 

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This site – for which I’m writing for the second time – has always erred on the side of caution (albeit far from perfectly) when dealing with potential and specific spoilers (with help from the spoiler squirrel!). Articles are labelled so that readers wanting to preserve every single surprise a forthcoming film may have to offer are duly forewarned. It’s your choice if you want to click on a particular story, of course.

What is infuriating is the unexpected or unavoidable exposure that seems to be part and parcel of a film’s promotion these days. If I’m sat in the cinema, it’s very hard to avoid seeing the trailers for upcoming features. It’s tricky to avoid every single ad for a movie that plays on TV. And it’s really hard to get a sense of the critical consensus while avoiding reviews where the author seems to believe their job is to précis the plot rather than offer an opinion.

The generally accepted ‘first two acts’ rule appears to be the greatest contributor to this sorry state of affairs. The idea that anything in the first two acts is fair game from a promotional point of view is as prevalent as it is nonsensical. It is the way most trailers are structured, it is the way the laziest of reviews are written, and it is the way almost all production companies and their marketing teams approach selling their forthcoming films.

Even if this rule was strictly adhered to – which it often isn’t, as anyone who’s seen trailers for The Grey, The Avengers and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 will attest – why would I want the plot points of a film’s first 80 minutes spelled out for me ahead of time? Why would I want to see a clip from a film that undermines any tension or mystery for everything that occurs prior? If the only thing left to surprise us as audience members is the precise nature of a climactic fight, aren’t we being a little short-changed?

How depressing that it’s actually newsworthy when directors like JJ Abrams and Christopher Nolan keep the salient details of their upcoming features under wraps. Shouldn’t this be the norm rather than the exception?

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A final question for you all: how much do you need to know about a film before you can make a decision with regard to whether you want to see it? And by the time you’ve got that information, is it too late to enjoy that oh-so-rare feeling when a film not only entertains you, but surprises you? I would imagine that for many people frequenting this site, some pre-production news, a plot synopsis, a trailer or two and a few trusted reviews would be the bare minimum. And by that time, is it too late to preserve that Nexus-like feeling of revelatory wonder?

And while you’re pondering that, do yourself a favour and make an early New Year’s resolution. Pick a film that’s released next year – just one single film you’re pretty much guaranteed to want to watch – and see if you can avoid absolutely everything about it between now and the film’s release. Trailers, news stories, reviews, everything. Try, as best you can, to go in cold.

Trust me, it will be an awful lot harder than you think. But I guarantee it will be worth it.