Two topics that frequently bubble to the surface when stirring the movie-web pot: critics and spoilers. We question the relevance of the former when they lambast a film we like, and we direct our bile at the latter when they diminish the joy of discovery in that hallowed darkened room with the big screen on the wall and the stains on the carpet (I’m talking about the cinema there, but actually that’s a pretty accurate description of my lounge).
However, there is a very specific area I’d like to focus on, and a very particular grievance I wish to air. And it involves the unholy alliance of the two.
Firstly, let me be abundantly clear: I think professional film criticism is not just valid but entirely necessary. The furore surrounding the critical consensus of Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice – one fuelled by studio executives as much as disgruntled fans – was as silly and wrong-headed as the ‘Disney owns critics’ conspiracy that followed the more benevolent assessment of Captain America: Civil War.
But the occasional critical mauling that films receive – the recent pummelling of Warcraft: The Beginning being a good example – has re-exposed a phenomenon that crops up far too often to be discounted as an anomaly: the propensity for critics to spoil a film that they don’t think is any good.
A bad critic, whether they like a film or not, will tend to litter their review with spoilers. It’s because they can’t distinguish between description and discourse. They use 90% of their word count regurgitating the plot of the entire movie; they can only demonstrate how funny a film is by spoiling the best gag; and they try to cleverly allude to a film’s revelations with comparisons that leave the more cine-literate reader in no doubt as to where the story is going.
But it’s shocking to see the frequency with which some of our finer critics – those that would normally avoid such tropes – dip into these very same waters when dealing with a film they didn’t enjoy.
There are several things that bother me about this. Firstly, as any decent critic will tell you, their review is just an opinion. A review is never really about whether a film is good or bad – just whether the writer liked it or not and, hopefully, why. Even in those cases where critical opinion is overwhelmingly negative, there are always critics that disagree and, more importantly, there will always be members of the public who deviate with regard to their level of appreciation. Do these moviegoers not deserve the same respect from review writers as those who share their opinion?
When a critic feels passionately about a movie, they go out of their way to protect its mysteries – “has to be seen for yourself”, “to go any further would spoil it”, “I won’t reveal what happens here” and so on and so forth – so desperate are they to preserve for their readers the feeling of surprise and wonderment that they felt upon seeing it. When they’re left unmoved by a film? Not so much. Plot spoilers are thrown around like confetti; plot developments are laid bare to prove perceived weaknesses in storytelling; and even final scenes are dissected in an attempt to elucidate the futility of the entire endeavour.
If we can all agree that every film has an appreciative audience – even if it’s a small or niche one – why do critics find it acceptable to ruin their enjoyment, even if they themselves can’t comprehend the appeal?
I used to think it was because critics couldn’t think of anything interesting to write or say when it came to a film they couldn’t abide, but Mark Kermode’s epic rants about the movies that get up his nostrils puts paid to that theory (and the good doctor is better than most at preserving surprises in films he otherwise feels indifferent towards).
Sometimes I think it comes down to laziness. Of the half dozen films you’ve been paid to comment upon in any given week, there’s a good chance you’re going to focus your energies on your favourite; eager to ensure that the quality of your writing is a fitting tribute to the cinematic masterpiece you saw. The rubbish one? It’s likely to get less energy, at least in some quarters.
I sincerely believe there’s no element of revenge at play here – robbing someone of two hours may earn a film a critical drubbing, but I doubt any professional writer would be so churlish to festoon their review with plot revelations as a calculated means of harming box-office.
More often than not it feels like the writer is aware of the approach they are taking with their writing, and that this is an intentional reflection of the film they are reviewing: the crudity and flippancy of their prose a way of further damning their target. But it betrays an arrogance that troubles me every time I see it – while a writer has every right to rubbish a film they don’t like, what gives them the right to spoil it for those that might?
It’s impossible to deny a certain snobbery that is sometimes perfused in such reviews; that such a “dire” film (in that reviewer’s opinion) is not worthy of the respect that is shown to more accomplished works of cinema in their write-ups. It’s this attitude, I think, that occasionally rubbed DC Comics fans the wrong way when they interpreted such pieces as a slur upon their treasured icons and comic book heroes in general.
At this point you may be wondering why any of this is a problem. If a critic you admire lambasts a film, dropping a bunch of plot spoilers along the way, then so what? If you trust that critic’s opinion, you’re never going to see the damn film anyway, are you? Why on Earth would you read a review from someone in whose opinion you place little stock?
Would that it were so simple…
Following a critic, admiring a critic, and being interested in what a critic has to say is not the same thing as agreeing with them.
Growing up I had a bit of a formula for the BBC’s flagship Film programme. If Barry Norman hated a film, I’d probably think it was alright. If he loved a film, I would probably hate it. But if he thought a film was okay – if he shrugged and accepted that an action-packed epic or special effects-laden blockbuster was moderately entertaining and passed the time just fine – then I knew I had a guaranteed 24-carat viewing experience ahead of me.
The point being, I liked Barry; I valued his opinion. But that didn’t necessarily go hand-in-hand with agreeing with him. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that there are a select few reviewers whose disdain for a movie is not only irrelevant as far as I’m concerned but actually increases my anticipation of a viewing, so thoroughly have I disagreed with their appraisals in the past. Similarly, there are those whose gushing enthusiasm only dampens my expectations.
I form an opinion of how I’m going to spend my time at the cinema using a variety of sources, and not all of them will have enjoyed a film that I am nevertheless going to hand over cold hard cash to see. And I want to go into that film as open to the possibility of enjoying it as I hope even the staunchest critic did.
So here’s my plea to movie critics: don’t give films you don’t like bad reviews, give them good reviews.
Tell us why it’s awful, why it wasted your time, why it’s an insult to your intelligence; but do it with the same respect for the audience that you show when talking up your favourites – preserve the plot developments, the twists, and the attempts at humour, no matter how awful you believe them to be. Because a review doesn’t have to be positive in order to be good.
You may not think the film deserves it, but there will be many people out there that do.
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