At the end of the movie “The Grey,” everyone dies. Liam Neeson dies. That totally awesome moment in the trailer where he breaks some mini-bar bottles and tapes them to his fists, ready to do battle with the Alpha wolf? Two seconds later the credits roll, and the implication is clearly that he went down fighting. Oh, wait. SPOILER ALERT. Sorry, I should have said that at the very beginning.
CNN recently posted a story begging readers not to post spoilers online. The writer wants you to give fair warning, and asks you not to post even hints that there is something to spoil.
I understand this, especially the hints. It is a very stupid person who says “this movie has a twist at the end” and thinks other people won’t be able to guess. I remember when I went to see The Sixth Sense, the schmuck tearing tickets said to every single customer “It has a surprise ending, you’ll want to see it again.” Rip. “It has a surprise ending . . .” Rip. He clearly felt it was his job to ruin the movie for everyone. And you know what? I knew exactly what that surprise was going to be less than halfway through the movie. I tried to deny it to myself, and to forget what I had heard, but of course the movie keeps reinforcing the idea and playing with it in creative ways. The same reason the movie is worth seeing twice is also the reason the surprise was completely ruined on the first go round.
I used to review movies, and I tried to be sensitive to this. But here’s the problem. You cannot properly evaluate a movie without judging its ending. You can’t discuss any story properly without also discussing the climax and the resolution. After all, everything is leading up to this climax.
How can you properly evaluate a story without considering the ending? Sure, you could write an entire movie review without spoilers, and there are plenty of outlets that offer such a review. But I often read reviews of movies after I have seen them, to see if I agree with what the critics have to say. Any proper criticism of a film, or any story at all, needs to explicitly take into account the ending. Even though most critiques try to spare readers from an early reveal of the ending, this very idea might become outdated.
A friend recently told me she heard her daughter utter the words “Samantha, I am your father,” in the ghostly drone that passes for a child’s impersonation of Darth Vader. The little girl had never seen Star Wars. So how did this, perhaps the ultimate movie spoiler, creep into her vocabulary? Best guess is that she saw it in parodies. In cartoons, on sitcoms, and popping up over and over again, until it took on its own meaning for her.
I haven’t shown my 3 year old son Star Wars yet. I’m waiting until he’ll be able to sit through the entire first movie without much squirming. But I’m not shielding him from learning these important plot twists in advance. I don’t think it’s so important.
I remember when I saw that fateful scene at the end of The Empire Strikes Back. I wasn’t really shocked. In fact, I was more incredulous. Really? Why would the writer come up with this twist? After all, Darth Vader hardly seemed to notice or care about Luke Skywalker through the first and much of the second movie. Why isn’t he more interested in reconnecting with his long lost child? We never see anybody tell Darth Vader that Luke is his son, so we must infer that he either knows through some power of The Force, or he sees a family resemblance. But if The Force tells him it’s true, why didn’t he find the kid earlier? And why wait until after you’ve cut off his hand to tell him the truth, if he believed the truth would be such a convincing argument to turn the newfound Jedi?
The plot twist exists on its own not as a shocking surprise moment, but as an interesting turn of events. You don’t need to be surprised by the twist to appreciate its power. The spoiled events in a movie rewrite the story from the beginning. In the movie The Grey, when you know that everyone dies, the story changes from a tale of survival to a tale of desperation. You might like the movie more knowing that nobody survives. When I saw the film, without knowing its ending, I was seriously disappointed.
Certainly knowing the plot twists in Star Wars don’t hurt repeat viewings. The only real problem is that Darth Vader seems so aloof and unimpressed by his son running around the Death Star killing Stormtroopers that we have to wonder if the writers had imagined the twist before the first movie was finished.
Even in movies where you walk in with a historical knowledge of the ending, the lack of surprise does nothing to hurt the film. In fact, it may add to the tension. In the movie “127 Hours,” for instance (one of the better movies that you certainly did NOT see in 2010), I walked in knowing the main character was going to cut his arm off at the end in order to survive. The guy lives. The arm dies. Still a good movie.
In “Titanic,” of course we all know the ending. That the ending is so well known was the punchline to thousands of lousy late night comedian jokes. But waiting for the ship to hit the iceberg, and watching its inevitable demise, added to the enjoyment. It certainly got me through the sappy scenes in the middle.
I recently started watching the second season of Game of Thrones. I had originally planned to wait until I had finished the second book, but I haven’t been able to quickly finish the first book in the series, let alone the second. Recently, bits and pieces started popping up online. Plot details were revealed. Deaths documented. I knew that if I didn’t start watching soon, I’d know the whole story before I started watching the first episode.
So, I started watching, because I wanted the plot to unfold for the first time before my eyes. I didn’t whine about it, I understood. People have a right to talk about the key plot elements, as a way of criticizing and evaluating the show. It’s part and parcel of what makes the Internet such a great tool, the constant stream of information and feedback. Spoilers are a necessary evil. There’s no reason to be like Ned Stark and lose your head over it.
Oh, I forgot to add: SPOILER ALERT.