Recently it has become impossible not to notice the ubiquity of the term “spoiler alert” in articles, reviews, and even conversations about movies and television. Due to outrage on the part of angry internet commenters and eavesdroppers, professional and casual film critics alike have been made to feel that they must announce when they will be discussing a work of art in its completion for fear that they will offend. This points toward the pervading sense that knowing what will happen in a film or an episode of television will ruin (“spoil”) the experience of watching it. This should not be and is not true. Culturally, we need to cool it.
It is true that the ideal scenario for consuming film or television is with as little knowledge regarding what will happen in the narrative as possible; this is the most fun, it allows the viewer to be surprised by any turns of events, and such is the intent of the filmmaker. However, even if the viewer were to have complete knowledge of a film’s plot prior to a first viewing, the experience of watching that film should not be considered “spoiled” in a literal sense. If learning what is going to happen in a film prior to viewing it will ruin the viewing experience, then no one would ever watch a film twice. Rather, one’s appreciation for the quality of a film should grow and deepen upon second and third viewing, when one can more fully appreciate how a film is made rather than what happens in it.
Perhaps the greatest words of wisdom the late Roger Ebert had to say about film criticism were, “It’s not what a movie is about, it is how it is about it.” What Ebert meant was that the subject of a film and its plot were inconsequential compared to its tone and artistry; even if some jerk has informed you that at the conclusion of The Usual Suspects (1995) it is revealed that Verbal Kint (Kevin Spacey) is Keyser Soze, the reveal is no less dazzling in its editing and direction for having it “spoiled”. Portrayal of the plot point is far more important than the plot itself. If you disagree, you should save the money you spend on movies and television and simply read plot summaries on Wikipedia.
Franklin J. Schaffner’s Planet of the Apes (1968) stands as, perhaps, the greatest testament to the inconsequence of spoilers. Observe this image of Planet of the Apes DVD cover art:
It is a striking tableau. Of course, anyone who has seen Planet of the Apes, or really anyone with a passing familiarity with the film, will know that is an image from the very final moments of the movie; in fact, it is the final twist. It seems unlikely that the people at Fox in charge of the Planet of the Apes DVD packaging thought “People will just think the apes built their own Statue of Liberty”; rather, they realized the truth: audiences should, and likely do, care more about the great image they see than the final twist. In fact, even without the DVD art, most viewers will probably go into their first viewing of Planet of the Apes knowing that astronaut George Taylor (Charlton Heston) is on Earth the entire time. Portrayal is everything. It is the journey, not the destination. In fact, everybody goes into Planet of the Apes knowing that some apes are bound to show up eventually. Yet it is still a shocking reveal when gorillas on horseback charge out of the forest and begin rounding up feral humans. It truly does not matter that the audience knows what to expect.
While we understand “spoilers” to be ultimately insignificant, we here at The Renaissance Fan respect one’s right to experience film and television for the first time and to delight in the surprises that first experience can hold. In the interest of allowing people to avoid information they do not want prior to viewing while also promoting thorough discussion, for which “spoilers” are necessary, we suggest to all our readers and everyone on the planet to follow these guidelines:
1) Do not read any articles about films that are specifically called reviews. These are critical essays and the writers of these essays will want to discuss the film in its entirety. Reviews of individual television episodes will likely address the entire episode; don’t read these if you don’t want them spoiled.
2) If a plot point happens in the first act (the first 30 minutes of a film, the first 10 minutes of a television episode), describing it does not count as “spoiling”. It is simply saying what the movie or episode is about.
3) If the people in a group who have seen a work outnumber the people who have not by a ratio of 2:1 or more, it is the responsibility of those who have not seen the work to remove themselves from the conversation if they want to avoid the “spoiler”. This person may make a request that plot details not be shared, but they cannot expect the people who want to discuss the work not to discuss it in full.
4) One can only expect that a work not be “spoiled” for so long. For films, this is two months after the movie has been released on home video and streaming services. If the work in question is a season of television, it is two months after the first episode of the next season of that show has been televised. If you have not seen the work before the aforementioned deadline, you don’t care enough to complain when it's spoiled.
5) Don’t be a jerk. Try to avoid “spoiling” things for people whenever possible. If you’re the type of monster who thinks it's hilarious to spoil endings for people before they’ve had a reasonable opportunity to consume the art (i.e. the assholes who attended Harry Potter release parties just to read and announce the ending as soon as the book went on sale), consider who you are and your place in the world and change.
6) If you are going to write about a film that has been released within the last two years in a non-academic setting, alert the readers to the presence of spoilers. It’s a minor thing.
Go forth, be kind to one another, and consider your words before you speak. Try not to “spoil” things for people, and if something is spoiled for you, just relax and watch it anyway.
Frank Anderson is the head movie writer at The Renaissance Fan.