At the time this posts, I was supposed to be watching trailers. My babysitter fell through on me, so that didn’t happen, but I was supposed to be in the theatre, ready to watch The Force Awakens.
You will recognize this as a movie that came out a week ago that the internet has exploded over. And, yes, that was supposed to be my first time seeing it; it seems likely that my first time seeing it will be some time in the new year. I don’t have a lot of babysitters, and my babysitters don’t have a lot of time. It tends to take me a while to get to see movies; often, I don’t see movies until they’re out on DVD, and sometimes, it takes literally years. Everyone knows that, as time goes by, your chance of seeing a movie without spoilers reduces, to the point that it’s generally acknowledged that there is a certain point where spoilers no longer count.
I admit that I did it as an intellectual exercise, but I wrote a review of Soylent Green with no spoilers. Not only is that a review of a decades old movie, but it’s a review of a decades old movie where everyone knows the twist. The disc came with the trailer, so I can tell you that it’s almost given away there. Yet I chose to take the effort to write a review that, okay, referenced the famous line in the title by quoting a Futurama episode. On the other hand, there are no spoilers in the review itself. Neither did I put spoilers in my review of The Crying Game, newer and less culturally weighted but similarly spoiled.
Why did I bother? A fine question. My boyfriend is of the opinion that any movie truly spoiled by reveals of what happens probably isn’t worth watching in the first place. I’m not sure he’s wrong. Goodness knows Soylent Green was considerably more spoiled by bad acting and rampant misogyny than by knowing its secret. It’s also true that my review of The Crying Game came over twenty years after the first time I’d seen the movie, and I still liked it. There are movies—mysteries, where you’d think it matters a lot more—that I’ve seen literally dozens of times.
On the other hand, I do like having my first experience with a work, be it a book, movie, or TV show, be relatively pristine. I don’t seek out reviews. At most, I’ll look at aggregate scores of movies I’m hesitant about or ratings from people I trust. I used to care what Roger Ebert said, of course, and if Nathan Rabin reviewed it at all, that was probably a movie to avoid! But I don’t usually read reviews before seeing movies. I’ll watch trailers, I suppose, but I don’t go hunting down more than that.
Studies suggest that we would actually prefer to be “spoiled,” that the sense of familiarity of a work is more satisfying for our brains than new discovery. That’s probably part of “how can you watch that so many times?” Because our brains like familiarity. I still have a certain pleasure, backed up by science or not, in being allowed to explore something on my own the first time through. I want to see who characters are, what they do, why they do it.
I also find that, if I have been given spoilers, it feels different from organically knowing what’s happening because I’ve been through the work before. For one thing, rather than enjoying the moment I’m in, I find myself waiting for the thing that I’ve been told will be there. This, I think, was why Denzel Washington cringed when he saw what clip they were using for Flight at the Oscars; it was literally from like the last five minutes of the film, and when I saw it a few months later, I found myself waiting and watching for the scene we’d eventually see, and that took me out of the moment with everything else that happened.
Not everyone feels this way, I know. As I said, an example of it is sitting to my left as I type. Was the person with whom I was supposed to be watching trailers as this thing goes live. And in a way, that’s kind of nice, because I can finish a movie and start talking about things I liked or didn’t like right away whether he’s seen it or not, and if he sees a movie without me, I probably don’t actually want to see it. So he can talk about it to me without worrying that I’ll be upset about spoilers. It’s nicely symbiotic.
I haven’t gone dark online to avoid Star Wars spoilers, because my friends, blessedly, are considerate. But I had a friend observe that he’d seen reviews advertising themselves as “90% spoiler free or similar,” and he asked why reviews should have spoilers at all. Now, I’ve written one or two that have spoiler tags, and I allow myself all the spoilers I want for documentaries and movies about major real-life events and things. But by and large, my friend is right, and it ties into what my boyfriend says. If all you have to talk about in your review is the big spoily thing, what does that say about what the movie as a whole even has to it?