Damn Spoilers!

May 08, 2005
A thought by James Berardinelli

A couple of times each month, I receive an e-mail from an irate reader complaining that a recent review contained an unmarked spoiler. My response is always the same: when I believe that a review includes a significant spoiler, I place a warning on the review. If a review does not contain such a warning, I don't believe it reveals anything critical. Those who want a "virgin" movie-going experience are advised not to read reviews (mine or anyone else's) until after having seen a movie. Others, who are less spoiler-sensitive, may gain something from reading the review beforehand.

By its nature, any meaningful review must contain at least minimal spoilers. The question for the reviewer becomes, when does a revelation cross a line where it needs to be called to the reader's attention? This is a judgment call, and it will vary from critic to critic. What one viewer may consider to be a major spoiler, another may accept as inconsequential. In all but the most obvious of cases, it's a matter of tolerance.

Generally speaking, the guideline I use to identify a "spoiler" in one of my reviews is when I explicity identify a significant plot point that reveals (or spoils) what I deem to be an important aspect of the film. Timing also plays a part. I don't consider it to be a spoiler to talk about anything in the first 20 minutes of a movie. Others disagree, but those are my rules of thumb.

Examples? If I was to say that "Vader is Luke's father" in a review of The Empire Strikes Back written in 1980, that's a huge spoiler. On the other hand, stating that there is a second Death Star in Return of the Jedi doesn't fit the definition, since this revelation is contained in the opening crawl. To say that the ship sinks in Titanic is not a spoiler; to say that Leonardo DiCaprio's character dies is one. I don't consider it a spoiler to state that a formulaic romantic comedy has "a happy ending," since that is implied by the genre. Defining the nature of the happy ending (Harry marries Sally, Kate and Doug kiss at the end of their routine, etc.) is entering spoiler territory. Occasionally, I am surprised by things that others consider to be spoilers. In my review of Kill Bill Part 2, I casually refer to the Bride by her name. I was surprised that some readers were angered by this. I didn't understand why that would be a big deal. True, Tarantino concealed it during the first film, but it has no relevance to the plot, so keeping it from the audience is a red herring.

The review of Revenge of the Sith poses some interesting problems. What represents a spoiler in the third film of a six-part series when most readers have seen parts I, II, IV, V, and VI? Is it a spoiler to reveal that Obi-Wan fights Anakin/Vader? That the Jedi are annihlated? In my opinion, no. These things are known from the other films. For Revenge of the Sith, the only things I consider to be spoilers are those that are revealed in this film and ONLY in this film. Anakin's transformation to Vader isn't a spoiler, it's the point of the movie. Be aware of this, however, when you embark upon a perusal of the review.

When I write about a movie, I am conscious of the potential for including spoilers. My preference is not to, but there are times when a coherent point cannot be made without a specific reference. And there will be times when others may consider something a spoiler when I don't. So, while a "Spoiler Warning" tag can be a guideline, don't take it as gospel. If you're sensitive to spoilers, tread carefully. My first paragraph is typically an overview, and can be read with about 99% assurance that nothing specific will be revealed. After that, all bets are off. Let the reader beware.