How ‘Star Wars’ Awakened One Critic To the Spoiler Menace

Spoilers in TV and Movie Criticism
Courtesy of Lucas Film

Spoiler Alert: Do not read this if you have never seen “The Empire Strikes Back.” Or “The Sixth Sense.” Or “Jaws.”

As a critic, the question of “spoilers,” and what constitutes them, is an ever-present concern. And it has equally consumed media companies and creative personnel, particularly as more of their product goes digital, introducing points of entry for piracy and theft by those who would leak scripts or footage.

Still, the building frenzy for the new “Star Wars” sequel offers a personal reminder of why this point rather acutely strikes home, having been a victim of multiple spoilers in the past, including what might constitute the mother (or really, father) of them all.

“The Empire Strikes Back” came out in 1980, and, naturally, those of us who spent the summer of 1977 making repeated multiplex pilgrimages to watch “Star Wars” could hardly wait. As it happened, my high school self had a big test the day after the movie opened, so I made plans to see it the following night with my brother.

That morning, a kid who shall remain nameless — even though his is infamously etched into my memory — swung by. We weren’t close, but he knew I was a sci-fi/comics geek, at a time when that label was considerably less fashionable.

“You knew, right?” he asked.

“Knew what?”

“That Darth Vader is Luke’s father.”

Frankly, my immediate reaction, this many years removed, is something of a blur. But watching the movie that night, I began to fully realize its significance during the light-saber duel between Vader and Luke Skywalker, and began slowly losing my mind when the former said, “Obi-Wan never told you what happened to your father … ”

“Watching the movie that night, I began slowly losing my mind when Darth Vader said to Luke, ‘Obi-Wan never told you what happened to your father …’ ”

The revelation was such an “OMG” moment — long before “Scandal” turned them into hashtags, or even before the term “hashtag” was fraught with meaning — that my brother whispered, “Wow! Did you see that coming?”

“Someone told me,” I mumbled.

“What idiot would tell you that?” he almost shouted, to the point where I had to admonish him to shut up until after the movie.

That would be an amusing anecdote, frankly, if it weren’t one of several times people spoiled major plot twists through the years. Granted, part of that had to do with my other brother, 10 years my senior, who could never quite contain himself when discussing old movies that he really liked — and occasionally shared details about something like, say, “Jaws,” hoping that knowing about the head falling out of the boat or Quint’s death would somehow spare me from being traumatized.

Years later, the spoiler parade included “The Sixth Sense,” which compelled a former colleague to observe — again, before I had seen it — that the movie didn’t merit all the fuss. “It’s just a big ‘Twilight Zone’ episode,” he said. “ ‘You’re already dead.’ ”

The question of spoilers has grown infinitely more complicated in the intervening years, given the variety of ways to consume — and delay — viewing. But a good critical rule of thumb, ultimately, is to err on the side of caution, not giving away anything that you wouldn’t want to know in advance, even if that sometimes means being handcuffed in framing one’s observations.

Incidentally, by the time “Return of the Jedi” came out in 1983, I had become co-editor of the entertainment section for UCLA’s newspaper, the Daily Bruin. Having been burned before, I naturally assigned myself the movie, and banged out a conspicuously spoiler-free review.

Busting with pride, I asked one of my then-roommates what he thought of it. “I haven’t read it,” he said. “I don’t want to risk spoiling anything.”

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  1. I’m here to apologize. Sorry Asa for ruining the 6th Harry Potter book with my ill timed knock knock joke. I’ll never forget watching you read that book until about 3/4 of the way through, walking up to you and saying “Knock Knock”. Of course you said, “who is there”, and I could see you getting suspicious as I answered “Snape”. You cautiously said “Snape who” and when I said “Snape killed Dumbledore” and ran off to my desk I kinda felt bad. Sorry man, but not that sorry. It was classic.

  2. Craig says:

    If you’ve never seen a perfect storm don’t read my comment.

    Knowing the ending of a man vs. Nature film ruins it. In fact I have the DVD still in its shrink wrap because what’s the point of watching a w hour film where u are rooting for someone to survive if u were told they all die in the review by the fracking USA today. It almost makes their hiring the vile Claudia puking we puig forgiveable… Almost.

    But at least Claudia puig review don’t require reading. If she hates it then it’s a must see.

  3. John Miller says:

    In high school, a f**ker named Mike Bailey ruined “The Empire Strikes Back” for me. If I ever see him again, he’s dead. Hopefully, that’s already happened. And, I hope it was very painful.

  4. SaloTheMachine says:

    Unfortunately, I had “The Force Awakens” spoiled for me while watching a Twitch stream. Many trolls took to the chat feeds and posted succinct synopses of the film, highlighting its major plot points in blunt, staccato declarations– the kind one can’t avert his or her eyes quick enough to avoid seeing.

    I turned off the Twitch feed and decided not to watch again until after I had seen the film. The trip to the theater was a social event with friends and family, and I still managed to enjoy the film, despite the spoilers scratching around at the back door of my mind.

    Several days later, I returned to Twitch and found the chat feeds still rife with spoilers. I made the mistake of responding to a troll who blurted out a single-sentence encapsulation of what could be considered the film’s biggest plot point. I wrote:

    “As if you’re not the 1,000,000th troll to post something like this (face palm).”

    It was a mistake to respond, because I gave the troll exactly the sort of attention for which it was looking. Unsurprisingly, I was then immediately private-messaged by an additional troll who simply reiterated the first troll’s spoiler.

    What bothers me most when reflecting on this experience is not that I had a film spoiled for me, but the sadism that drives so many people to this kind of cruelty. And it is cruelty. It is cruel to inflict pain, no matter the amount, and to delight in another’s suffering.

    I tell myself the trolls are probably 12-years-old and will eventually grow out of it. But this doesn’t make me feel better. Perhaps one day I’ll find a way of thinking about it that does. For the time being, I’ve posted a hand-painted sign just off a quiet, rural road in my mental landscape. It reads:

    “Don’t Feed the Trolls.”

  5. sanman$ says:

    iIn a nursing home in a galaxy far, far away…..”The Star Wars Nursing Home Movie” – Luke, Leia, Han Solo, Yoda & Jabba & CPO-3 & R2-D2 & Darth Vader are now all residents at the Star Wars Nursing Homw. May the force be with you & especially with them!

  6. siebertws13 says:

    I remember BEFORE “Star Wars: Return of Jedi” was released, USA Today had a headline on the front of the LIFE page: “Surprise! Darth Vader’s a Good Guy!” followed by a whole article of spoilers for the final (at the time) movie. It was reprehensible journalism.

    Today, film criticism has devolved into mostly film reviewing — this happens, then this happens, then this happens, with very little analysis of whether the film is good or not or why. Part of this, I think, is because big movie ads are one of the few big print/TV buys that still happen, and nobody wants to piss off a studio over a major release with a detailed analysis of why, say, “Spectre” sucks.

    There are still good critics around, but not many. The Village Voice used to be loaded with them, but no more. New Yorker still clings to the perch, not what it was. New York Times reviews are written by would-be literature professors who can’t even communicate whether you should see the movie or not.

    As others have written, the best critics can tell you whether a movie’s worth seeing or not without spoiling the plot. They are few today, tho. Frustrating and sad.

    • John Miller says:

      Roger Ebert often gave away a lot of a film’s plot. You had to either wait until you had seen the film, or not care about the film, to read it.

  7. It seems this year that the entertainment media has decided that not only do they not need to offer spoiler warnings, they will put them in the title of the article. So it is virtually impossible to avoid spoilers unless one were to disconnect from the internet entirely.

  8. joestemme says:

    Thing is, a really good critic can write about a movie without spoiling most of the time. There are ways to describe and critique so that those who have seen the movie can understand what the critic is saying, while simultaneously keeping the details discreet for the those who haven’t.
    It takes more thought and skill, but it can be done. It just takes more effort. The lazy writers don’t care and just spill the beans.

    I can be so harsh on critics – because I’m a former one myself.

  9. Deedles722 says:

    The Crying Game was the one I remember being affected by the dreaded spoiler. Even Kids in the Hall made fun of ‘spoiling’ the ending in a skit!

  10. Ed Em says:

    As a film student in the 90’s, we were “treated” to a visit by a screenwriter who was working on a Disney film at the time. During our Q and A, they bemoaned gimmick story-telling and then proceeded to tell us about a film in production where the main character turns out to be a ghost at the end. At the time, I didn’t know it until months later when The Sixth Sense entered the zeitgeist, I got so mad at the writer (whose own movie was an epic failure when it was released and rightfully so because it was atrocious) for spoiling the movie for a room full of cinephiles. Haven’t forgotten about it to this day.

  11. BillUSA says:

    That’s horrible. I would still be unable to forgive that kid who leaked to you the real relationship between Darth/Anakin and Luke. I was 20 when “The Empire Strikes Back” premiered and yes, I paid to see “A New Hope” an astonishing 19 times (plus 7 times more on VHS), so I too, was a Star Wars geek.

    As for reviews, I think they are best read after watching the movie.

    • Bill B. says:

      I love film criticism; always have. A lot of good or bad film reviews usually are what make me go or not go to a movie. They also have the ability to make me interested in some films that I most likely wouldn’t have any desire to see. Or sometimes the opposite occurs. One has to be careful reading them though. There have been times when I sense that some writer is about to get too intricate about the plot and I just stop reading. I rarely ever watch a TV show when aired, so I never read reviews for established series, particularly The Walking Dead. I do read advance TV reviews for new product though.

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