When movies were new, the focus was on the spectacle of witnessing moving images. When we got used to seeing moving images, the focus was on telling stories, and with the focus on stories came great storytellers who could suspend our disbelief long enough to invoke emotional reactions such as empathy, laughter, and a third reaction that isn’t as highly regarded but is an important factor in many of the greatest films: surprise.
What’s interesting is that the surprising movies tend to be more popular than the movies that only succeed at making us laugh and cry, no matter how well-made they may be.
Citizen Kane is widely regarded by many film historians as the greatest film ever made largely due to its surprising ending. Of course, movies like Citizen Kane, Psycho and The Sixth Sense could only be so great if everything up to the surprising twists was equally well-written, but twists tend to always be the most memorable parts of movies (Take note, rookie filmmakers).
The cruel side-effect of these incredible films is that they can only be fully enjoyed as the filmmaker intended without prior knowledge of the plot, something that is fine for people who watch the movie on opening day but impossibly difficult for late viewers, the main reason being that human beings are social animals. You snooze, you lose.
The release of The Empire Strikes Back brought the problem to prominence. This was the most popular movie of 1980, and the scene where Darth Vader reveals (spoiler alert!) that he is Luke Skywalker’s father was the most famous surprise in blockbuster history.
However, it wasn’t until television became the medium that it is today that warning people with spoiler alerts became the norm, and a slightly out-of-control phenomenon.
This current age of well-written episodic storytelling is almost like a religious experience for viewers who are hooked on these shows. Many of these passionate genre fans and film geeks are my best friends on social media.
I know how it feels to be disappointed by spoilers (my worst moment came listening to the DVD commentary of season 2 of 24 before I watched every episode), because I too prefer to experience things as the creator intended: having no idea where the story is going. That is the purest and most enjoyable way to watch movies and television (and play video games, which are also known for their surprising twists).
Look at Star Wars. It might not be a coincidence that the movies in that series that are the most highly regarded are the ones with the most surprising moments (A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi).
Having said all this, I’ve recently realized something at the grizzled old age of 28 that I’d like to share with you whippersnappers: spoiler alerts don’t bother me anymore.
In the old days, when someone on a talk show was talking about The Dark Knight Rises or some other film or series that I hadn’t seen or finished yet, I would cover my ears. Call me crazy but I don’t feel the urge to do that anymore. Sure, I would prefer a pure viewing experience, but I’m not as precious about it as I used to be.
This may have something to do with my awakening as a film critic and my growing appreciation for the art of storytelling. If one part of the movie getting spoiled ruins the entire movie for me, I am not watching a good film. I can find enjoyment watching anything if the writing is good. Plus, by now I’ve seen hundreds of films and I’ve had plenty of memorable and exciting experiences. I’ll survive without another.
I want to emphasize that I understand why spoiler alerts are important for people. I still employ them in my blogs because I can appreciate wanting to go into films blind. I just don’t get upset about it the same way I did as a young adult. Long story short, I’ve mellowed. I think that’s what happens when you get older and begin to realize that films aren’t everything.
Anyway, I can hear you saying, “Yeah, whatever, grandpa. I still hate spoilers and I’m still going to avoid them.” Just thought I’d pass down some wisdom.