How far will you go to stay unspoiled?

How far will you go to stay unspoiled?

Movies are better the less you know about them. But we just can’t help ourselves.

I bet you KNEW there was a plane crash in this movie. Weird, huh?

I bet you KNEW there was a plane crash in this movie. Weird, huh?

When we walk into a theater, we usually know a fair amount about the movie we’re going to see. For instance, I haven’t seen Transformers 2. But from the trailer, I know that Sam Witwicky goes off to college and absorbs some sort of alien code from a mysterious artifact. I know that Optimus Prime fights in a forest, and it probably doesn’t go well for him. (There’s something about the way Shia yells “Optimus!” that reminds me of the way Ewan yells “Noooooooooooo!” in that Star Wars: Episode I trailer I memorized in 1999.) I know that Megatron returns. I highly suspect that the final sequence takes place at the pyramids.

(By the way, someone remind me to make a list of movies in which ancient Egyptians had direct contact with aliens: Transformers 2, Stargate, The Fifth Element…)

This is all right there in the trailer—it’s information the studio wants me to have. Depending on what other movies I went to see, I might have been shown this trailer whether I wanted to see it or not. Being surprised by Megatron’s return just wasn’t an option.

Now compare that to the District 9 trailer. (Warning: D9 spoilers ahead.)

Before I saw it, I thought they had lightning for legs.

Before I saw it, I thought they had lightning for legs.

This trailer introduces you to the movie’s concept (aliens living in a militarized slum), but tells you almost nothing about its plot. After watching it, I assumed this movie was about the aliens rising up against humans. And I certainly didn’t know that the poor guy who got sprayed in the trailer was the movie’s main character. I figured he might have been a red shirt who dies gruesomely after finding a chemical weapon, after which the troops crack down on District 9 and the aliens fight back.

I was completely wrong. It’s been a long time since I went to see a movie without knowing anything about the plot, and I highly recommend it. So first of all, kudos to the D9 people for creating a great little trailer that keeps its cards close to its vest. But the thing is, I wish I had known even less. For the whole film, I was waiting patiently for the cool robot suit I saw in the trailer. When it showed up, it was glorious, but I can only imagine how happy I would have been if I hadn’t known it was coming. I can almost imagine myself saying, “Great Odin’s Raven, this movie has a badass robot suit! What an unexpected surprise!”

But at least I didn’t make the mistake of glancing at a review. Needless to say, movie reviews are way worse than trailers when it comes to spoilers. In his review of District 9, Roger Ebert revealed that the movie…

… takes the form of a mockumentary about van der Merwe’s relocation campaign, his infection by an alien virus, his own refuge in District 9 and his partnership with the only alien who behaves intelligently and reveals, dare we say, human emotions. This alien, named Christopher Johnson — yes, Christopher Johnson — has a secret workspace where he prepares to return to the mothership and help his people.

This makes me sad and mad. Smad. In two sentences, Ebert gave away at least half of the story. Not every detail, but enough to make the movie a lot less exciting for the first half.

That brings us to World’s Greatest Dad. This is a great little Robin Williams movie that’s just coming out, written and directed by (believe it or not) Bobcat Goldthwait. It’s a dark comedy, so dark that it’s not really a comedy, and Robin Williams turns out to be a great actor. I won’t drop any spoilers for the benefit of those of you who haven’t seen it, which is everyone.


Biggest surprise in the movie: good acting from Robin Williams.

I’ll just say that the movie has a few shocking twists. Twists which are completely hidden in the movie’s trailer, but mentioned in just about every review I’ve read, from the New York Times to MTV. At the risk of being annoyingly cryptic, I was completely stunned by one of these twists when it happened, and think it’s sad that I may be the only person in America who ever sees the movie without reading anything about it, and therefore the only person who will actually be surprised.

I’m not saying anything particularly novel here. We all know that spoilers can ruin your enjoyment of a film. But at the same time, many of us enjoy reading movie reviews, and we certainly enjoy watching trailers. And with big event movies, little snippets blanket the entire internet. I knew Batman was going to ride a cool motorcycle a year before I saw The Dark Knight. I knew the ending to Watchmen was going to be different than the comic book. And of course, I knew Leonard Nimoy was going to show up in Star Trek. Everyone in America knew that one. But if you could chose not to know in advance, wouldn’t it be an easy choice? Wouldn’t being surprised by Leonard Nimoy be the bee’s knees?

This much is clear to me: there is nothing you can learn about a movie beforehand that will heighten your enjoyment of the movie. Trailers can certainly heighten your anticipation, and make you count down the days before you can line up and gladly wait three hours to be the very first to see something. But the tradeoff is, you know what’s coming. You know that at some point, Iron Man is going to shoot a missile at a tank and turn and walk away before it explodes. So when the moment comes, what you experience is the thrill of recognition, not surprise.

And that’s why I’m going to avoid that new Avatar trailer. When I see posts about the movie online, I’m going to keep browsing. I’m sure I’ll inevitably hear a few things about Avatar before December–staying completely spoiler-free probably isn’t realistic. But I’m going to see what life as a anti-spoiler zealot is like.

Anyway, how far do you go to avoid spoilers before you see a movie? Let us know in the comments. To help you, here’s a little scale.


17 Comments on “How far will you go to stay unspoiled?”

  1. Nona #

    Even from both the trailer and some basic plot summaries at sites like Fandango I was still pleasantly surprised by District 9. I was expecting something a bit more along the lines of a political thriller. The difference between my expectations and the movie was a really nice surprise.

    I did also wait patiently during the entire movie to see the cool robot suit.

    As for spoilers in general, I prefer to keep it to watching trailers. Reviews not only potentially spoil me to the story but can have an effect on the mindset I have going in and I’d just as soon avoid that when I can.

    Speaking of Fandango, I think it’s unfortunate that you can’t report spoilers in the user reviews.


  2. dock #

    Depending on the movie, I will go so far as to change the channel when trailers pop up, and avoid even headlines referring to the movie in print. Although that is only if I a) intend to see it in theaters b) want to be going in “cold” and c) am excited to see it.

    example- I saw Snakes on a Plane in theaters but I didnt mind seeing some of the cool one liners already in trailers. When I saw Public Enemies, I knew the story already and that (SPOILER ALERT) John Dillinger would eventually die, but I wanted to see the movie anyway. However, when it came to Dark Knight, Revenge of the Sith and D9 I avoided anything I could so that I COULD be suprised or more drawn in or whatever.

    The worst thing to me about trailors IS the recognition, like oh this is that scene when he says this and then the batcycle goes by him….because 1 im not watching it im waiting for something, 2 when it happens its like okay, next!, and 3 if it doesnt happen (something is in the trailor but not the movie) I get infuriated because i feel like ive been misled.

    btw i love the scale


  3. TL #

    Media blackout is the only way to go. I’ve unfortunately already stumbled on stills and plot snippets for AVATAR, but beyond that, I’m walking into the theater in December completely cold.

    Worst trailer ever: Cast Away, which answered the question, “Does he ever get off the island?”


  4. Kyu #

    I’m for complete media blackout, in general. Actually, my policy is to only find out as much about a movie as I need to in order to be sure I want to see it. I’m aware that Avatar was made by Cameron, who seems to know what he’s doing, and that’s it’s original sci-fi, and that people seem to be excited by it. That’s enough for me, and so that’s all I’ve allowed myself to know.

    Other movies might need more info, starting with who’s involved (director, writer, cast, etc.), a one-sentence plot description, etc. If it’s a movie I’ve never heard of and/or probably won’t watch, I’m comfortable reading a review or two (usually Ebert’s), which sometimes pushes me to see the movie anyway.

    The only time I deliberately watch trailers is in the theaters, because I consider it a hallowed part of the theatrical experience, and there’s not much I can do about it anyway.

    I’ve been following this successfully for two or three years now, and I find that movies really are much better when as much as possible is a total surprise.


  5. pave #

    oh that is a prize winning pun of a scale :D ‘spoiler’ riiiight XD
    id probably be somewhere near watch trailers but dont read reviews…there are times when i know iv seen the trailer and want to watch the movie…then time goes by and i only remember the ‘the hangover’ i probably liked it a lot better than a lot of people who had recently watched the trailer :)


  6. pave #

    ps. i watch trailers for their own sake sometimes. like on dvds before the menu shows up.
    kickass trailer (havent watched the movie yet): burn after reading! actually turns out its the ‘teaser’


  7. JKTomas #

    I always watch trailers before watching the movie. Sometimes sooo many times, that I realy can predict what is going to happen. But I rarely go to cinema… I am watching old movies on DVD more often, so I always know everything about the movie. For example: When I was watching Star Wars I always knew that Vader is Lukes father… :D


  8. Darin #

    How far will I go? This is a thoroughly hot topic for me and I wanted to read the whole article. I had to stop at

    “Now compare that to the District 9 trailer. (Warning: D9 spoilers ahead.)”

    because I didn’t know when the spoilers ended. How about an html anchor jump for those that want to skip the spoilers? I will NOT watch trailers of movies I know I will see e.g. Inglorious Bastards, District 9 because I don’t want the 30sec spot, I want the 120 minute movie.


  9. Dan #

    The all time worst example for me still has to be Terminator 2. (This post contains a spoiler for the movie, but who hasn’t seen it, really?) The first fifteen minutes of the movie are brilliantly set up to make it completely impossible to tell which is the bad terminator and which is the good one. When the two finally meet in the hallway of the shopping mall, it could have been an absolutely terrifying sequence, particularly if you thought Arnold was the bad guy again.

    There was just one problem.

    There was simply no way, whatsoever, to reach a movie theater without knowing the score. It had been so thoroughly spoiled by that time that all the virtuoso filmmaking to that point was completely and utterly wasted.


  10. Matthew Belinkie OTI Staff #

    @Dan – Fantastic example. But I happen to be reading this with my girlfriend, who actually DID manage to see Terminator 2 without previously knowing that Arnold was going to be the good guy. However, her strategy for avoiding spoilers involved being eleven and living in Israel, so it’s probably not realistic for most people.


  11. Gab #

    Wow, Belinkie, you certainly do like ’em young, eh?

    (Had to, so sorry)


  12. Tom #

    It’s really funny that I read this article only one day after posting a facebook note listing my 10 most anticipated movies of the rest of the year. When I put Avatar at #10, I wrote “I have intentionally avoided seeing or reading anything about this movie. I want to try going into it with zero expectations.”
    Good luck to both of us.


  13. TheBrummell #

    “Wouldn’t being surprised by Leonard Nimoy be the bee’s knees?”

    I was surprised by Mr. Nemoy in Star Trek, and it was indeed the bee’s knees. Also the joints of several other insects.

    How did I acheive this? By running away to the North Pole for 2 months. I spent all of July and most of August on Ellesmere Island, being Santa’s neighbour and messing about with greenhouse gases. I saw Star Trek on the flight back home, on August 21. Even on a 6-inch screen, it was good.

    Personally, I take one of two routes, depending on the movie. For movies I know I will definately watch in theatre, total media blackout. No trailers, no reviews, no still photos, no interviews with cast & crew, nothing at all. I even hold my hand over the banner ads that show up on websites.
    For movies I’m less sure about, I’ll watch the trailers, and look at the pretty pictures in magazines and so forth. I’ll often read reviews, too, mainly to help decide whether this is something I want to drop $12 on.

    This strategy has worked well: I blacked-out everything about Lord of the Rings, so seeing the Uruk-hai for the first time and especially the Ring-Wraiths was awesome. I saw the trailers and read a couple of reviews for Burn After Reading, and enjoyed that movie as well.

    I’d not heard of Avatar before, but the comments here make me want to see it. I’ll keep to the blackout on that one.

    Am I the only one who thinks that most comedy movies are basically not worth watching because all the jokes are revealed in the trailers?


  14. Susanna #

    When I was 10, the Sixth Sense came out and my aunts took me to go see it. Considering we saw it in Abu Dhabi, all we knew about the movie going in was that it belonged in the horror genre (the movie poster gave that away.)
    I remember the four of us walking out of that theatre and we could not stop talking about the ending. At the risk of being eternally mocked, we REALLY did not see that coming. Give me a break, I was 10.
    The point I’m trying to make is, I completely agree that not knowing what a movie is about before seeing it helps you enjoy it on a whole different level then if you’d known the plot beforehand.


  15. Gab #

    Heh, I’ve seen that shirt before, on a person, and thought it was pretty damn funny.


  16. Richard #

    First of all, the second trailer for D9 revealed the entire plot if you looked close enough.

    Second of all, I think to me the element of plot surprise in movies has been all but lost. I’ve seen too many of them. I knew the twists in World’s Greatest Dad but even if I hadn’t I still would have seen them coming. Plenty of classic movie endings were spoiled on me before I ever saw them, but the movies are still great. Heck, the good things about Titanic were only enhanced by the knowledge of what will happen at the end. Movies should survive well beyond their plot twists- period.


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