Unless you’ve been living under a felled AT-AT for the past several months, you’ve probably heard that there’s a new Star Wars movie out tomorrow. Disney, which bought the franchise in 2012, kept an understandably tight lid on the picture; few not involved with the production saw it before Monday’s premiere in Los Angeles, which was followed by media screenings in New York and other markets Tuesday. The outlets covering those screenings were under a strict review embargo that lifted Wednesday at midnight PST; some dropped right then, in the middle of the night, other (like ours) popped up the next day. And after it went live, friends on social media started asking, with great concern, “Are there spoilers?”
Let me be clear: there are a couple of giant revelations in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which have been rather impressively kept secret by the folks at Disney and Lucasfilm. My review does not divulge those secrets, because I’m a film critic, not a fucking asshole. (Well, not when it comes to this.) That’s not what a review does, or at least one that’s not heavily boldfaced with spoiler warnings – and anyway, there’s not a critic alive who’s going to face the scorched-earth campaign such a piece would incur before the movie’s even opened.
But that’s not what Star Wars fans are talking about when they’re talking about spoilers. They’re talking about the fundamental elements of a film: its plot, its characters, its basic themes. They’re screaming “spoiler” at summaries. They’re screaming “spoiler” at vague descriptions. They screaming “spoiler” at stuff like this. These are not spoilers. Stop acting like children.
I don’t throw around that label lightly; the intention is not to dismiss anyone who is obsessed with these fantasy films as some sort of mom’s-basement-dweller or similar lazy cultural stereotype. And this isn’t to demean or diminish those who’ve made the decision to go into this movie as cold as possible – that’s a helluva thing, if you can achieve it, and while I’ve shrugged at the (many!) people I’ve seen in my Twitter timeline bidding social media farewell until the weekend, it’s a state of blissful ignorance I wouldn’t mind taking into a film I’m particularly gassed about. But the logistics are a little difficult when this is your job, etc. etc.
And that’s the point: those who write about film have a job to do, and that job is not to cater to comically hyper-sensitive readers. As Samuel Adams (who runs Indiewire’s Criticwire blog and thus knows a thing or two about this stuff) notes, if you don’t wanna know anything about Star Wars, then don’t read reviews. A film review free of plot, context, or analysis isn’t a review; it’s advertising. And there’s plenty of that already for this movie – it doesn’t need the help of bromides like (actual quotes), “This new chapter does a fantastic job of setting up these characters for new adventures of which I am enthusiastically thrilled to be a part” or, “Your imagination will be firing on all cylinders, and you won’t be able to wait for Episode VIII.” OK, I get it, it’s great. Tell me why.
An otherwise lovely piece by Michael Burgin over at Paste underlines the essential dilemma of the “spoiler-free” review with a parenthetical like this: “In order to remain spoiler free, no ‘showing my work’ in terms of scene reference will accompany this particular observation.” And, you see, that’s the problem: critics are supposed to show their work. The job of the film critic, contrary to the popular opinion of viewers or filmmakers whose works we might not take to, is not merely to sing hosannas or throw rotten tomatoes; it’s not just to cheer or sneer, but to explain why and how a film does or doesn’t work. And to do that well, you often have to describe bobbled scenes and misplaced narrative threads, or ingenious introductions and satisfying payoffs. You can do it in a way that maintains the turns that the filmmakers clearly meant to be kept secret. But in most cases, you cannot do it by writing criticism that reads like a post-redaction FBI document.
It’s a weird moment to be a critic, is the point, as – at risk of getting too existential about it – it ultimately becomes a question of what exactly the purpose of film criticism is. There’s not a critic on this earth who believes that whatever collection of words they put together is actually going to influence anyone’s decision to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Minds were made up on this one a long, long time ago (in a galaxy… oh, never mind); maybe a real rave might push someone who was on the fence, or alter the degree of urgency with which they’ll brave the hordes, but that’s about it. And while it’s been a pretty good year for feeling like good reviews affect a film’s overall performance, we’re all well aware that no matter how well-reasoned our barbs might be, they’re not going to put a crimp in the receipts of a Transformers movie.
At its best, film criticism isn’t some sort of consumer’s guide where the takeaway is a mere “yea” or “nay”; they might’ve popularized the thumbs up/thumbs down metric, but even Siskel and Ebert had more to say on the week’s new films than that. A smart critic with an informed eye doesn’t just pinpoint what makes a movie good or bad – they see things you might not, draw connections, make comparisons, suggest hypotheticals, and ask questions. In such hands, a well-written review becomes a conversation, and a more complicated one than, “Should I see it?”
With a movie as keenly anticipated as The Force Awakens, and with such fierce emotional attachments already in place, spoiler-phobia is certainly understandable – if a little jarring, following a period when super-fans demanded any available scrap of information and dissected even the stupidest of details. Nonetheless, trolls have threatened to unleash spoilers in random tweets and unrelated comment sections; it’s so bad, Reddit is banning users who reveal spoilers (try not to weigh this against what you can post there without getting banned; that’s another discussion). If you want to go in cold, you might be best served with radio silence. But readers shouldn’t expect every writer to live inside the same cocoon, bending to each special-snowflake definition of “spoilers.” And film writers should refrain from taking such readers up on the challenge.