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Movie Spoilers: How Much Should be Revealed?

June 6, 2011

By John C.

Is it a spoiler to say that "Midnight in Paris" involves Gil (Owen Wilson) going back to the 1920's?

Please note: Aside from basic plot points in Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” that we already discussed in our reviews of the film, there are no actual spoilers in this article for movies new or old.  Enjoy!

Woody Allen’s wonderful Midnight in Paris opened over the weekend, and it’s only the second movie this year that we’ve all awarded the highest rating of 4-stars.  The story of Gil (Owen Wilson), a struggling novelist and romanticist vacationing in the Paris of present day and being whisked back to the 1920’s every night at midnight, the film deserved all of the critical praise that it received.  But there seems to have been debate amongst critics as to how much of the basic story should be revealed in a review.

I don’t consider the fact that Midnight in Paris concerns a man travelling to a different era to be a spoiler, and something that I actually knew going into the press screening.  It’s not a twist that comes well into the movie, merely a plot point that is established early on in the first act.  Vague details kind of have to be revealed in order to properly write a review, and it actually adds another layer of intrigue.  Would the film have had an extra level of surprise if you didn’t know any of what to expect?  Of course, but few movies these days are able to completely surprise.

I would personally put this particular plot point in the same league as the set-up for Groundhog Day, rather than describe it as an actual twist.  It would probably be fascinating to have seen Harold Ramis’ February 2nd-themed masterpiece for the first time without knowing that Bill Murray was going to have to live the same day over and over.  But these themes are no less powerful when you know the story, and it gets even better upon each consecutive viewing.  I see no problem in revealing the set-up when reviewing a film, so long as the conclusion is not disclosed.

For me, the sheer delight of Woody Allen’s film didn’t come from not knowing that the story would be transported back to the 1920’s.  It came from the magic of seeing it realized on-screen.  The majority of the surprises come from the excellent script which was filled with hilarious scenes of dialogue as well as a few moments of biting social commentary.  To tell you the truth, I wasn’t even aware that the time travel portions of the story could be considered a spoiler until I saw other reviewers strategically avoiding sharing any details.  From the opening scenes of the film it would be impossible to predict where the story will end up, but it’s not a spoiler because we are asked to accept these fantasy elements pretty early on.

One of the biggest challenges a critic can face is how much to reveal when reviewing a film that falls into the category of predictable.  Is it a spoiler to say that a hero will almost always save the day or that a romantic comedy will have a happy ending?  Not necessarily, but the specifics of how the story plays out need not be revealed.  Sometimes even a superhero can have an uphill battle, and if it is a love triangle, then it would be a spoiler to say which one of the romantic leads the character chooses.  If spoilers are to be given in a review, then fair warning should be offered.

Some movies have Earth-shattering twists that should not be revealed before you’ve seen them.  The Usual Suspects, Fight Club and The Sixth Sense certainly come to mind.  Others like the brilliant final twists of Citizen Kane, Psycho and even Planet of the Apes many people unfortunately see as common knowledge and spoil them for generations who may not have seen the films.  Regardless of whether or not you’ve seen the movies, if you don’t know the biggest twist in the Star Wars saga, then you must still be living under a rock.  But there will always be people who haven’t seen these films, and sometimes Hollywood’s best kept secrets should not be revealed until you’ve seen them in the context of the story.

Films like American Beauty, Inception or Black Swan have endings that change our interpretation of the entire story and would often be easier to write about by revealing such things.  But the challenge of a reviewer comes in sharing their opinions and thoughts on the film, without spoiling the experience for the audiences that will see it.  After the initial review is published, then further discussions and opinion pieces can be written.

But Midnight in Paris is not this sort of film.  It’s filled with delightful little touches and surprises, but I don’t consider the basic plot to be one that can be spoiled in the classic sense of the word.  Of course events that take place in the second and third acts of a story should never be revealed without fair warning, but I’m not sure when people started considering that revealing ones that come early on in the first act could be a spoiler.

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