Stop Me If You've Heard This Before


So, we decided to go to the pictures, and phoned up the cinema to find out what time the film started. We got through to one of those touch-dial-multi-choice-interactive-pre-recorded things. Before telling us that the film started at 2.15 it helpfully told us what it was about. Aliens: Resurrection is, apparently, a thrilling sci-fi adventure starring Sigourney Weaver as a clone of Ripley, and Winona Ryder as /DELETED/.

This irritated us somewhat. You don't find out that Winona Ryder's character is /DELETED/ until 20 minutes before the end, and it's just about the only twist in the entire movie. So this rather spoilt our enjoyment of the film.

Still, I'm used to it. My newspaper has taken to revealing the whole plot of every episode of Babylon 5 in advance. 'This week, Sheridan escapes from the prison camp and succeeds in liberating Mars, but Ivanova is mortally wounded in the battle.' Thanks, guys. We were only turning on because last week's show left us with two slightly arresting cliff hangers. 'Will our hero escape from the prison camp? if so, will he win the battle to free Mars?' The death of Ivanova was meant to be a surprising twist. So our enjoyment of the episode was spoilt on two fronts.

This sort of thing has become such a menace that the Information Superhighway has developed an etiquette for dealing with it. If you are about to reveal the twist ending of a film or TV show then you have to write 'Contains Spoilers' in the subject line. If you drop a remark about the plot into an otherwise innocuous article, you are supposed to write 'SPOILERS FOLLOW', and leave some space. The reader can make up his own mind whether he wants to know the film's ending in advance. This seems to me to be fairly good manners, although it does make religious groups a little strange at times. ('We believe that Jesus was crucified...SPOILERS FOLLOW...and that he rose again on the third day.')

This sort of thing can go too far, of course. The Teletext TV listings fail to give you any information at all. 'This week, the Enterprise visits a strange planet'; 'In tonight's episode, Number 6 is subjected to a bizarre form of brainwashing'; 'A baffling mystery for Columbo.' Fans can have endless fun trying to guess what episode the summary refers to or (harder) guessing what episode it does not refer to. A newspaper critic once wrote 'This week, Spock and Bones argue, while Kirk falls in love with someone blonde', but I suspect him of satire.

In the case of a big, popular, expensive movie like Aliens avoiding spoilers is a considerable achievement. Films of this sort come with merchandising campaigns attached, so that the true aficionado may very well, before arriving in the cinema, have already read the story as both a graphic novel and novel; seen stills of all the major scenes in the poster magazine, and heard all the incidental music on the cast CD. This may be why some of the most expensive and spectacular films (for example, Mars Attacks and Batman and Robin) go out of their way to have no plot to spoil. I despised Mars Attacks for its lack of plot, character, motivation or indeed anything at all, but I suspect that I was making a category mistake, like the guy who goes to ballet and complains he can't hear the words. More or less since 1977, I have enjoyed the intellectual game of trying to imagine what happened before Star Wars started: building vague daydreams out of Lucas's masterly hints about the Sith and the Clone Wars. Now the prequel is actually being made, parts of the 'solution' are leaking out. It seems that 'Darth' is not a name, but a title given to a high ranking evil Jedi Knight. It will take an almost monastic asceticism to avoid knowing the films' entire plot before they are released.

Does it matter? Does revealing plot details really 'spoil' the film? If the main hero is in prison and the secondary hero is on his way to rescue him, is the person who says 'Oh, by the way...the good guys win' really telling us anything we didn't know? How many of us really sit down in a cinema without the faintest idea of what the plot of the film is going to be? Flash refuses to go and see Citizen Kane on the grounds that someone told him that 'Rosebud' turns out to be /DELETED/. The revelation of this central mystery has irrevocably ruined the film for him. I have re-assured him on many occasions that 'Rosebud' is, in fact, almost an irrelevance to the movie: little more than an artificial and only half-convincing macguffin to link the fragmentary narrative, and that the real point of the film is the almost Freudian way it sketches the forces at work in a man's life, without ever becoming a conventional biography. And, along the way, throws lots of amusing character vignettes at you. 'Well, it's no trick to make a lot of money, if all you want to do is make a lot of money.'

Actually, I only half believe this.

I remember the first time I saw the movie. I remember the camera swooping over the cases and piles of memorabilia, waiting for the credits to roll. I assumed that this was the end. I thought it was rather clever, but a slight let down to have predicated the film on a mystery and then not given us a solution. I even recognised /DELETED/ when it appears, and could see its significance—a sort of visual reference back to an earlier scene in the film. So the final close-up literally jolted me out of my seat: the final image causes the whole film to unwind and re-align itself in your head. Brilliant. I'm surprised it's not more highly regarded.

I've seen the film five or six times since then; I've enjoyed it more each time. I've even enjoyed the final scene more each time. But never again can I be fooled by the film, and never again can I be jolted out of my seat. So in one sense, anyone who already knows the solution to 'Rosebud' has been deprived of part of my experience of the movie.

When I watched the video of Kane with my mother, she commented, about ten minutes after it had finished ' did we ever actually find out what Rosebud was, then?'

I also contrived to see King Lear (a play by William Shakespeare) without knowing how it ended. I was sort of expecting Lear to die in some unpleasant way, but Cordelia to survive. This is, in fact, the ending in the myth Shakespeare was working from, and also in the Restoration reworking of the play. I was not so much surprised by the ending as pissed-off by it. I felt rather like the little boy in The Princess Bride. 'No Grandpa, you read that wrong. When you said dead, you didn't mean 'dead'. Cordelia's only faking, right? She can't be hanged after she's spent five acts being the only good person in the play. That wouldn't be fair...' This is, I suspect, almost exactly the reaction that Will was hoping for. It's also almost precisely the reaction of Lear himself, come to think of it.

One could say that the entire edifice of English Literature—from Brodie's Notes right down to doctoral theses on 'The Renaissance Theory of Suffering in King Lear' is dedicated to 'spoiling' literature in precisely this way. We don't let children see Twelfth Night without first showing them dreadful 30 minute TV cartoon versions and then sending them to dreadful schools where dreadful teachers dictate dreadful notes, explaining all the jokes and the difficult words. (Let me assure you, ma'am, that no twelve year old in the universe needs Brodies notes to tell them that the line 'These are her Cs, her Us and her Ts and thus makes she her great Ps' is a very dirty joke.) And we don't let adults see performances of it without first giving them programme notes which explains why it is absolutely essential and consistent with Shakespeare's intentions to re-set the play in a brothel in Sarejavo. We can't possibly be allowed to see the play for the first time, to be surprised by it, to form our own impressions of it.

One could say it, and indeed I might have said it, had I not also seen the recent (modernised) film version of Romeo and Juliet, in the Bristol Arts centre along with thirty or fourty other people who all (presumably) knew the story. And yet, as it reached its climax—as Romeo is opening his poison even as Juliet stirs (a break from theatrical tradition, this, but one which the text allows) I am fairly certain that they were all, like me, stifling an urge to shout out 'No, you fool, don't do it!'.

One bit of good acting can overcome the damage done by any number of 'O' levels.

Jokes—particularly corny, school boy jokes—are spoiled if you have heard them before. It is impossible to convey, at this late stage of the afternoon, just how funny the exchange:

'What's green and pear shaped?'

'A pear'

was the first time I heard it; and how completely unfunny it has been on the seventeen subsequent occasions. Whodunnits—particularly bad, country house whodunnits—are spoiled if you know the solution. I admit that The Mousetrap delivers a very real, very disorientating, very enjoyable jolt when you discover that, in complete contradiction to all expectations, the murderer is in fact /DELETED/. If someone has told you in advance, then there is no pleasure to be had out of the play whatsoever. You simply sit back and wonder how as accomplished a writer as Agatha Christie could possibly have written such a load of old /DELETED/.

A horror movie such as Aliens: Resurrection is very much at the level of a whodunit or a schoolboy joke. It delivers, if it delivers anything at all, a series of brief, physical 'hits'. When the spooky music starts playing (with its in-time-with-your-heart-beat rhythm) you get butterflies in the stomach, as if you were waiting for an interview or slowly going up to the top of a big-dipper. When the alien jumps out from behind the /DELETED/ your heart skips a beat, and then starts beating very quickly, and then slows down, as if someone had burst a balloon behind your head. This is not a particularly high form of aesthetic enjoyment. You can get it just as well by going to a fair ground or being in a car accident. But it's quite fun, all the same.

But if these thrills are the main thing you want, not knowing what is going to happen next is by now means a guarantee that you will get them. Recent TV shows like Babylon 5 and Dark Skies make great play with the fact that they have a developing plot-line and no status quo. When Lohengren's missus gets kidnapped by aliens, you genuinely don't know whether she is going to escape or not: it could go either way. But (for all Dark Skies' cleverness) I found it very hard to care. The characters were two dimensional. On the other hand, every time I watch a re-run of old, creaky, formula-ridden The Fugitive I find myself on the edge of my seat, feeling suspense and tension so intense that I sometimes almost wish I hadn't switched on. The small town policeman is congratulating Kimball for his heroism and at the same time fingering an unopened letter from the FBI that would reveal Kimball as an escaped convict. Never mind penis shaped creatures with two rows of teeth bursting out of people's chests: this is such stuff as nightmares are made of. And yet I know, with 100% certainty, that Kimball will escape.

It's called 'good writing'.

A pre-occupation with 'spoilers' involves at least three errors. It pre-supposes that the main point of a film is its capacity to deliver a 'hit'. It assumes that these hits are delivered by uncertainty and unexpectedness, not by good story-telling. And it takes for granted that the main thing we are watching for is the plot.

I would, on the contrary, be tempted, to say that anything which can be spoiled by a spoiler was probably already pretty spoiled to begin with. I therefore make no apologies for revealing that Winona Ryder was, in fact, a sledge.