Thursday, July 19, 2012

What Exactly Is a Spoiler-Free Review?

This summer, we've seen an unusually high number of critics promoting "spoiler-free" reviews. We saw it, to greater or lesser degrees, with BraveThe AvengersPrometheus, and now Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises, opening at midnight later tonight.

But what exactly is a spoiler-free review? Is it a review that keeps its plot summary confined to the first act, or is the second act fair game too? Or maybe it's one that sticks mainly to the movie's production history and then timidly dances around what it's about to an informative yay or nay conclusion.

The problem is, it's not really clear what a spoiler is, much less a spoiler-free review. For the moviegoer who wants to know as little as possible, any review, spoiler-free or not, is potentially dangerous. All of which makes the question "What is a spoiler-free review?" a slippery one that raises philosophical questions I'm not prepared to answer.

So instead of answering the question, I'll raise another: Do we really need spoiler-free reviews? Now, I don't mean anyone should go around giving away endings like they're giving away candy--that's too far. But I'm not sure if a trend towards spoiler-free reviews is such a good thing either. To really engage with a movie, you have to be free to talk about it, and that means loosening the straps on the critical straightjacket. Otherwise, what what's the difference between a spoiler-free review and a star or letter or thumbs-based rating system?

My view--and no one asked, really--is that writing a spoiler-free review shouldn't be a critic's primary concern. Not that care shouldn't be taken, nor am I firing a shot across the bow of anyone who's written one. All I'm saying is that staying spoiler-free shouldn't be the ultimate goal; honest engagement should. It's the moviegoer's responsibility to stay spoiler-free, even if that means avoiding reviews until later. Perhaps such delayed gratification might even staunch the kind of hysteria we've seen this week, with commentors on Rotten Tomatos leveling death threats at critics who've panned The Dark Knight Rises (because you know studios and PR firms aren't going to accept their share of the responsibility). Outside of that, I'm afraid the closest you'll get to a spoiler-free review is Roger Ebert's thumbs.

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