On 'Cabin in the Woods,' 'Prometheus' and spoilerphobia

Posted by · 10:47 am · April 17th, 2012

“I hope you die.” “Were you bullied as a child?” “Go fuck yourself.” “Learn how to write.” “You’re a haemorrhoid.” “How do you still have a job?”

Any film critic even passingly acquainted with the internet must by now have got used to the idea of being reviewed themselves. Twitter, blog culture and the decidedly mixed blessing of commenting facilities have made it easier than ever for disgruntled readers to let critics know precisely how much they disagree with them, and in some more simple-minded cases, how inept this difference in opinion makes them. Some may say professional criticism is an increasingly irrelevant art, yet the critic-reader dialogue has never been so active.

Even in this climate, however, the comments above — culled from reader responses to a single review last week, some of them corrected for spelling and grammar — are exceptional in their biliousness. These are not the standard dull-witted complaints from movie fans struggling with the concept of objectivity; in many cases, they’re from readers who haven’t yet watched the film in question. These are the complaints of viewers, or potential ones, who somehow feel that their filmgoing experience has been violated. The film is Drew Goddard’s acclaimed po-mo horror flick “The Cabin in the Woods,” the critic Mark Olsen of The Village Voice. The crime: a spoiler.

By literal standards, the spoiler dealt out in the very first sentence of Olsen’s thoughtfully argued, largely negative review of the film is as egregious as they come, revealing as it does an unexpected action in the very last shot of Goddard’s tricksy genre experiment. Someone reading the sentence before seeing the film could be forgiven for thinking a key narrative bomb had been defused, a thrill deflated, even if the crux of the critic’s argument turns on exactly why he doesn’t believe this revelation to be a spoiler.

It’s a bit of a no-win argument, since it takes a viewing of the film to understand why Olsen is right: the final scene is a surprise, yes, but a logically disconnected, borderline-absurdist one at the end of a film built on a carefully braided series of perception shifts, far more crucial to the viewer’s pleasure than the final-insult gimmick, and duly protected in the body of Olsen’s review. The knowingly silly closing shot of “The Cabin in the Woods” — arguably a pumped-up reference to the finale of “Carrie” — is hardly what most viewers are talking about as they exit the theater; the film’s most striking subversions are laid pretty much bare from the first scene onwards.

Olsen isn’t the only critic to find himself in trouble for revealing more about “The Cabin in the Woods” than many readers feel they care to know, nor is the film the first to prompt this kind of defensiveness from potential viewers. But it’s not often that such a film’s trump card has been so widely misidentified — a misconception fed both by the film’s marketing and the reviews of other, coyer critics.

Lionsgate’s marketing campaign has played up the film’s secrets, stoking anticipation with vague imagery and a tagline (“You think you know the story… think again”) that promises mindbending fun and games; many enthusiastic critics have played along, dancing around a “twist” that, by most standard definitions of the term, isn’t really there. Comparing it to such final-reel revelations as those in “The Sixth Sense” and “The Usual Suspects,” the Telegraph’s Robbie Collin suggested that the “seismically satisfying” twist “inspires a kind of cinematic Omertà, forbidding anyone who has seen it from discussing it with anyone who hasn”t.”

Except that “The Cabin in the Woods” has no third-act head-jerk moment — save an amusing star cameo that certainly caught me off-guard when I saw the film a few weeks ago. But the film’s balancing of real and hyper-real worlds — the transition between which would ordinarily make for a late-game narrative turn in a more conventional horror film — is explained quite baldly in the opening act, as Goddard and co-writer Joss Whedon unapologetically reveal what strings are being pulled, and by whom.

The very first scene undercuts all the teen-slasher expectation of the title by introducing Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford as corporate media manipulators, office-drone editions of “The Truman Show”‘s Christof — it’s the equivalent of opening “The Wizard of Oz” with Toto pulling away the curtain.

If there’s a twist to “The Cabin in the Woods” at all (besides the get-out clause of the whole film being a genre twist in itself), it’s this upfront denial of mystery: in the post-“Scream” era, we’ve become so used to the horror genre’s smug referencing of its own tropes and audience expectations that Goddard and Whedon clearly felt pre-emptive deconstruction was the only way to surprise the viewer. It works, and there’s plenty of fun to be had in discovering the finer rules of the story world after its fundamentals have been so casually exposed, though the film remains awfully pleased with itself for doing so. But, as Collin’s colleague Tim Robey succinctly put it on Twitter, gradual reveals aren’t twists, and leading viewers to expect otherwise has amped up online spoiler-phobia to an unreasonable degree.

I sympathize with cinemagoers who wish to experience a film’s every narrative development cold, who like to be as susceptible as possible to the power of surprise. My own viewing of “The Cabin in the Woods” was doubtless enhanced by the fact that I’d absorbed virtually no information beyond the title going in, admittedly more through idle indifference than concentrated effort; I didn’t even know that Chris Hemsworth was in it, for starters.

But I also sympathize with critics who wish to write intelligently and provocatively about a film, yet find their arguments increasingly hamstrung by what they can or can’t reveal of its plot. A film like “The Cabin in the Woods” is chiefly notable for the rules it bends and breaks in its storytelling; to not comment on this very subject would amount to critical negligence. Some films can only be meaningfully analyzed through a kind of narrative post-mortem: what plot points did or didn’t work, what connections were or weren’t made, what conclusions or implications can or can’t be drawn from these choices.

There is a place for this level of criticism, generally safely bracketed with spoiler warnings. It is, admittedly, not usually in daily papers where a review’s chief function is less to examine a film’s engine than to direct readers as to whether or not it’s worth seeing — but even the latter function of criticism collapses into formless, generic observations the less specific a writer is allowed to be about the text at hand. (Frankly, those who simply want to know whether the film’s any cop have Rotten Tomatoes stats readily available.)

Some have gone so far as to suggest that even mentioning the Jenkins and Whitford characters — essentially, the half of the film not described by the title — amounts to a spoiler, even though the story begins with them. The film’s trailer took similar flak from fans for revealing as much. If not even the first scene of the film is fair game for critics to discuss, why write (or read) a review at all? Shouldn’t some of the published reviews also be of use to those who have seen the film, and now want pointers to renew or continue the discussion about it? Spoilerphobic film culture treats reviews as disposable introductions, but it’s surely as post-viewing texts, preserved in online infinity, that they have more lasting and significant value.

It’d be flip to say that paranoid viewers can take complete responsibility for maintaining his preferred level of ignorance about an upcoming release, especially one selling itself on a level of mystique — though it is easy enough not to read a review. Trailers, then, are more of a bugbear to the spoilerphobic, particularly given their frequent over generosity with plot details. I avoid watching them these days — less out of concern for narrative surprises than for fending off critical preconceptions — but most multiplex patrons don’t have that option.

Matters aren’t helped by a film publicity culture where pre-release materials are reaching absurd levels of convolution: witness the marketing campaign for Ridley Scott’s “Prometheus,” a dangerously self-elevating tangle of teasers, trailers, trailers for trailers, further trailers and lengthy footage reels, calculatedly fed to the blogosphere for endless scrutiny and speculation. I haven’t seen a shred of footage from the film, though I understand from the many who have that the film’s enigmas have, remarkably enough, been left intact through it all. But as long as this trend for protracted peek-a-boos continues, not every studio is going to play the game quite so artfully; fairly soon, critics won’t have anything left to spoil. 

For more views on movies, awards season and other pursuits, follow @GuyLodge on Twitter. 

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