The Unintended Consequences of Spoiler Culture

Chuck Klosterman’s recent article over at Grantland (Bill Simmons’ new site) features some interesting musings on twist endings and the spoilers that can (potentially) ruin them.

…could The Sixth Sense exist today?

Now, I don’t mean “Do we still have the technology to make this picture?” because (obviously) we do. We could make it better, probably. I’m also not asking, “Would the twist to The Sixth Sense be spoiled on the Internet?” because (obviously) that would happen, too. It’s simply how the media now works. I’m also not wondering if simultaneously promoting and protecting The Sixth Sense would be a marketer’s nightmare, because that’s undeniable and not particularly important. What I’m asking is this: Are screenwriters now affected by “spoiler culture” before they even begin the writing process? If you know a twist will be unavoidably revealed before the majority of people see the work itself, and if you concede that selling and marketing a film with a major secret will be more complicated for everyone involved … would you even try? Would you essentially stop yourself from trying to write a movie that’s structured like The Sixth Sense?

It’s an interesting premise, but even Klosterman admits that it’s impossible to know for sure. He gives a few examples: the aforementioned <a href="The Sixth Sense“>The Sixth Sense, the semi-recently concluded TV show Lost, and the new TV show The Killing. I think part of the problem with the article, though, is that it lacks some of the context of what makes these particular twists work.

Take The Sixth Sense. Writer and director M. Night Shyamalan, as of right now, is almost comically known for his reliance on twists, but it’s important to remember that back in 1999, Shyamalan was an unknown. The movie was basically a Bruce Willis vehicle, and even then, it was dumped into theaters in August, the month Hollywood releases movies to die. So what does all that mean? Well, there wasn’t much buzz about the movie beforehand – few people were following the making of the movie, thus they didn’t have to worry much about spoilers on the internet (and while it’s probably worse today, there were still plenty of movie rumor sites active back in the day). The only thing the filmmakers needed to do was to ensure that the marketing didn’t give away the twist1… and luckily, the film had other readily marketable elements.

Shyamalan’s problems came later and are mostly his own fault. After the twist ending of Unbreakable, he had pretty much pigeon-holed himself as a twist ending writer. Twists rely on an audience that isn’t expecting a twist. This works in a movie like The Sixth Sense because there were lots of other things going on. The reason the twist works so well is that the film wasn’t asking you to explain anything throughout the film. The ending provided an answer to a question we didn’t realize needed asking. And it did so in a way that didn’t feel cheap or contrived. It just fit. But it probably wouldn’t work so well if you were looking for it all throughout the film.

This is where Klosterman’s point comes in. Once you’re known for writing twists, it becomes much more difficult to pull them off. I readily agree that Shyamalan and Damon Lindelof (of Lost) will have trouble writing a new movie/show that is heavily reliant on twists… but only because both of those writers have abused the twist in their previous work. The same goes for most TV series, especially police procedurals, all of which tend to fall into certain established patterns of red herrings, etc… A while ago, in reference to Hitchcock’s earliest works, I made a similar observation:

…the “twist” at the end of the story wasn’t exactly earth-shattering. These days, we’re so zonked out on Lost and 24 that our minds immediately and cynically formulate all the ways the filmmakers are trying to trick us. Were audiences that cynical 80 years ago? Or did the ending truly surprise them?

In this respect, Klosterman is certainly correct: if audiences are looking for your twist, you’re going to have a really rough time. So writers known for their twists – even if it’s just one big twist – will have to contend with that.

The problem here is that this doesn’t necessarily mean that Hollywood is skewing away from twists… just that writers like Shyamalan and Lindelof are. Nothing’s stopping anyone else from writing a twist ending, and there’s no real shortage of examples, even in the past couple years (I have a whole category devoted to plot twists in the yearly Kaedrin Movie Awards). They just happen to come from movies where we’re not necessarily looking for the twist2.

Klosterman also points out that hiding the twist can also lead to disappointment. His chief example:

Take the 2008 sci-fi film Cloverfield: The marketing campaign was flawless. Without revealing any aspect of the story, the trailers for Cloverfield made it clear that something cataclysmic was going to happen in New York, and that this massive event was some unthinkable secret. Considering how the media now operates, the makers of Cloverfield did a remarkable job of keeping its details clandestine. Yet this secrecy probably hurt the film’s ultimate reception — when people realized it was “only” an updated version of a traditional monster movie, they were often disappointed.

Well, that’s certainly one way to look at it. Another way to look at it was that audiences were disappointed because the movie kinda sucked3. Also, that’s a “twist” manufactured by marketing, not one related to storytelling or anything. In a very real sense, Super 8 has similar issues, though I think that ended up being a much better movie.

Ultimately, I think the “twist” is here to stay. Oh sure, it may go away for a while as the Shyamalans and Lindelofs of the world move on to more straightforward narratives. But the twist will make a comeback soon enough, just when we least expect it. Which is, of course, the whole point of a twist.

1 – This is not a trivial challenge. Terminator 2: Judgment Day provides an interesting example. Watch that film with a blank slate, and you’ll notice that it’s written as if the audience doesn’t know that Schwartzenegger’s terminator is a “good guy” and that Robert Patrick’s T-1000 is the villain. In the absence of marketing, it would be reasonable for someone not familiar with the movie to assume that it’s following the same pattern as the previous installment. When I was little, I was a huge Terminator fan, so I distinctly remember a lot of the marketing surrounding T2… and they gave all of it away. Of course, the reveal happens relatively early in the film, but I still remember finding it a bit weird that they spent so much time trying to obscure what everyone already knew.

2 – The first example that came to mind was kinda odd because it’s not very prominent in it’s film (and I doubt anyone would call it out in a discussion of twists), but I always liked it: the last scene in Batman Begins (in the board room, not the action sequence on the train) is wonderful, and I think it did more to cement how much I liked that movie than anything else. It fits very well with the story, and there are even hints about it earlier in the movie. But it’s an action film and the twist was far away from most of the central plot points, so I never saw it coming.

3 – I guess that’s a bit unfair. The film has its merits, but most people who saw it complained about the shaky cam much more than the fact that it was a monster movie. Seriously, even I had problems with the camerawork in that movie making me sick, and I’m normally fine with that sort of thing. The premise is actually the best part about the movie – a monster movie told from the perspective of normal folks fleeing the attack. No spunky scientist teaming up with a hardened military veteran to take down the monster, just normal folks trying to survive. Unfortunately, the execution of this was… lacking.