Posted by Arlo on Oct 1, 2005 under Thought Objects

This is the only kind of spoiler that doesnWarning: Depending on your tolerance level, this post could contain minor spoilers for The Island, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Flightplan, Terminator 2, Red Eye, The Sixth Sense, The Matrix, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and, uh, possibly World of Warcraft… and somebody’s car, I guess. Seemed only fair to warn you.

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about spoilers. For hours at a time. Really.

A few weeks months ago [I’m late in posting this entry], the Sci-Fi channel made the purchase of my HTPC completely worthwhile with just three blocks of programming. They aired the entire first season of Battlestar Galactica, the entire first season of Stargate Atlantis, and the entire eighth season of Stargate SG-1. Three days in a row, 7am to 2am, the little PVR in my media PC wrote episode after episode to its hard drive.

When all was said and done, I had literally hundreds of Gigabytes of new sci-fi programming. But there was a problem. I couldn’t leave it all on the HTPC because the software would automatically start removing programs to make way for newer shows. I thought about watching them on at my computer desk, but it didn’t have the most comfortable seating arrangement. The obvious answer was to burn them all off to DVDs – especially since they were already encoded as a decent-quality MPEGII stream.

If I was going to archive them to disc, I wanted to make sure that the quality remained high. Granted, there was nothing I could do to get rid of the Sci-Fi logo imprinted over each episode or, more annoyingly, all the little promo bugs they threw up (“You’re watching the SG-1 Marathon!”), but I could at least edit out the commercials. Next step: Find a program that would allow me to do that without a multi-hour recompression of each episode.

Nerovision Express 3 did the trick with its “SmartEncode” feature. After a bit of fiddling with the settings, I was able to export a commercial-free episode just as fast as my hard drive was able to write – usually around 4-6 minutes. Too bad Nero couldn’t auto-detect the commercials; I would have been done even quicker.

Alas, no. It would take time. In order to remove each of five commercial breaks from an episode, I’m forced to scan through each one, looking for marketing crap. In addition to the brief images that flash by while I’m scanning, I inevitably see bits and pieces of the episode when setting the in- and out- points. Even though I usually mute the sound while I work, it’s hard not to pick up clues about each episode from the 30-40 still images that pop up in front of my retinas. Sometimes, I wish I could shut off my brain.

It’s not too terrible. Rarely does a single frame of video convey enough to spoil a plot element; it’s not even in the same league as when someone has told me all about an episode before I watch it. Still, I can’t help but be taken out of the enjoyment of the story every time I see a previously-seen image. It’s like my brain has to tell me, “Hey! Now you know why that spaceship crashed!” It takes me out of the story, if only for a brief moment, and ruins the suspension of disbelief.

But I have to keep editing – the alternative would be 30 DVDs, permanently burned, with corporate American distractions left intact. So I as sit at my computer, hours on end, editing out commercials and playing FreeCell (during those 5-minute re-encodes), I think about spoilers.

Why do some people read the last page of a mystery novel first? Why would one ever want to read an internet-leaked Hollywood script before the movie is released? Why in the world are studio marketing teams releasing movie trailers that reveal key plot points?

Okay, so I just saw The Island [more proof that this entry should have been posted months ago.] Yeah, I knew it wasn’t going to be a great movie, but it was sci-fi, and I was hoping for a new slant on an old story. Didn’t get one, but that didn’t ruin the movie. The trailer did.

There’s a good 30 minutes to an hour of set up in The Island that would have been fairly interesting had the trailer not already told me that “there is no island” and “you’re copies of people out here.” If you know these two things, there is little suspense left in the movie. Fortunately, Michael Bay is at the helm, so unsatisfying and unrealistic violence fills the void.

I probably wouldn’t have thought much of it – I wasn’t exactly expecting to be surprised by a Michael Bay movie – if not for a slew of other spoiler-trailers going all the way back to Terminator 2 (Clue: Act 1 is not suspenseful when you know Arnie is gonna be the good guy). Mr. and Mrs. Smith, that Jolie-Pitt movie, had the same problem (Clue: Act 1 doesn’t fool me with its infidelity misdirection because I already know that they’re both spies!) And even in the middle of all the trailers for The Island, another perfect example pops up – Red Eye (Clue: Hard to fall for Cillian Murphy’s charm when we already know, before the movie even begins, that he’s gonna hold Rachel McAdams hostage.)

On a similar note, you have trailers that only ruin key scenes. Take the trailers for The Forgotten and for the upcoming Jodie Foster movie, Flightplan. Both probably patted themselves on the back for not ruining an entire act, but in each there are key moments that ruin what would have been, I suspect, compelling, revelatory scenes. I’m thinking here of the “sky-yank” and “steamed window” scenes, respectively.

Look, I’m a cinema junkie. I don’t mind paying $20 for a movie that involves me in a story and whisks me away for a couple hours. The Matrix? Awesome. Sixth Sense? Great twist! Perfect examples of movies that could have been destroyed by trailers that give too much away. Why did I enjoy them so? Probably because, going in, I knew almost nothing about them.

I had seen trailers for The Matrix, but other than showing a handful of out-of-context bullet time effects, they revealed almost nothing about the characters, plot, or setting – just the enigmatic tagline: “Unfortunately, no one can be told what The Matrix is, you have to see it for yourself.” (Does there exist a more perfect marketing sentence?) I was suitably intrigued, and because it was sci-fi, I saw it close to opening weekend – before anyone had the chance to spoil it for me.

Same with Shyamalan’s Sixth Sense. I saw the trailer, but in it, they didn’t reveal very much at all. Truth be told, it may have suffered by not telling enough – After watching it, I had no desire to see the movie. Nevertheless, about two weeks after it came out, a friend decided to alleviate a boring afternoon by dragging me to it. Glad he did.

I know what you’re thinking. There’s a simple solution: STOP WATCHING TRAILERS. Yeah, I tried that with the second Matrix movie – skipped the viewing opportunity on Apple’s trailer site, changed the channel on TV every time it started to come on, and even plugged my ears and hummed through the trailer when it played at the movie theater. Did it work? Well, yeah. Except the movie sucked.

Even if I could avoid trailers (wish me luck), I wouldn’t want to. How else am I going to know which movies to spend my hard-earned money on? I suppose I could read reviews…but they often have an even higher chance of spoiling something. Movie posters, maybe. Just trot on down to the multiplex and browse selection of 24″ x 36″ artwork! Does anyone make viewing decisions based solely on those? I doubt it.

So, I’m stuck with trailers, but I think I can live with them. Too bad there are other areas of my life where spoilers ruin the fun.

Take World of Warcraft, for instance. I’m essentially paying $15 a month for a computer game that I haven’t played since May [Not true: I started up again in mid-August, but go with me here…] Why? Because I’m afraid of spoilers.

There was a time, not so long ago, where I spent every waking hour playing WoW. It’s an online game, epic in scope, with hours upon hours… upon days upon weeks of content to explore. It took me about three months to reach the “endgame” – the point at which I had seen perhaps 98% of the world and my character could advance no further without teaming up with other players.

I had yet to explore a handful of epic dungeons, though, and looked forward to seeing the best the game had to offer. Unfortunately, the remaining content was too difficult to tackle alone and my friends’ characters were lagging ten levels behind. I decided to put the game aside and wait for them to catch up. I looked forward to the day (and night and weekends) where we could all explore those dungeons together.

Unfortunately, it didn’t work out as I’d hoped. My friends didn’t catch up all at once, and when they, in turn, ran out of places to explore, they decided to continue on into those dungeons with other players. Now it feels like I’m the only one who hasn’t been in them.

WoW has many repetitive elements – combat, cashing in treasures for money, and working the auction house. You wouldn’t be wrong to think that a couple hundred hours of that would get boring fast. My favorite aspect of the game was exploring new areas – the thrill of discovery! Grouping up with people who have already plumbed the depths of a dungeon doesn’t hold much appeal: “Go left; kill that guy; here’s the way you have to fight the boss monster; you’ll get a +3 sword of such&such when he’s dead.”


Those pesky friends. I don’t mind that they played on without me, but at the same time, I find it interesting that they way I avoid being led around by the nose… is by not playing any more.

And wouldn’t you know it? I spent months worrying that those same friends wouldn’t spoil things about Buffy the Vampire Slayer!

Okay, now, let’s tie it all back to the commercial-free TV theme I gave you in the intro. Ready? Here we go.

When TV shows first began being released on DVD, it rapidly became the preferred method of television consumption for my core group of friends. Pristine quality, no commercials, and whole seasons worth soap-operatic cliff-hangers could be enjoyed in a matter of days. Buffy the Vampire Slayer was the first set to go around.

At first, I couldn’t get into Buffy. I took Season 1 on vacation with me and got almost all the way through it before it hooked me (with the ventriloquist episode). After that, I couldn’t wait to see more and couldn’t bear the thought of upcoming episodes being spoiled. Buffy, you see, has the potential to be ruined like no other TV show. There are more cliff-hanger endings, main character deaths, and “big events” than any other show I can think of… and yes, that includes the X-Files.

Problem is, that the Buffy DVDs (and Angel, and Firefly, and Stargate, and Battlestar Galactica, and Lost, and…) were passed around among all my friends and everyone was dying to talk about them. It was often difficult, if not impossible, to remember where in the story arc individual people were, and it only took a couple accidental spoiler revelations to make us swear off talking about them altogether… at least when there were more than a few of us in attendance.

That was frustrating, too, because not everyone shared my sensibilities about spoilers. I cringe when I hear something like, “It’s okay, this won’t spoil anything…” because whatever comes next inevitably does. True, what they’re about to tell me may not reveal a key plot element or give away the ending of a movie, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a spoiler. Describing anything in a movie (or a TV show or a game) will prevent me from getting the full enjoyment out that particular scene because, when I eventually do watch it, I’ll be transported right back to the “This won’t spoil anything…” moment as I think, “Oh, so, that’s what she was talking about!” In a way, any comment will taint a scene, and prevent me from making my own judgment about it, good or bad. That’s just not fair.

I told you I had been thinking a lot about spoilers lately.