Unspoiled territory

No,” rattled Darth Vader, the word squeezed between two sharp exhales of breath. “I am your father.”

The line signaled the climax that The Empire Strikes Back had been building to, perhaps the most shocking twist of the original Star Wars trilogy—that Luke Skywalker was, in fact, the son of the Sith Lord he intended to defeat.

I was 13, a latecomer to the beloved sci-fi series, and it was my first time watching the film. As one of my first forays into critically acclaimed cinema, I had high hopes for the experience I thought The Empire Strikes Back would give me. But when Darth Vader said those revealing words, my jaw didn’t go slack, I emitted no gasps, and my heart barely skipped a beat. It was more of an aha moment than anything else. The plot twist that shocked moviegoers in 1980 had little effect on me, primarily because of the ubiquity of pop-culture references and the growing prevalence of “spoiler culture.”

Years later, as I consider my reaction to that moment in The Empire Strikes Back—and “spoiler culture” at large—through a more mature lens, I am somewhat conflicted. It’s a divisive topic, causing rifts across timelines and comment threads. It seems nearly impossible to avoid spoilers and plot twists in the technological era, unless I can muster the strength to avoid reading my Twitter timeline and preferred arts publications whenever a much-anticipated film is released.

That, however, raises a question: Do spoilers inherently devalue a film? Lately, I’ve become less sure. The word itself—spoiler—indicates something rotten, ruined, or tainted; it implies that a film is unenjoyable because a facet of its plot is known to the viewer. The dilemma consequently is predicated on the idea that plot and storylines are the central driving forces behind movies, and that films don’t exist with greater detail and context.

I remember watching American Beauty for the first time. It begins with what is essentially a spoiler—the protagonist, a man named Lester Burnham, announces in the opening voiceover, “In less than a year I will be dead.” But the main character’s aforementioned death isn’t the most significant part of the film; it’s his journey to that point that matters, the beautiful visuals and asides that occur along the way. Excellent storytelling is not accomplished purely through climaxes or twists, and the brilliance of cinema occurs in its emotional provocation, its incisive direction and editing and scoring. If knowing the ending of a movie sours the entire movie-watching experience, it probably wasn’t that impressive a film in the first place.

Still, mainstream filmmaking has conditioned me to value narrative above all else, fostering the anti-spoiler madness that has turned social-media timelines into war zones. It’s why as a film critic I’ve become hyperaware of the plot details that I disclose within a review, limiting my talking points so that I can appeal to the broadest audience possible. The spoiler-avoidance tactics are understandable—a plot point or twist that genuinely blindsides you is delightful, a feeling that can truly only be experienced once. But perhaps the full-blown hysteria is unwarranted. While keeping storylines secret is ideal, it wasn’t the end of the world that I knew Darth Vader was Luke Skywalker’s father before I actually watched The Empire Strikes Back. I still found the film incredibly enjoyable. If anything, it proved that films are gratifying regardless of any plot-related knowledge I might possess beforehand. So I think I’ll return to Twitter unafraid of any spoilers I may meet. They might be inconsequential after all.

Wilder is a rising sophomore and the current managing editor for the Recess section of The Chronicle.

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