‘Collateral Beauty’ and ‘Passengers’ Have Spoiled the Concept of Spoilers

[Editor’s Note: The following editorial does not spoil Collateral Beauty or Passengers, but you may have been tricked into thinking that it does.]

What do you do when it’s your job to sell audiences a movie with a premise so fundamentally flawed, so weird or so damned skeevy, that it seems like no one in their right mind would want to see it?

I’m sympathetic to movie marketers, I really am. In this crowded marketplace filled with easily-distracted audiences, who seem far more eager to flock to familiar franchises than give something new and unusual a chance, it’s hard enough to promote a GOOD movie. And when a movie is bad I can only imagine that it feels damn near impossible.

So I can appreciate that when a movie is bad from the outset, because the fundamental idea is “iffy” or outright terrible, they might be tempted to do something tricky. That’s certainly what the folks behind the marketing of the big holiday releases Collateral Beauty and Passengers have done. Not only have they hidden what their movies are actually about from the movie-going public, but they have also made it socially unacceptable to reveal those premises at all. They turned the premises for these movies into “spoilers,” and nobody likes spoilers, now do they?

Warner Bros.

Warner Bros.

Also: A Year of Empathy | The 16 Best Movies of 2016

But here’s the thing, a “spoiler” is a piece of information that completely ruins the movie. It’s not supposed to refer to basic information about the film, the information that you deserve to know before you decide if you want to spend your hard-earned money on it. If I told you that Passengers starred Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence, would you really tell me to stop with all the spoilers?

Exactly. That would be ridiculous. And having a basic, general understanding of what the movie is about shouldn’t be considered a spoiler either. We’re talking first act information here, the selling point of the movie, the reason it was made in the first place and the fundamental reason why the filmmakers thought people might be interested.

Here’s an example: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is about the rebels who stole the Death Star plans. That’s not a spoiler, that’s the reason to see the film.

Rogue One A Star Wars Story Death Star

Now imagine that you were sold on the idea that Rogue One: A Star Wars Story was about the rebels who stole the Death Star plans. Sounds cool, right? You’d probably want to see that. So you pay an exorbitant amount of money on theatrical tickets to see rebels steal the Death Star plans, and you sit down in a theater, only to discover that that’s not what the movie is really about. It’s in there somewhere but it’s more of a subplot, and the majority of the film is focused on something else that you didn’t care about at all.

You’d feel like you were screwed over, and you’d be right. But if you try to warn people, as many of us have tried to do with Collateral Beauty and Passengers, you’d be accused of spoiling the film. Even though the opposite is true: by failing to inform the audience of what they’re really getting, it’s the marketing that’s actually “spoiling” these movies more than anybody.

Let’s take a look at what the trailers are selling, and how they differ from what audiences actually get, shall we?

Collateral Beauty is being sold as a film about a grieving Will Smith, who has been writing letters to Death, Time and Love as an unusual form of therapy. But surprise! Death, Time and Love show up as helpful, personified deities to help him get over the death of his daughter. It looks maudlin, certainly, and definitely strange, but it also looks like just the kind of sappy, sentimental movie that some people love to watch at Christmastime.

But that’s not what Collateral Beauty is about. Collateral Beauty is about three business partners played by Edward Norton, Kate Winslet and Michael Peña who hire actors to impersonate Death, Time and Love in order to trick their other business partner, played by Will Smith (who gets a LOT less screen time than you’d think), into appearing insane so they can take control of his company and sell it.

Yeah. The movie doesn’t even treat that as a twist, either. That’s all established in the first act of the movie. It’s not a spoiler. If anything spoils the movie, it’s not knowing until it’s too late that you’ve paid good money to watch something misguided and creepy.

Now, let’s take a look at Passengers.

Passengers is being sold as a high-concept sci-fi romantic thriller, about two people played by Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence who wake up simultaneously in the middle of a century-long space voyage. They have the ship all to themselves, they fall in love, but then something goes haywire, they have to team up to survive, and eventually they discover the “real” reason why they woke up in the first place.

But that’s not what Passengers is about either. Passengers is about a guy who wakes up in the middle of a space voyage and spends a year all by himself until he decides that one of the other passengers, who is still asleep in her cryogenic pod, is really hot. So he reads her social media profile and decides that they are totally soulmates, then he sabotages her pod so she’ll have to spend decades alone with him, in the hopes that she’ll fall in love with him too.

That’s also not a twist. That is also established in the first act of the movie. So it’s also not a spoiler. It’s just what the movie is about, from beginning to end, and audiences have a right to know what they’re getting into before they spend good money to see the very different movie that’s being marketed instead, a movie that the filmmakers had absolutely no interest in actually giving them.

Warner Bros.

Warner Bros.

Perhaps if Collateral Beauty and Passengers were better films this would be more forgivable, but if they really were better films there would be no need to trick audiences into thinking the set-up was more palatable. Collateral Beauty and Passengers play as though the filmmakers were thoroughly convinced that their plots weren’t creepy. Collateral Beauty aims at emotional catharsis and airballs it, and Passengers tries to make us believe in a love story between two people, even though one of them has been effectively kidnapped and – if you look at the big picture, at any rate – more-or-less murdered by the other.

And sure, you’re even allowed to like or love these movies if you decide that that’s your bag, but didn’t you and everyone else in the theater have the right to decide for yourselves if they’re what you wanted to see in the first place?

Sony Pictures

Sony Pictures

This goes beyond misleading advertising. We have to take a serious look at the media culture we’re creating for ourselves, in which revealing any damned thing about any damned movie or television show is considered a “spoiler.” Again, look at the word itself. A “spoiler” is supposed to refer to information that would “spoil” the movie or show. If I revealed the twist ending behind [insert movie with a famous twist ending here], that would spoil it. That would ruin a big reveal that the filmmakers wanted to keep from you.

But if we start treating the basic premise of a movie as a spoiler, we’ve gone too far in the opposite direction. If anything is “spoiling” Collateral Beauty or Passengers, it’s knowing too little about them. Because what spoils a movie more: having a general idea of what happens in the first 20-30 minutes, or thinking the movie is something it’s not, getting to the theater and paying to see that other thing, only to find out that you’ve been manipulated into buying something you didn’t even want?

Nobody likes spoilers, but when we warp the idea of “not ruining a movie” into a brand new way to ruin a movie, we’ve obviously spoiled them.

Top Photos: Warner Bros. / Sony Pictures

William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon, and watch him on the weekly YouTube series Most CravedRapid Reviews and What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.