Film Critics: What Are They Good For?
Critic reports have become a very divisive topic amongst film goers.
“Film criticism (like any other form of art criticism) is important because it helps inform filmgoers about any given film and whether it's worth their time. It also informs filmmakers as well, allowing them the opportunity to avoid the same pitfalls that plague bad films and put more emphasis on the elements that worked in previous films. This helps improve the quality of the industry overall, and leads to more diverse and interesting films being made.” - The Odyssey Online
Although the purpose of critics is quite obvious and makes a lot of sense, critic reports have become a very divisive topic amongst film goers. The fact I am critiquing criticism may seem somewhat alien, and a little ironic; however I think it is important to look at what is wrong, and what is right, with the critic industry.
Let us start with the obvious flaw to any critique: personal taste. The saying goes that there is no accounting for taste, and when it comes to film (or indeed any form of art) you couldn’t be more right. With the internet and social media bringing an avalanche of professional, semi-professional, and wannabe critics, it’s easy to find someone’s opinion on the latest release. Once you have read a review you cannot "unread" it and each review will affect our expectations and our viewing experience, no matter how much we tell ourselves it won’t.
You may have heard of the wine experiment—one bottle of mediocre wine was divided between two bottles. People were told that bottle one was bog standard store brand, whilst the second was from a French vineyard that produced only 1000 of the highest quality wines a year. Their brains were scanned whilst drinking, and the part of the brain associated with pleasure lit up more when tasting the second bottle. I repeat, they were both the same wine. The same applies to critiques—if you’re told a film will be bad, no matter what the reason, you will not be as interested or immersed as you would be without knowing anything. If you’re told it’s going to be amazing, you go in with higher expectations that may not be met, depending on your personal taste.
The majority of critiques available to us today are by hobbyists, people who critique films for fun or "internet points." This in itself is fine—the problem lies in the fact that people who read up on critics’ opinions before seeing a film often ignore the first fact—it is an opinion. This is also where review sites come in. Review sites such as Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes have a lot of "fan" or "hobbyist" involvement, to the point their ratings can be swayed by people who just want to troll and tank a film "because they can." An example of this is Captain Marvel. Despite not having been released at the time of this piece, Captain Marvel already has six pages of "reviews" on Rotten Tomatoes to gauge how many people are interested in the film. On the first page I saw two "interested" and eighteen "not interested" posts. The majority of "not interested" posts were about how they personally didn’t want to see a female actress who didn’t care about the opinions of "old white men." One of the posts made me laugh, as it said the following: “This weird random made up superhero looks like Homer Simpson. Not interested.”
This is the kind of insightful comment we can expect from review sites.
There is a tradition in my home where a couple of friends and I get together on a Sunday to watch truly awful horror films. Why would we subject ourselves to this? Because every film has its merits. Well, almost every film. Which brings us to our next point: balance.
Even professional critics these days seem to lack balance in their reviews. We see things in black and white—the film is either good, or it sucks. Yet, after the film is released and fades from the cinemas, we seem a little more open to talking about the grey areas. We make up our minds so quickly in that first viewing, as though there is some external pressure to have a rock solid opinion on what we’ve only just seen. That, however, is a topic I’ll be exploring another time. For now, I want to introduce to you what I believe to be the six most important factors when writing a balanced critique.
1) Accept that "there is no accounting for taste."
You can have your personal opinions—how else are you going to write a critique? When you do, however, make sure you state it as an opinion—not a fact. Be aware that there are people who will enjoy the film, and there are those that will not. That’s ok. It’s not your job to account for everyone; it’s your job to let them know what you think the film did well, and what it didn’t.
2) Try to see what the filmmakers were going for.
I’ve lost count of the number of bad films I’ve watched where I could see what the filmmakers wanted to do, but there were one or two elements that prevented it from working. Maybe it was bad writing, maybe bad acting, or maybe they knew what they wanted right up until the end then it all went to shit. You’re allowed to appreciate the motive behind the film and not like the film itself, and vice versa. Maybe the filmmakers didn’t know what they were going for at all and that was what made it unbearable—take a moment to think about this.
3) A film can be stunning, even if it’s not good.
Comment on the visuals, not just the narrative. There are so many elements that go into making a film, it’s an injustice not to at least try and explore those different aspects.
4) Do your research.
DC, Marvel, Star Trek, Star Wars, there are many franchises out there that have a rich fan base. Film making isn’t always about the fan base, though, and filmmakers can be torn between trying to maintain a delicate balance between drawing in long-term fans and novices simultaneously, or throwing tradition out of the window. You don’t need to be a fan to enjoy, or hate, a film. That being said, a critique that appreciates and addresses the two different perceptions will go a long way. The same goes for films based on books; there will be areas that those who know the books will complain about, and areas they appreciate only because they have read the books.
5) Your word is not law.
You didn’t enjoy the film? Ok. Sorry you feel you wasted your time. You loved the film? Great, good for you. This does not give you the right to troll or hurl abuse at others. I wish we could make everyone follow this rule, from critics to the general public, but there will always be someone out for an argument. Don’t get drawn in, you’ve said your piece. The moment things get hostile, sign off. If you’re the one getting hostile, maybe don’t publish your critiques. This environment is not for you.
6) You don’t need to post straight away.
Everyone is always in such a hurry. I’ve seen people posting opinions on social media while they’re sat in the cinema watching the film! Just chill! You’re allowed to change your opinion, and you can live with not being the first to post a critique. Often the best critiques to read are the ones that have been written after a second viewing. If you don’t want to see the film a second time that is fair enough, but at least give it a day or two. The killer ending of the film may leave you thinking it was excellent—until you remember that you were bored for the first hour and a half. Perhaps you hated every moment, but upon reflection realise the film was good—if only the leading man hadn’t had that annoying accent. Give yourself time to breathe; it will make you a better critic.
So, film critics: what are they good for? Well, when done right a critic does do everything our opening quote described. Critiques can also have an effect on how long a film stays in the cinema for, and public opinion can now cause films to be taken off awards lists. It seems strange that something so volatile could have such a big effect on the entertainment industry, but such is life. Critics have been wrong, people can be wrong, but each has an effect on the modern day filmmaker. If the first film in a franchise tanks, no one will want to fund the franchise, so we won’t get to see if the plot gets better. A dark room gets filled with scripts that will never get to see the light of day, because suddenly anything that isn’t [latest fad genre] is getting compared to [latest fad genre] and getting panned because it isn’t [latest fad genre].
In conclusion, though the word of critics seems to have lost a lot of meaning, I doubt there will be a time when critiques don’t matter. What needs to change is how those critics write, and how the public interacts with them. We don’t need mob mentality; we need meaningful discussion that will let filmmakers know what it is we want to see, and how we want to be entertained. We need to help decent critics build their reputations, whilst letting the trolls sit in their darkness wishing they had made better use of their time. Without critics, filmmakers will only have box office numbers to determine whether or not their film was well received, and let’s face it, who has the money to go to the cinema anymore?