What are film critics for?

This article was first published in Exeposé, Exeter University’s independent student newspaper. To find more of my work for Exeposé, click here.

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Like lambs to the slaughter.

Alex Proyas, the much maligned director of I, Robot and Gods of Egypt, recently called film critics “a pack of diseased vultures pecking at the bones of a dying carcass”. As part of a bizarre Facebook rant, Proyas said that critics “have no personal taste or opinion”, and would soon be going “the way of the dinosaur or the newspaper”. Popular film critic Mark Kermode, never one to take a beating lying down, responded that if he really was a “vulture”, then surely that made Proyas’ films as good as roadkill.

Although Proyas may hope to blame critics for the financial failure of his films, the reality is that professional movie criticism has very little impact on the box office. To take just one example, Michael Bay’s Transformers saga has received intense critical savaging with every new installment, yet the two most recent entries soared past the $1 billion mark at the global box office. A similar story is true of the various Pirates of the Caribbean sequels; universal derision within critical circles, but unadulterated hits among the film-going public.

This apparent paradox has felt more prescient recently, as a number of 2016’s biggest films received a notably poor reception in the press. The newest entries in the fledgling DC Universe, Batman V Superman and Suicide Squad, are both sitting on a decidedly “rotten” rating on the review aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes. Meanwhile, the two films have earned a comfortable profit during their theatrical runs, despite a quibbling notion of “under-performance”. As far as the money is concerned, these big-budget, glossy franchise installments are often too big to fail, regardless of what the critics have to say.

Big-budget, glossy franchise installments are often too big to fail, regardless of what the critics have to say.

Positive reviews have a similarly negligible impact on a film’s chances at the box office. Star Trek Beyond and the controversial Ghostbusters remake were both released this year to a surprisingly upbeat press response, but neither has really succeeded in earning its keep, thus bringing the future of both franchises into doubt. Of course, critical darlings often fail to reap millions – you’ll rarely see a blockbuster sweeping the awards ceremonies – but the authority of critics remains ineffectual even when their praise is focused on mainstream fare.

If the influence of critics is really so limited, then why do people appear to care so deeply about what they have to say? Part of this phenomenon is surely down to the growth of review aggregate websites. Pages like Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic attempt to condense often hundreds of reviews into some kind of binary compromise, usually a rating out of 100. While this is helpful if a film is genuinely loved or hated on a mass scale, it entirely fails to take diversity of criticism into account. By aggregating a broad range of opinions into a single figure, these websites rob film reviews of all their nuance, enforcing a consensus that may not actually exist. Many film buffs will no longer go to a single reviewer that they know and trust, but rather check if the assembled might of the world’s press have deemed a picture “rotten” or “fresh”.

The result is that far more weight is given to critical consensus than is really warranted. Narratives are quickly built around a film’s quality or popular reception, and these narratives don’t always reflect the lived reality of the cinema going public. Outside of the critical bubble, audiences remain as fickle and easily pleased as ever. The job of the critic is not to decide which films succeed and which do not, and the truth is that they rarely do.

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