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.

Mark Kermode at the BFI Southbank

Mark Kermode Live in 3D at the BFI Southbank is a brilliantly entertaining evening for film buffs and Kermode enthusiasts everywhere, although the uninitiated may find themselves lost.

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It’s no secret that I’m a fan of the film critic Mark Kermode. Indeed, the influence of his books and radio podcasts are at least minimally responsible for the blog you’re reading today. Despite this mild obsession, however, I had only managed to glimpse Kermode in person once before, during a chance encounter outside a barbers in Falmouth. When given the chance to see the great man, and his quiff, live on stage, I seized the opportunity without hesitation.

Roughly once a month, Kermode hosts an evening in the BFI Southbank, taking up the largest screen in the complex for an hour and a half discussion of all things cinema.  Mark Kermode Live in 3D at the BFI Southbank, as it’s formally known, is a loosely structured romp through the past and present of the film industry, including Q&A, video clips, special guests, and music.

As I assumed my seat seats, an air of enthusiasm was immediately evident. The room seemed to be a haven for the dedicated mass of film fans who had assembled, eager to hear their oracle speak. As one of the few first timers in the audience, I felt almost as an outsider within a peculiar cult. The show began with a few questions Kermode had specifically selected from Twitter, ranging over a broad spectrum of topics, from Powell & Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death to William Peter Blatty’s Exorcist III. It was a marvel to see the UK’s finest film critic in full flow, his trademark energy and passion pouring onto the stage and traversing an eclectic range of topics.

The first guest of the night was Hadley Freeman, Guardian columnist and eighties film aficionado. The pair discussed the recent Ghostbusters remake in mostly damning terms, contrasting it unfavourably with the 1984 original. They were quick to assert that the all-female reboot was by no means a failure, more an exercise in mediocrity, but their conversation nevertheless cooled my own expectations for the film.

Having had little idea of how the night would play out, I was delighted when Kermode welcomed the second guest, composer David Arnold, onto the stage. Arnold has provided the scores for five James Bond films, among a number of other projects, and I am unashamed to admit that his music has accompanied some of the most formative moments of my life. Arnold provided an animated presence, as his anecdotes often broke into wandering tangents and humorous asides. He was ostensibly on stage to make a defence of the 1985 “comedy” Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, an understandably guilty pleasure, but Arnold appeared most enthused when discussing the thought processes behind his work on the Bond films. Indeed, the highlight of the evening came as the composer took to a piano for a rendition of the song “Only Myself to Blame”, originally sung by Scott Walker on the soundtrack album for The World is Not Enough.

With the evening having flown by, it all came to an end following another round of audience questions. The show, admittedly, was not for everyone. The vast majority of the audience appeared to be seasoned regulars, and a certain level of specialist knowledge was required to stay on top of the discussion. More casual film fans may find themselves lost in a morass of Kermodian obscurity and inside jokes. For the well initiated, however, Mark Kermode will return with another show in September, and a ticket comes highly recommended. It was a joy to witness Kermode’s laidback charisma and somewhat terrifying knowledge of film trivia in the flesh, supported by a pair of interesting and eloquent guests. The rest of the world might be going to hell, but at least some respite may still be found within the world of cinema.

Ben-Hur: A Remake Too Far?

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Who wore it better? Jack Huston (left) and Charlton Heston (right) as Judah Ben-Hur.

Remakes are not a new phenomenon. Ben-Hur, William Wyler’s iconic biblical epic from 1959, was itself a remake of a 1925 silent film by Fred Niblo, which was a remake of an earlier adaptation from 1907 by Canadian Director Sindey Olcott. Even before the first Ben-Hur picture, Lew Wallace’s 1880 book, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, had previously been adapted into a successful play, and probably a Hugh Jackman musical. The decades since have taught us that remakes are an inevitable fact of life, sometimes good, sometimes bad, but at least the films we love will be there forever. Despite all this, watching the first trailer for this year’s Ben-Hur felt very different, almost like a personal insult. I was compelled to run through the streets, possibly naked, and wail manically on the horrors of CGI and inappropriate casting decisions. More than anything, I was shocked. Shocked that of all the films in the world, they’d done this to Ben-Hur.

Beloved classics have been remade in the past, and it’s a practice that remains as common as ever. Recent years have brought Robocop, Point Break, Total Recall, Carrie, True Grit, Evil Dead, Oldboy…it goes on and on. But Ben-Hur was a film that felt untouchable. After all, the 1959 version is widely considered among the greatest films of all time, one of only three features to win eleven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor. It’s akin to remaking The Godfather, or Gone with the Wind – films that have been cemented in annals of popular culture, parodied in everything from The Simpsons to Father Ted.

Of course, it’s naïve to assume that anything is sacred in Hollywood, especially if there’s some money to be made. But it’s also important to remember that remakes aren’t always a terrible thing. Many of them have become classics in their own right, even if they don’t replace the original. The Magnificent Seven, Scarface, The Gold Rush, Heat, The Thing, A Fistful of Dollars, and The Departed were all derived from older films. And some remakes might not necessarily be masterpieces, but they don’t have to soil the memory of the first time around; personally, I’ll always have a soft spot for Martin Scorsese’s Cape Fear (1991), despite De Niro’s occasionally confused southern inflections. Not every “reimaging” is quite as misjudged as Gus Van Sant’s 1998 re-tread of Psycho.

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Charlton Heston and Jack Hawkins in Ben-Hur (1959).

So what is it about Ben-Hur that offends me so deeply? The essential problem with remakes is that people often attach a lot of emotional baggage to films that they love, and it doesn’t feel nice when you see those memories being trampled on or replaced, particularly if the remake looks a bit naff. This goes to explain a lot of the vitriol directed towards the first trailer for the upcoming Ghostbusters “reboot”; it might not be rational, but cinema means an awful lot more to people than is often sensible.

Regardless of how you feel, remakes certainly aren’t the sort of thing that should be encouraged. When there are so many fresh stories to be told, it’s always disappointing to see the industry reverting to type and pushing out the same material we’ve seen before. However, putting aside my personal attachments, what is it that makes Ben-Hur so disheartening, if not inexcusable?

Fundamentally, it’s really difficult to find any reason to be interested. Directing the project is Timur Bekmambetov, the visionary behind Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (a truly awful film despite its postmodern pretentions) – whereas the 1959 Ben-Hur was helmed by the great William Wyler, a three-time Academy Award winner and the only director of three Best Picture winners, whose catalogue includes Wuthering Heights (1939), Roman Holiday (1953), and The Big Country (1958). The greatest affront to decency, however, is that the trailer appears to be comprised entirely of scenes and characters that were done better almost sixty years ago. I re-watched Ben-Hur (1959) recently as part of a degree module, and despite having seen the film before, I was genuinely taken aback by its spectacle and technical achievement. The famous chariot race remains as exciting and visceral as ever, while the CGI enthused sequence in the new trailer just brought out a tremendous sigh from deep within my soul.

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The nine-minute chariot race from Ben-Hur (1959).

Of course, it’s only a trailer, and there are several months to go until the final product is out – if the Earth was built in seven days, who knows what Bekmambetov can do in five months. But the entire thing simply appears devoid of any respect for what came before it, or any intention of forming its own identity, as if a child reproduced The Mona Lisa with a huge, toothy grin, and plastered it around the art galleries of the world. The most important question one should ask oneself before embarking on anything, particularly if you’re going to spend a lot of money, is why? Watching this trailer, I certainly can’t answer that.

Den of Geek recently published a comprehensive list of films due to receive remakes, and it makes for sobering reading. Whatever comes of these impending updates, whether it’s Ben-Hur, The Magnificent Seven, or even An American Werewolf in London, we may take comfort in the fact that the originals will remain exactly as they are, un-weathered by time and fate. So maybe it’s best to calm down and let the hacks and the money people do their thing; pretenders may come and go, but we’ll always have Ben-Hur.