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.

audience.jpg
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.

Star Trek Beyond Review

Star Trek Beyond is a fun return to form for the crew of the Enterprise, capturing the old Trek spirit while boldly forging a path of its own. For long-term fans or otherwise, there’s plenty here to enjoy

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STAR TREK BEYOND
Copyright 2016 Paramount Studios.

Ever since its 2009 reboot, the Star Trek franchise has struggled to reconcile its roots with the expectations of a modern blockbuster. The original 1966 television series was, at its best, a fun and intelligent parable on the state of humanity, while the subsequent film series would combine this with a cinematic sense of spectacle. More recently, the efforts of JJ Abrams’ brought Star Trek kicking and screaming into the 21st century, but his two glossy undertakings left many fans feeling cold. Despite delivering on spectacle, Trek’s character-driven thoughtfulness was largely ejected in favour of a more contrived, Star Wars style adventure. Thankfully, with this year’s Beyond, director Justin Lin has produced a modern Star Trek worthy of the name.

Opening some time into the Enterprise’s five-year mission, Star Trek Beyond finds Captain James T Kirk (Chris Pine) caught in something of a rut. If the universe really is infinite, he ponders, then isn’t it futile to explore its vastness? Thus, we have our first sense that Beyond is treating its characters to some level of maturity and self-awareness, quite distinct from the stencilled caricatures found in the last two instalments. Indeed, it’s the characters and their enthusiastic interplay that provides the core of this film, dealing in equal parts humour and sentimentality that seldom feels overdone.

The script of Star Trek Beyond, co-penned by sci-fi aficionado Simon Pegg, is the first of the reboot entries to feel like bona-fide Star Trek. The colourful crew of the Enterprise find themselves trapped on a mysterious planet, at the behest of a vengeful villain, and must use all their wits to find a way home. It’s a premise that could just as easily have fit into a thirty-minute television slot, and this certainly helps to recapture a familiar Star Trek charm.

However, while playing homage to what has come before, Beyond is unafraid to blaze its own trail. The intensely derivative “fan-service” which plagued 2013’s Into Darkness thankfully takes a back seat, as Lin steers the franchise into fresh territory while retaining the spirit of the original form. Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto remain excellent as Captain Kirk and Mr Spock, both of whom are developed with newfound complexity, while the rest of the familiar cast are given plenty to do. Unfortunately, the multitudinous talents of Idris Elba feel wasted on the film’s villain, Krall, an adequate yet underdeveloped rogue.

STAR TREK BEYOND
Copyright 2016 Paramount Studios.

Action set-pieces are predictably spectacular, perhaps excessively so. The first act gives you little time to settle in before indulging in successive sequences of calamitous destruction, all of which are bracing and, at times, incoherent. The film’s pacing and narrative would likely have benefitted if one of these passages was deleted, and a little more time dedicated to those that remained.

Nevertheless, Beyond adopts a more confident stride as it slows down during the second act, allowing the characters and their predicament to come to the fore. Above all, there’s an overriding sense of fun to the proceedings, while still allowing time to reflect on weightier and more personal themes. The action and writing are never truly remarkable in their own right, but they nevertheless arrive as a part of a package that’s difficult not to appreciate.

If last year’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens was an enjoyable but risk-averse update to the Star Wars saga, then Star Trek Beyond similarly provides a satisfying interpretation of the Star Trek formula. It’s not quite among the best that Trek has to offer, nor does it particularly distinguish itself as a sci-fi adventure. What it is, however, is an exciting and worthwhile two hours that will reward fans and laymen alike.

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