Last night two of my colleagues went to see 300: Rise of an Empire. When they arrived in the office this morning, they immediately provided me with their own impromptu reviews: “It’s bad,” they said. “I mean, we knew it was going to be bad, but it’s really bad.” Indeed, you don’t have to work in movie news to make this prediction - critics have already provided a pretty similar, if more long-winded, analysis of the side-quel to Zack Snyder’s popular 300. However, despite this, [300: Rise of an Empire](movie:43660) has racked in $144,000,000 in only 6 days. Already outstripping its $110 million production budget.
And it’s not alone. The annals of Box Office Mojo are filled with poorly reviewed movies making major bank at the box office. Grown Ups 2 has a rating of 7% on Rotten Tomatoes, but still made $246,984,278 at the box office. The Last Airbender was reviewed to the score of 6% on RT, but still managed to empty wallets to the tune of $319,713,881. While Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, the worst reviewed movie of the franchise (20% on RT), is also the most lucrative domestically, making $402 million ($836 globally). What does this mean, if anything?
Well, it suggests that people are increasingly ignoring critics when informing their movie-going choices. This isn't terribly surprising. I read every single comment posted on my articles (even the ones insulting my mother) and I have certainly picked up on a wave of anti-critic sentiment. In the age of the internet and social media, why do you now need to refer to some tweedy, arthouse cinema-dwelling academic to tell you what movie you’d like? Furthermore, many of these reviewers appear in print media - a news source now primarily used to line kennels or make papier-mâché.
In many ways, this could be a good thing. Power to the people, and all that. The box office, like the rest of the free market, can be used as a barometer of what is ‘good’ and what is ‘bad’. Capitalist theory tells us if something is good, people will buy it. If something is bad, no one will and it’ll go out of business. Indeed author, Hari Kunzru, suggests viewers on the right of the political spectrum are even more disdainful of the ‘culturally elite’ critic, as it suggests “value may spring from something other than pure market forces.” However, movies are different, right? They’re an art-form and, ultimately, subjective to your personal tastes. Movies can certainly be branded ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in the public sphere - after all, what else are the Oscars for? But beyond that it’s really down to you. This point is clearly irrefutable.
However, I believe critics still play an important role in informing both the public and personal discourse surrounding movies. Only relying on sources which share your views or tastes might be time saving and provide immediate reward, but Ronan McDonald, author of The Death of the Critic, suggests it can have a toxic side effect both for you personally and for the industry as a whole:
The bloggers and reading groups often claim that they would rather get recommendations from someone they know, someone with similar tastes. One problem with this is that the public are relying on a reviewing system that confirms and assuages their prejudices rather than challenges them. An able and experienced critic, with sufficient authority, could once persuade readers to give unfamiliar work a second chance, to see things they did not see at first glance. In that respect, critics can be the harbingers of the new.
This is an important issue. Let me use a clumsy metaphor to illustrate. Imagine you and your friends only ate McDonalds, all the time. You might be loving it, you might be telling your friends how great McDonalds is, but critics can act to expand your horizons and perhaps make you rethink that choice. A good critic won’t just tell you McDonalds is bad, they’ll tell you why and how, they’ll provide context and perhaps more rewarding alternatives. Ultimately, its up to you, if you disagree and go back to eating McDonalds that's totally fine, but it’s important that there is a conversation with multiple viewpoints. They provide a culturally balanced diet.
Critics aren't just negative. They don’t exist purely to bash your favorite action movie. They also give smaller or foreign films, which do not have the financial clout to take on the blockbusters, the chance to shine. I only discovered my favorite movie, Children of Men, via a review and since then critics have thrown countless movies, which I otherwise wouldn't have heard of, in my direction. Films like Submarine, The Raid and Moon - the list is endless.
The internet also plays another important element. Whereas in days of yore a bad review could destroy a play, book or movie, nowadays it’s nothing but a minor inconvenience for studio heads. Critical reviews need to be sought out by the audience. You need to go to the New York Times, The Guardian or wherever and actually read a long, sometimes too long, review of someone else's opinion. What a hassle, right? But remove the critic, and there is only one group of people talking about movies in the mainstream public discourse - movie marketers. Obviously, these guys are only really concerned with taking the contents of your pockets, so they’re not exactly the best placed people to give you an unbiased opinion of the movie they’re trying to shill.
Fundamentally, this is what makes the critic standout. They are not beholden to anyone (well, except perhaps their own egos) and ultimately they are another important element in informing the consumer (that’s you) with choice about how you use your money. You don’t have to agree with them, but their demise should be mourned.
What do you think? Do you care about what critics have to say, or do you often read movie reviews? Drop me a message below.