I have this bad habit. And it goes like this.
A new movie is on its way to theaters. Usually it features something fantastical or science fictional that I dig. I end up obsessing over the trailer, reminding my friends of its release date, and generally just being a weirdo about it.
During this time I avoid all reviews. I try to resist watching the final trailer. I glance away from spoilery articles and news items.
Then I go see the movie.
Sometimes it’s a miss, but usually it’s a hit. I don’t waste that kind of attention or money on something that I wouldn’t really like. I’m 80-90% gonna like it.
But then the first trial comes.
I arrive home. Reach for my computer. And I begin reading the reviews.
It’s not so much that I like reviews. It’s that I like the movie and emotional high it gives me and I want to sort of build off and expand that experience. The only way I know how to do that is by reading more about it and trying to relive it all over again.
What I’m really after is movie commentary and analysis, like what I try to write here and what the blogs in my blogroll do. But sadly that quality of insight and reflection takes much longer to formulate an opinion on and tie together. So instead we get rapid fire criticism made up of knee-jerk reactions. And since reviews try not to spoil the plot, all they tell us is whether the reviewer liked the movie or not without really engaging in the actual story.
Without knowing how a movie unfolds or how it ends, how do you really engage with its themes and character arcs? You have to stay vague or risk giving away the movie.
But there’s a bigger problem.
Many reviewers seem to think they exist only to prove how much better than the movie they are. So they will do things like nitpick, point out plot holes, and ultimately dwell on the inevitable flaws that every movie has.
Now maybe I read movie reviews for weird reasons as outlined above but the thing that bothers me is something I’m going to call the rule of nice. It’s a simple rule that you and I use everyday. It goes like this: if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.
If there is nothing nice to say to your jerk of a co-worker, relative, what-have-you, you just hold your tongue. You don’t actually tell them what you are thinking.
When it comes to movies, essentially what the negative reviewer is saying by their nitpicky comments is that this movie sucks and they wish it didn’t exist. Ok maybe they don’t say that exactly, but they certainly aren’t showing much appreciation for an endeavor that took many many people lots of hard work over months and even years to bring to life.
I get that not every movie is a masterpiece but there is something pertinent about setting realistic expectations. I don’t know if movie reviewers have to see every movie because its their job or because they simply feel obligated to, but partially some of the wanton negativity toward movies can be alleviated by just not wasting their time viewing and then writing about movies they were predestined not to like.
For example, I did not want to see Transformers 3 but my wife made me. Instead of wasting even more time writing about how much I do not like it, I just try to forget the whole experience and hope the bad memories fade in time.
However there is another kind of case that is a little more valid: outright disappointment.
You go in expecting one thing and leave feeling that you’ve received something far inferior. This is a tougher situation because now you are frustrated that the movie did not live up to what it could have been. This is unjust, so it creates an internal need to repair that injustice somehow, usually by talking and writing about how and where it went wrong.
Here is where I believe there is the most important opportunity for movie reviews to Improve. Negativity can be sardonic, funny, or illuminating, but it can also reek of superiority and callousness. Actual people worked on this movie. Actual people tried hard to make it good for you to enjoy. Actual people wrote, produced, directed, acted, and performed the 10,000 other jobs needed to make this movie happen. So what do you do then?
Follow the rule of nice. Try to find something constructive to say. Not necessarily something positive, but something that others can learn take away from. If the movie had terrible wooden characters, compare and highlight similar characters who succeeded wildly in a parallel situation. If the movie had a stupid plot twist, expound on what makes the good plot twists work so well and the bad ones go off the rails.
Bad movies should be worthy of closer attention. It’s easy to sit back and enjoy a film you like without reflecting on what about it worked so well. But a bad film forces you think and understand what didn’t work for you. If you are going to review it, you had better go deeper than surface level problems like “too loud, too much CGI, too little characterization.”
You are countering sloppy film-making with sloppy reviewing. It does no one much good.
Enlighten me with your words and then even if I had a completely opposite experience of the movie, I will appreciate and learn from what you’ve said instead. Give the film some empathy and understanding and your review can benefit everyone and not just those that already agree with you.
I’m sick of mean spirited reviews because they are parasitic, taking what they can from movies and then moving on to the next film without even saying thank you. If you expose every flaw long enough, harp on every scene that falls short of your high standards, critique every film with a fine comb, eventually you’ll find that the only language you can speak is that of criticism and soon you’ll have nothing nice left to say at all.
With all that said, thank you internet. Thank you for your harsh unforgiving bitter movie reviews. Because if it weren’t for you, I would never have learned to write kind ones. You’re still worth learning from.