Tuesday, July 5, 2011

On the Critical/Audience Divide and "Transformers 3"

It's that time again. "Transformers: Dark of the Moon," the third film in Michale Bay's "Transformers" series, has grossed over $180 million at the domestic box office since Tuesday,and another $200 million overseas. It now holds the highest July 4th weekend gross of all time, though it's not doing as well as "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen." The critics have been less kind. Over at Rottentomatoes, "Dark of the Moon" currently has 38% positive ratings, and Metascore givs it a 42. Some have taken this as further proof that the gap between critics and audiences is widening, and that critics are growing increasingly out of touch with what mainstream filmgoers want to see and are thus less becoming relevant. To which I reply, how many times have we had this argument? Why are we still having it?

The first time I heard the whole spiel about the audience/critic divide was twenty years ago, when it was lamented that the Best Picture nominees for the 1990 Oscars and the top five grossing films of the year only had one title in common: the supernatural romantic thriller "Ghost." The biggest moneymaker of that year? "Home Alone," which boasts a 43% Rotten Tomatoes score. Since the beginnings of commercial cinema, there have been movies that want nothing more than to be populist crowd-pleasers, and movies with loftier artistic goals aimed at a smaller, more discerning crowd. Sometimes when we get lucky, and somebody makes an "Inception" or a "District 9" that manages to be both, but usually, it's one or the other. Some people prefer one type, but there are plenty of people like me out there who have the ability to enjoy both "Miss Congeniality" and "Mulholland Drive" at the same time without tying ourselves into existential knots about the contradictions.

Now how do the critics play into all of this? Contrary to popular opinion, critics can and do evaluate a film based on different criteria, and most like Roger Ebert are perfectly competent at rating movies based on entertainment value or artistic value when appropriate. Nobody is going to hold a "Jackass" movie to the same standards as a new Paul Thomas Anderson or Michael Mann film. However, movie critics inevitably end up being associated with the more serious, more difficult films, because these are the ones they're in the best position to promote and champion. Without the benefit of a big marketing campaign behind them, smaller, off-the-beaten-path films often depend on good critical notices to gain traction with audiences. This summer, for instance, attention from critics helped Woody Allen's "Midnight in Paris" achieve his best showing at the box office in decades. Summer blockbusters, on the other hand, generally don't need the cheerleading. This isn't to say that it's pointless for critics to review the mainstream studio films. The value of an informed opinion will always matter to people who want to see good movies, or at least competent ones.

However, it's more difficult for critics to have an impact here than it used to be. The bigger, more expensive films that get made today are designed and marketed in such a way as to be "critic-proof." These are the summer and holiday blockbuster films aimed at the less discerning child and young adult audiences, who are more easily influenced by aggressive marketing, hype, and branding. Trailers and promotions do their best to sell viewers on new films by conforming to familiar, easy-to-identify formulas, be it a child-friendly CGI film, a raunchy comedy, or a shoot-em-up action film. They give away more of a film's story and content than ever, to the point where some outright spoil the film. When they don't, as in the case of "Super 8," executives get nervous because there's too much uncertainty left in the mind of a potential viewer - without enough information they might look at a movie review for a second opinion. The studios have fixed it so that quality of a film doesn't determine the opening numbers for a big summer picture anymore - the strength of its marketing does.

And since quality is what the critics are all about, in this arena they've become more and more marginalized. However, critics can still help to cut through the advertising messages, to tell us that "Rango" has a subversive, off-kilter streak, that older viewers might enjoy, or that it's safe to take a male significant-other to "Bridesmaids," or that "X-Men: First Class" is actually much better than the awful trailers would suggest. Looking beyond the reductive Rottentomatoes statistic that only 38% of critics gave "Transformers: Dark of the Moon" positive marks, it's apparent that most critics agree that this is easily the best film of the "Transformers" trilogy, and that the last hour contained very impressive action sequences. Failing marks were given based on the elements that audiences have come back from theaters complaining about - it was too long, the first hour was a bore, there wasn't enough of the Transformers characters, and Michael Bay is still... Michael Bay. But of course, audiences don't see all the movies that the critics have to, and are more forgiving of a film's flaws and more easily won over by cool pyrotechnics. And there was plenty of good mayhem in "Transformers: Dark of the Moon," much of it featured in the impressive trailers and television commercials for the movie.

Is there a critic/audience divide? Sure, but it's always been there. It's practically in the job description of a film critic to have higher standards, and so it's inevitable that their opinions aren't going to reflect popular tastes, especially when applied to films that are as far over on the pure, mindless, entertainment end of the movie spectrum as "Transformers: Dark of the Moon." And as for relevance, it's always been the case that critics matter more for some films than others. Those snubbing their noses at movie reviewers in July may have to change their tune when awards season comes around in December, when everyone will want the critics on their side.

Can we stop having this argument now?

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