When was the last time you consulted critic reviews before deciding whether or not to watch a movie? It’s much more likely that you based your decision on whether your friends were going or, if they’ve already watched it, whether they liked it or not. In fact, if you’ve been on Twitter at all, you’ll likely have read hundreds of viewer reviews and live-Tweeted opinions long before you encounter a professional critique.
Social media, with its power to amplify the voice of an average user, has turned movie buffs and regular viewers into film critics. Film review sites like Rotten Tomatoes also encourage viewers to voice their opinions, featuring them right alongside professional critique. More exposure for viewer reviews can be a good thing — they can be more relatable considering that they were written by target audience members who may share the same tastes as their readers. And when readers increasingly find themselves agreeing more to “user” reviews, and — in comparison — disagreeing with those written by professional critics, it’s no wonder that the significance of film critique has been brought into question.
Drowned out and hidden behind a cacophony of voices, critics and their publishers — like many online businesses and publications — struggle to stay relevant and visible. With blockbusters like G.I. Joe making headlines for not having advance screenings for critics, one can argue that even the studios are starting to put more faith in the power of the viewers — and not the critics — to draw in the crowd.
Faced with a common problem experienced by many online businesses and publications, critics are forced to work too hard in an attempt to stay ahead of the avalanche of viewer coverage, resulting in reviews that fail to communicate their unique perspective and knowledge about a movie. It’s a critical failure since, critics — in their most traditional form — are a barometer for quality and, with a well-written comprehensive review, can be the voice that tips you towards a decision (whether you admit it or not!).
Losing an Important Voice
When professional critique is continually pushed to the background, we may also risk losing out on an important facet of discourse and culture. Some independent and “artsy” films that are potentially culturally enriching, but are more nuanced and conceptually complex than the average blockbuster, may need a critic’s analysis and interpretation to make them more accessible to a wider demographic of viewers.
Much like how a food critic will focus on the more technical qualities of a dish, like presentation, artistic concept, cooking technique, etc., a film critic will judge a film based on cinematic elements like setting, plot and screenplay, cinematography, special effects, directing, and editing instead of simply whether a movie was thrilling enough — unlike the general theater attendee, who tends to judge a movie based solely on entertainment value. Constructive criticism, in any field, is crucial for starting discussions and investigations into how to improve, so it’s reasonable to say that a critic’s ability to provide this type of in-depth criticism is paramount to helping filmmakers improve on their art and encourage others to pitch in as well.
Take Mulholland Drive for example, a cult mystery-drama by David Lynch that started as a failed TV pilot and the polar opposite of the franchised superhero movies of late. It has been rated as the best movie of the 21st century because of consistent rave reviews and discussion by professional critics and fans. Lynch’s movies are often touted to be unusual, crazy, and surreal. But it is because the film is so unconventional and artistically distinct, even its biggest fans continue to disagree on their differing interpretations, that marks the genius of the movie. It encourages discourse and attracts critics and viewers alike to join the conversation regardless of whether there is a “right” way to interpret the film.
So, in the spirit of Mulholland Drive’s push back into media spotlight, it may be a good time to remember that film is (or should be) more than entertainment; it is art deserving of our appreciation, analysis, and discussion.