There's something that's been kicking around in my head a lot these recent months and I think that at some point in the last month, it finally hit critical mass. Between the reactions to a lot of summer movies and the release of Arrested Development on Netflix, I'm noticing a significant shift in how we as viewers react to entertainment.
Hype has long been a factor in shaping critical reaction. I'm sure everyone can point to an instance where they were so amped up for a film or TV show that they either convinced themselves to ignore its flaws - or were let down by it so much that they swung the opposite way and declared it the worst worst that ever worsted. (I'm sure The Phantom Menace provoked both reactions in somewhat equal measure.)
But now we seem to have gotten to the point where the hype isn't just fostering an inevitable backlash (i.e. "The new Arrested Developments suck because they're not what I wanted when I heard the show was returning!"), it's also setting up a mob mentality before people even see the film. We've gone from reaction to over-reaction to now pre-action. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy. Trekkers enraged at J.J. Abrams spend two years bitching how its going to suck, then spend $15 for a ticket just so they can have their prejudgment validated.
I haven't seen The Hangover III, nor have I seen After Earth. In fact I have no plans to do so because neither one of them looks like my kind of movie. At the very least, the trailers for each did such a poor job of selling me on the concepts that I'm not going to plunk down full price for tickets. Maybe I'll catch then via Netflix someday, but the point is that when my expectations are so low, I'm not eager to rush in and have them confirmed.
Even more notably, these days, when one reacts to a film, it has to be an extreme reaction. I feel like there's no room for nuance in reactions anymore. You either come out of a film proclaiming it "fucking awesome" or it's "an abortion," the "worst film ever," and justification to have its makers drawn and quartered. Maybe I'm overreacting and merely am noting those with the loudest voices, but this is certainly what it feels like.
There are a lot of movies I see where my reaction trends closer to a middle ground - not being perfect, but also not inspiring much hate either. These movies inspire apathy more than aggressiveness. It's something I'm aware of when I go to see a new film and walk out thinking, "I don't know if I have anything interesting to say about this on the blog. I liked/hated it, but that's about it." It's times like that when I'm glad I don't have Roger Ebert's old job because I imagine it's a lot harder to write an intelligent review when that film comes up short on inspiring passion.
After Earth is the latest example of this phenomenon. The film was saddled with bad buzz and a lot of ill will directed at Will Smith, Jaden Smith and especially M. Night Shyamalan. In his review, Drew McWeeny remarked on the fact that some people seemed to be gunning for this movie for reasons entirely independent of its merits.
"M. Night Shyamalan has entered the phase of his career where there is a certain amount of baggage that prevents a percentage of the audience (and the film press) from even remotely approaching a new film by him with an open mind. It's been fascinating to watch the fall from newly-annointed genius in 1999 to openly-reviled punchline in 2013...
"I see people piling on already, and I'm baffled.
Maybe it's the father-son act of Will and Jaden Smith that also has some people cracking their knuckles and sharpening their knives. Keep in mind, I'm not talking about people who have seen the film and didn't like it, but the ramp up over the last few weeks where I've seen people who have absolutely not seen the film railing on it anyway.
"I think "After Earth" is a modest pleasure, but our media landscape now demands that we either destroy a film in a review or we have to canonize it. Enjoying a film and having a complex reaction to its merits and its flaws is evidently no longer allowed."
I'll be the first to say that I don't always agree with Drew. In fact there's a wide gulf between our reactions sometimes. But he's not wrong, and for evidence of that, you need to go no further than the comment section where people who haven't seen the film accuse Drew of having been bought. Because, of course bribery is the only explanation for how one could give a B- to a film from this creative team.
It's one thing to take a reviewer to task if you've seen the work and you feel that he's made a grievous error in his reasoning. I'm sure you don't have to look too far to find a review where the writer clearly missed important details and that had an impact on their summation. But to attack someone because their experience didn't match your prejudgement? That seems insane. And I think it's worth considering this the next time you walk out of a film and are formulating your own reaction to it.
I want to cycle back and bring this around to the mission statement of this blog, it's worth remembering that if these sorts of pre-judgments have with completed films, you can bet that projects at the script stage will face it to some degree. Yes, that means it's possible that YOUR script might not get considered in the sort of hermetically-sealed vacuum that you would demand. People who evaluate scripts are professionals and they do their best, but that can't help if - for example - you've written a poker movie and it ends up being read at a company where 5 of the support staff had to be laid off after that company's poker film tanked.
Like I said, most of the pro scripts I read fall into the "not terrible, but not fantastic" category. For now, the ones that land at either extreme are still a minority percentage. But if you're contributing to a culture that can only stand to eviscerate a film or want to have its babies, you might consider how that lack of nuance could eventually infect all forms of critical conversation.