Art and critique go hand-in-hand. As long as filmgoers have been making movies, there have also been critics (both novice and professional) that openly comment on what they see. Where the pioneers of film criticism were academic (André Bazin and Jean-Luc Godard), focused on technique, subtext, and publication in scholarly journals, the arrival of personality-driven movie journalists (Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert) opened reviewing up to a mainstream audience. Journos became arbiters of what movies to see (and which ones to avoid) in theaters.
The arrival of the Internet, and online movie outlets (Screen Rant included) paved the way for a wide variety of perspectives on film, as well as an equally expansive selection of movie genres (both new and old).
However, as mainstream action movies continue to break box office records – regardless of underwhelming reviews from critics, audiences have become increasingly skeptical of whether or not film journalists still represent the views and desires of mainstream moviegoers.
Given divisive response to many of our own reviews at Screen Rant, in addition to hot-headed backlash in the larger industry, we ask: Are Film Critics Right or Wrong About Movies?
In Defense of Movie Viewers (and Popcorn Films)
As suggested in the opening of this post, easily the biggest disconnect between movie reviewers and casual audiences boils down to a single question: What is the purpose of a movie? Where film academics (and aspiring film critics) might argue that films should have a long-lasting impact on an audience, unpacking social criticism through fictional characters; theater attendees, the ones who must choose whether or not a film is actually worth the cost of admission, can’t afford to be as philosophical. For some viewers, two hours of action-packed escapism is a more rewarding return on investment than a film that challenges viewers to reassess some aspect of the human condition.
As blockbuster film brands are becoming a staple of pop culture awareness, cost of ticket prices and concessions are increasing – dramatically. As a result, viewers have become selective about which films they’ll pay to see in theaters – meaning that more people are seeing a smaller batch of triple-A films (the ones that take advantage of big screen projection) and saving smaller movies for in-home streaming. Assuming that even open-minded cinephiles can only afford to see one or two films a month at the theater, it makes sense that they’ll pay to view the movies everyone is buzzing about – and save indie fare for Netflix.
For that reason, reviewers that criticize casual-friendly films while advocating for lesser-known indie fare, can appear out-of-touch with a majority of their audience – even when criticisms are valid – simply because they are not judging a movie based on the same criteria as ticket buyers.
It’s hard to definitively say whether or not film critics are wrong (more about that in the next section), but there’s no question that a lot of reviewers do not always consider the non-film school interests of normal viewers, specifically: who is the audience for a particular film and does the picture serve that audience? Very few Hollywood filmmakers working in the action genre are setting out to make Citizen Kane; instead, they’re looking to satisfy their fans with bigger, louder, and more inventive action set-pieces (for example) – all while, hopefully, including enough relatable drama to ensure viewers care about the characters just as much as the explosions.
Action movie king Michael Bay said as much when he defended Transformers: Age of Extinction from critics (and angry fans):
[Naysayers] love to hate, and I don’t care; let them hate. They’re still going to see the movie! I think it’s good to get a little tension. Very good.
Of course, it is possible to deliver competent drama with memorable action (example: The Raid) or comedy (Superbad) – but this doesn’t mean that moviegoers who enjoy brainless popcorn entertainment are wrong for liking, comparatively, mainstream movies. Just as healthy and unique eating options are available for diners, sometimes viewers just want Hollywood’s version of a greasy burger after a long day, rather than nutritious brainfood. It may be an argument over semantics as much as anything else. Casual audiences and critics could simply be stuck debating whether a film is “good” based on entirely different applications of “good” as a descriptor.
For action-junkies, a film like Transformers: Age of Extinction may sate a desire for explosive escapism and a worthy recommendation for like-minded moviegoers; yet, at the same time, there’s no denying that Michael Bay’s Transformers series has prioritized style and CGI, with clunky character development, disjointed editing, and precious little substance – making the films an easy target for critics who believe movies should endeavor to higher standards of filmic ambition (especially to warrant a positive review). Not to mention, the more critics heap on disapproval of a particular mainstream film, the less likely other reviewers are to step out and play devil’s advocate. This isn’t to say that all critics are part of a hive mind but there’s no doubt the collective opinions of other reviewers can sway individual critics.
After all, many beloved films of the last 50 years were attacked by respected critics at their time of release (The Shining, Fight Club, and Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas, to name a few), proving what everyone already knows about the medium and industry reviews: like most art forms, film appreciation is subjective and a reflection of the time, not a timeless stamp of quality. To that end, it’s safe to say that sometimes audiences recognize something in a film that the critical community, as a whole, may have overlooked or dismissed.
After all, while Ebert helped bring film criticism into popular culture – and make it accessible for casual filmgoers, he openly admitted that moviegoing is a subjective experience:
“In my reviews, I feel it’s good to make it clear that I’m not proposing objective truth, but subjective reactions; a review should reflect the immediate experience.”
It may take a few years to know which modern movies will reassert themselves after initially unflattering reviews; yet, over one-hundred years of Hollywood moviemaking has shown that, in many cases, there’s always going to be a significant disparity between critics and audiences.
It might not be the most obvious example but, in the years since its release in 1998, Blade has come to be considered an important stepping stone in Hollywood’s journey toward quality comic book adaptation – after receiving mixed reviews. Critics, at the time, dismissed the movie as “style over substance” but Blade‘s horror and superhero fanbase was never expecting a reinvention of the vampire genre. They saw an entertaining film that took comic book adaptation seriously. There are plenty of other examples, and our readers can add their own in the comments, but count It’s a Wonderful Life, The Mummy, Super Troopers, and Underworld, among films that were similarly dismissed by reviewers – only to wrack up solid box office profits, audience satisfaction, and/or cult status from dedicated fans.
That all said, just because it’s hard to fault viewers for enjoying films that critics panned doesn’t necessarily mean that reviewers were wrong either.
In Defense of Film Critics (and Criticism)
When movie fans want to dismiss a critic or review for disliking a mainstream film, it’s inevitable that someone will state: “Critics only like indie movies – and don’t represent normal moviegoers.” Without question, there are some reviewers that simply do not respond to anything outside the art house; yet, that is not true for the majority of professional critics.
The internet has provided a platform for film fans to take a stab at film criticism (either on their personal blogs or in the comment section of other reviewers) – paving the way for new industry personalities that, at some level, present a more accurate reflection of the mainstream audience. Yet, just because a film succeeds at being entertaining, doesn’t mean that movie isn’t a Frankenstein’s monster of good moments stitched together with subpar storytelling, awkward cinematography, and clumsy editing. The truth is, only some reviewers and film fans know the difference and there is a place, not to mention need, for critics who spent years studying filmmaking, writing, editing, and/or acting – voices that can analyze a film for technical proficiency, layered characters, and inventiveness, not just whether a movie lives up to the cost of a ticket.
These days, more than ever before, it’s hard to make educated decisions about a film ahead of release – since advertising regularly spoils key scenes and big twists, simply to woo as many ticket buyers as possible.
As with any creative industry, some critics have become mouthpieces for studio marketing departments – but it’s unfair to dismiss the entire review community as a whole. Long before the days of million dollar marketing budgets, Pauline Kael made the role of a movie critic clear:
“In the arts, the critic is the only independent source of information. The rest is advertising.”
It’s easy to be enthusiastic about a new release, especially after years of rumors, marketing, and buzz – but what separates a fun movie from the thousands of films that came before it? Age of Ultron might have been exciting to watch on the big screen but how does the Avengers sequel line-up to the ever-expanding library of must-see films? Answering that question isn’t easy, especially when readers can hold a single review over a critic’s head for years to come – as a measure of their integrity. Instead of relishing in diverse opinions, critics can be scorned for raising unpopular questions about popular films.
Casual moviegoers and die-hard cinephiles often preach from the extremities – slamming critics for being snobby idealists (too hard on a fun film) or for failing to uphold the integrity of cinema (giving a hollow but entertaining popcorn blockbuster a positive review) but Ebert (again) put the challenge of modern film criticism in perspective:
“The point is not to avoid all Stupid Movies, but to avoid being a Stupid Moviegoer. It’s a difficult task, separating the good Stupid Movies from the bad ones. It’s a difficult task, separating the good Stupid Movies from the bad ones, but if it saves you from seeing [bad stupid movies], it’s worth it.”
Whether moviegoers agree or disagree with Ebert, the reviewer tried to find a balance between advocating for high-quality indies and thrilling actions movies, alike – through studied knowledge of storytelling and filmmaking. Understandably, niche voices, who focus on specific film genres will approach criticism slightly differently, but for mainstream film critics that report at major publications, popular online outlets, radio and TV programs, podcasts, and YouTube channels, it’s a thin line between challenging audiences and becoming oblivious to interests of the average moviegoer.
The disconnect is further complicated by industry standard “ratings.” For decades publications used numerical (and alpha-numerical) scores to help readers easily quantify a reviewer’s written comments. Though, with review aggregates (like Rotten Tomatoes) and easily accessible online review archives, scoring is now used as a metric for comparative valuation in an entirely subjective medium – a medium that spans a wide variety of genres (each with entirely different goals). The result? Many moviegoers prioritize review scores over review content – meaning that a numerical mark becomes the main point of debate – dismissing valid film analysis in the process. As a result, the primary conversation has shifted to how a movie compares to other films, instead of genuine insight into quality of the film at hand.
This isn’t to say that audiences should take every review at face value, criticism of criticism comes with the job. Still, the role of a film critic is, as Kael suggested, to be an independent source of information – posing insight and questions for viewers to ponder (at least for those who actually want to think about a film rather than simply have a knee-jerk reaction corroborated). Certain critics might consider their reviews definitive but most are simply trying to provide informed perspective to help their audience, as Ebert put it, avoid being stupid moviegoers – even if they enjoy good stupid movies.
Conclusion: Find the Right Reviewers for You
Of course, there’s no definitive way to answer if film critics are right or wrong about movies – since film viewing is a subjective experience (for both the reviewer as well as the viewer).
Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean that movie critics are irrelevant artifacts of a bygone era. Instead, the responsibility is on filmgoers to seek out reviewers that best represent their personal tastes and perspective on movies. As mentioned earlier, the Internet (and subsequently review aggregates) has opened-up film criticism to an expansive range of viewpoints. Inevitably, looking over a critic’s past reviews should give potential readers/viewers a comprehensive glimpse into the opinions and platform of a particular critic. Some reviewers will be more informed than others but depending on what a film fan wants in a review (examples: an enjoyable read, alternate point of view, or likeminded recommendation), select critics will be a better fit than others.
It might sound like passing the buck, especially since Screen Rant (and this writer) posts reviews, but as the Internet has given rise to an ever-expanding range of perspectives, moviegoers have more reviews (and critics) to choose from. To that end, cinephiles also have more power than ever – they just need to make informed decisions about which critics they, personally, want to follow and which ones they’re better off ignoring.