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.