In doing a quick bit of research for this article, I came across an article from none other than our own publisher, Neil Miller. Now, I didn’t bother to read the entire article, because I got what I needed and wouldn’t want to be swayed by facts or reason or anything, but his opening felt perfect for this topic, so I’m going to use it here:
“Expectations are a funny thing. For a critic, they are the worst thing to have. Going into a film with any kind of expectations, good or bad, can color one’s ultimate perception of a film and sway a review one way or another.”
I hope that now Neil feels good knowing that I think he has a really good point there, because in a minute, I’m going to use him as an example of what the fuck is wrong with this world. His point is relevant though, because expectations definitely influence how we view movies. If you go into a movie with super high expectations, you may feel let down. If you go in with low expectations, you can be pleasantly surprised. The best thing to do would be to go in with no expectations and just feel the movie slip inside you, deep and raw.
But the modern world doesn’t allow this. Everyone is vying for the top spot when it comes to the final word on a film. To be noticed, we shout out the following words: amazing, funniest, greatest, best, of all time, tremendous, terrific, terrifying, scariest, and so on and so forth.
Hyperbole is killing the critical community and the way we all see movies.
It has become very difficult to just watch a movie without expecting something of it. We are constantly bombarded by advertising. There are trailers upon trailers upon posters upon viral campaigns. Films are screened early for select press, press, foreign press, and film festival goers.
Let me clue you in on what “select press” means – it means the studio handpicks people who have a habit of either being super friendly to that studio, or of generating hyperbolic quotes that look good on a poster or in a campaign. No movie was ever sold with the tag “It’s pretty good.” No, “The Best of All Time” puts asses in seats, but it also puts expectations sky high.
I recently got see The Raid: Redemption about 40 hours early. I was as far from “select press” as it gets and was basically shown the film because at this point so many positive things have been said about it that even if I left the screening room claiming it raped me and forced me to have an abortion, you wouldn’t care. You’re seeing The Raid. Why? Because the internet has told you. They want your attention, more than that, they want attention.
A few of the things said about The Raid so far:
- The Raid: Redemption is a milestone for action cinema. – Neil Miller, Film School Rejects
- …a bone crunching, visceral experience. – Drew McWeeny, HitFix
- The Best Action Film in Decades. – TwitchFilm
- A slam-bang, knock-your-socks-off action bonanza with some of the most peerlessly shot, performed and choreographed fight sequences you’re likely to see on screen. – Gary Goldstein, Los Angeles Times
So what did I think about The Raid? Well, I thought it was pretty good, but I was actually disappointed in it. Why? Because I was expecting the greatest action film of all time. That’s what I had heard about it. My expectations were sky high. There was no way any film was going to live up to the hype. I really wanted The Raid to live up to the hype. I wanted to come out of it and say something snazzy like “There’s a lot of hype surrounding The Raid, WHICH IT TOTALLY MOTHER FUCKING EXCEEDS.” Put that on your DVD case and credit me!
The thing is, The Raid is a good movie. It is a bone crunching and visceral experience. It might knock-your-socks off. The problem is, when everyone writes like this, we get over-saturated. Our opinion is muddled. Our expectations get too high. Too many people are writing too many single-dose bite-sized reviews to capture the attention of the masses. Regardless of this, The Raid is enjoyable, but far from perfect. At 1 hour 40minutes, it’s easily 10 minutes too long, features almost no plot, no characterization, and the action scenes are repetitive after awhile. It’s kind of like a live-action Transformers with cops and robbers instead of robots. The positives and negatives of both movies are roughly the same.
It shouldn’t surprise you that we in the online writing world are not millionaires. We’re not hundred-thousandaires. Many of us work at least two jobs, or write at several publications, and even then there are a good bunch of us who are nine-hundred bucks in the bank account-aires. So why do we write? When we start, it may be because we love movies, but once you get a little taste of fame, you start to change. You see quotes on billboards. Names of people you know. You want that. You want all the people in the world to see the words you write.
Pen a great article and you may still end up with 500 readers. Maybe you strike a nerve and get 10,000. Maybe you hit paydirt and generate something with a million readers. It feels so good, but you get your name on a commercial that plays during South Park, how many people just saw that? How many people see the billboards, commercials, and posters? We congratulate each other on being quoted on stuff.
Let’s be honest for a second – it’s not that we got quoted because our writing was outstanding. That’s clearly not the case since they just post between one and ten words of it. We get quoted because we create words that sell movies. Sometimes, our excitement gets the better of it and we just wordgasm all over our keyboards. Fred Topel at CraveOnline wrote of Apollo 18: This film will shock you to your core. You won’t believe that a found footage movie can be just as exciting as a sci-fi classic. The last ten minutes are the most exciting of any summer movie, and without motion capture effects.
The first sentence of that appeared on the box-art, which is a big deal in the quote world. Apollo 18 has 5 out of 10 stars on IMDb. Sometimes we’re alone in our excitement. I fucking loved The Losers, which has a 6 out of 10 on IMDb and was panned by most of my colleagues. Yet I wordgushed it was the perfect mix of laughs and action and the studio put that on a TV commercial. I still get made fun of that by my friends to this day, some of whom couldn’t even make it through the entire movie. But I fucking loved it.
Now, I’m taking the time to stress that sometimes, a lot of the times, we critics really do love the movies we’re talking about. Getting quoted is a bonus. But studios do ask for quotes and we, sometimes, write purposefully to attract studio attention. I am more than happy to plead guilty to saying something like Finally Friday the 13th is frightening again! in my review of the Platinum Dunes remake, because how awesome would it have been to be quoted on a movie from the franchise I’ve loved growing up? I also got quoted on some online ad for The Change-Up calling it the funniest film of the year. No exclamation point. In my defense, I think it was February and I hadn’t seen anything funny yet.
I bring this up because I’m not pointing a finger at anyone who wrote an example I’ve used above. In fact, I’ve used examples mostly from people I know, like, or trust. This isn’t about quote whores like Harry Knowles, Pete Hammond, Jeffrey Lyons, Shawn Edwards, or Paul Fischer, people who will call just about every turd they see a “masterpiece” and often find themselves on posters, billboards, and trailers.
Hyperbole goes both ways. People will seize upon bad movies and call them “the worst.” I was recently on a podcast with Fatguy at the Movie Kevin Carr, where he and I finished talking about all the hyperbole in movie reviews, which he immediately followed up by saying Project X was literally the worst film he ever saw.
Listen, until you’ve seen Night of the Leben Tod or Terror Toons you haven’t seen the worst film ever.
If it made it into theaters, it probably can’t possibly come close to being called the worst film ever. But those are attention getting. Sure, we don’t get put on the DVD cover art for calling a film a massive, stinking, pile of excrement, but we attract readers with flashy headlines and black or white stances films. It’s either great or it’s shit. It’s the best or the worst. It’s the scariest or the fucking stupidest.
V/H/S, the upcoming horror anthology, when it first filmed, was widely called the “scariest” or best and was said to be this, that, and the other thing. I held my breath and waited for more people to see it, and sure enough, things eventually leveled out. But the first words when people ran out of the theater need to be THE BEST or IT STINKS to get the most attention. No one really wants to read a review that screams It was pretty good for the most part or I didn’t like it much because it was slow in the middle!
Words like best, greatest, scariest and their ilk are powerful. They are meant to denote the absolute. The top. Not even the top 1%. They basically represent the top 0%, because there is nothing better when you use words like this.
We need to back away from hyperbole, from black and white, and accept the gray. Not all movies are perfect, in fact, the vast majority are not. There is nothing wrong with being good. Being good is the same as being cute. Being cute is not being beautiful, sexy, or stunning, but I’m more than happy to spend an evening with a cute girl. I’ll even take her home to mom, sometimes.
I would have enjoyed The Raid: Redemption a lot more if I had gone in with normalized expectations. Seeing and getting excited for trailers is normal. Hearing positive reviews is normal. Hearing a variety of views is normal. Expecting things from a great director is normal. All of these things can heighten our expectations to naturally high levels. That is normal.
What is not normal is the poetic and hyperbolic license that has become the norm in movie reviewing. Every month there is a new best or scariest. Either filmmaking is rapidly growing and become better and better with every movie released, or something has gone wrong in the world of review.
Personally, I’m backing off of trailers and reviews of movies I want to see. I no longer want to go in with heightened expectations. I want to go watch a movie, not judge a movie to see if it lives up to the hype. If, after a few weeks of release, the positivity is still there, then we know the movie is something special. However, as it will likely fade and normalize to an average review, we’ll know there was unnecessary, attention grabbing hype around it.
So to anyone who has ever read one of the few examples of my writing, which I pointed out above, where I let a desire for a quote drive my writing to excess, I apologize. I readily admit to on at least the Friday the 13th occasion that I went hunting for the quote. I don’t normally. Sometimes it happens, most often it doesn’t. When a film gets us excited, we should use a lot of great words to describe it – but we need to be sure those words are measured and true.
Often it’s necessary to take a minute and relax. Let the movie gestate. Think on it a bit more before you instantize your reaction to the internet. Words have power. We’re abusing that power. We’re pounding average films into the ground on one hand, calling them utter shit, while elevating different average-to-good films to paragon status. Let’s take a chill pill. Every time I go to see the next greatest and get disappointed, I go past my boiling point because, in general, someone stretched the truth and magnified their opinion, be it for quotes, recognition, or just to play the game. I’m okay with average. I’m okay with good. Things should be as they are. Let’s cut out the hyperbolic nonsense, people.