As the release of a new Star Wars film drew near, I began mulling over how I could contribute to the conversation. With many choice topics already spoken for, I settled on the idea of revisiting a divisive chapter of Star Wars history. It had been long enough since its release and I conceded that a rewatch might bring out hidden virtues.
I wasn’t deep into my viewing before I deeply regretted this assignment. It was almost agonizing to subject myself to the witless dialogue on screen, the far-too-for-its-own-good editing, and a general sense of arrogance that permeated every frame. How anyone could watch this and defend it is beyond me.
In short, I hate Red Letter Media and its avatar “Harry S. Plinkett” with every bone in my body.
If there’s one Star Wars-related creative work I unabashedly loathe, it’s the infamous Red Letter Media “reviews” of the prequel trilogy. If you’ve never heard of these ‐ good. Stop reading now. Go on about your day. I guarantee you’ll find a better use of your time.
If “Red Letter Media” sounds familiar, but you can’t place it, here’s a refresher. They are the creators of video examinations of each of the three prequel films, with each review usually running between 70 minutes to an hour and a half. And if you think that sounds pedantic, man, the internet is so not the place for you.
Under duress, I’ll grant that the Phantom Menace review makes a few solid points in its dissection. The most effective involves demonstrating how the prequel characters are much less fleshed out than the original trilogy ones. This is shown when people are challenged to describe a prequel character without referring to their clothing or their occupation. Quickly we see that people find many more adjectives to describe Han Solo than, say, Queen Amadala. It’s a solid point that’s well-argued. Did the overall thesis need 70 minutes? Hell no.
Ultimately I think that Red Letter Media was more damaging to film criticism than the prequels were to filmmaking. I remember when the first videos came out and became something of a rallying cry for every fan who was let down by The Phantom Menace. In the world of the internet, it was elevated to “EPIC” because it happened to reinforce a point of view that many agreed with. I soon noticed a trend among people who embraced RLM most aggressively ‐ they always touted how long it was, in kind of a “ha ha… Episode I sucks so much it took over an hour to explain why” way, and they often opted to let RLM speak for their perspectives. The videos didn’t generate so much of a conversation as they did seemed to make people say, “I can’t debate why these movies suck, but if you watch these, THIS GUY will!”
Obviously, after becoming such a viral sensation, it’s a given the creators at Red Letter Media were going to ride the wave even further. Thus, a second series of videos dissecting Attack of the Clones followed, and these contained even worse excesses of the weaknesses of the first one. It’s agonizing to watch at times because it feels stuffed fuller than a dead Tauntaun in order to surpass the first reviews “epic” 70-minute length.
The videos on Attack of the Clones seem incapable of moving on after making a point. It feels like over a half-hour is spent just nitpicking the issues with the assassination plot against Padme. (In actuality, it’s about ten minutes, but watching it, there’s a sense Plinkett can’t help pulping the pony with blow after blow.) While there are the expected ‐ and accurate ‐ attacks on the overall terribleness of the love story, nearly eight entire minutes of an 88-minute review are given over to the question “Why is Samuel L. Jackson in Star Wars?” It’s not really a relevant problem worth bringing up with regard to the film. It takes four minutes for this segment to finally come out and say that their assertion is that Jackson was miscast because he usually plays intense characters.
Then Plinkett wanders into dangerous territory by speculating on the artist’s motives. “Star Wars movies are nothing but carefully crafted products designed to appeal to as many people as possible,” he claims. This attack is often lobbied at George Lucas, but it doesn’t hold as much water as one thinks. If George was really that money-grubbing, he’d have released every version of the films ‐ Original and Special Edition on both bluray and DVD. He knows there’s a market out there that would gladly repurchase those films to get the theatrical cuts. Star Wars may have made Lucas a rich man, but that doesn’t mean every decision is driven by commerce. In fact, most decisions he’s made that have gone over badly with the fans have been artistic decisions.
Plinkett makes the allegation that Samuel L. Jackson was brought in to boost box office and appeal to a wider audience. “Jackson was cast not because he was good for the part, but because his name would bring in extra dollars and an audience that might not have come otherwise.” Consider for a minute that this conspiracy theory means that George Lucas was apparently concerned that Star Wars didn’t have enough brand recognition and the antidote for that was casting a character actor who a year before shooting, was a supporting actor in a dud called The Long Kiss Goodnight.
And yet, because it was stated by Plinkett with an air of authority, it gets accepted without question. I won’t pretend that knocking down some of Plinkett’s attacks means that Clones is a brilliant film, but I will add it to my thesis that it’s a shitty review. Often throughout the review, Plinkett attacks the film because it contracts his assumption of how the Star Wars universe worked, especially with regard to how young Jedi trained using floating remotes.
Then, while complaining that the lightsabers are overused in the prequels, Plinkett digresses into how he thinks that different races of Jedi should have different kinds of weapons customized to accommodate their varying sizes and physiologies. He thinks that Yoda is handicapped by having to use a scaled-down lightsaber. (Regarding Yoda’s saber fight “[Lucas] kinda seems like a retard who just wants to see neat things happen with his computer.” That’s a funny statement coming from the guy who just minutes earlier accused Lucas of artlessly making descisions based on audience appeal.) I grant that’s the sort of thing that geeks like to debate online, but it feels misplaced in the middle of a thesis about what’s wrong with the film.
A film is not bad if its sin is a failure to conform to your presumptions about the world in which it exists.
It eventually becomes clear that the RLM videos evolve to become less about understanding the fundamentals of good drama and filmmaking, and more about enumerating every last grievance with each film. They seem to subscribe to the school of thought that the longer a review is, the more “proof” that the target of that review sucks.
Perhaps what I hate the most about these reviews is that you can draw a straight line from RLM to those dreadful “Everything Wrong With…” videos that spend upwards of 18 minutes listing every “sin” in Terminator: Genysis or Tomorrowland. And again, the name of that game seems to be to find as many things “wrong” with those films as possible ‐ because the more things “wrong,” the more “proof” that this film is terrible.
Except that’s not how criticism works. You can nitpick every film and come up with a litany of “sins,” and that’s even if you’re just playing fair. Take a look at Citizen Kane, considered one of the all-time greats of cinema, a film studied by virtually every film student. There’s a big gaping hole at its core ‐ no one actually is in the room to hear Kane say “Rosebud” as he passes. The rest of the film works as drama, so this rather glaring lapse becomes easy to ignore.
The presence of flaws alone constitute a reasonable way to attack a film. How they play in context with the film is what makes the difference. The RLM and “Everything Wrong With…” reviews are frustrating because for any cogent point they make, there’s another point where you can feel them “putting their thumb on the scale.”
Consider the first few “sins” in their “Everything Wrong With Terminator: Genisys” (a film I considered one of this year’s worst.)
- From the Studio that brought you Transformers
- Jai Courtney Narration
- Also Jai Courtney
- The Golden Gate Bridge isn’t attacked by primates, supervillains or Godzillas in this scene.
- History ignored what happened in the other movies and settled on “August 29, 1997” as Judgment Day again
- Humanity’s no threat to the machines… Skynet… could have just used humans for cheap slave labor.
Over the next 18 minutes, the video complies 149 Sins. I’m aware they’d defend some of the sillier ones as being there for humor purposes, but that doesn’t make the entire exercise any less lame. That’s not a school of criticism I much enjoy. You can learn more from Roger Ebert film reviews that were a fraction of that word count of a Cinema Sins or RLM transcript.
So here’s my plea, hell, call it an early New Year’s resolution. It’s inevitable that The Force Awakens is bound to disappoint some of you. I don’t blame you if, like me, you find it cathartic to examine that shortcoming via a review. But my advice is to do that and let it go. Spare yourselves the hours of making and/or watching videos that pull the film apart from every angle. Don’t wallow in the immense negativity that seems to come with being an RLM disciple and stop giving that kind of content an audience.
Trust me, you’ll be happier and you’ll stop giving something you hate all that power over you. If you truly hate it that much, is it really so important to you to evangelize some guy’s 90-minute screed of everything he hated?