The Completely Imaginary Divide Between Audiences and Critics

By  · Published on December 31st, 2009

This summer, a movie came out that made the divide between the critical voices in film and the ticket-buying masses more apparent than ever. It involved giant robots smashing around on screen and grabbing all of the money that was printed this year at the Treasury. And critics hated it. Meanwhile, as the line at the box office got longer and longer, critics seemed to hate it even more.

So that’s proof that stuffy critics and the sheep-like mass audiences are miles apart in taste, right?

I’m not convinced.

Perhaps it’s my aversion to easy answers, but I believe there at least two factors at work that put a serious dent in the concept that there’s a schism between what’s popular and what’s critically lauded.

That first factor involves two other, non-giant-robotic films – Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Jurassic Park. The common bond between the two films (besides Steven Spielberg and John Williams) is that they are blockbuster films that appeal to the story and character side of filmmaking. Both are huge movies. One is an epic adventure throughout some seriously sandy terrain, and the other has large reptiles that have been extinct for millions of years (sort of like giant, fleshy robots, right?). But the heart of both films is the charisma of the cast, the sharply crafted dialog, and the flow of the story.

Last Crusade was the first movie to make over $10 million in its first day. Jurassic Park was the highest-grossing film of all time until James Cameron took it over with a movie about a sinking boat.

Clearly, they were popular successes. But they were also critical successes in their owns ways. There were more than a handful of bad reviews of Last Crusade when it was released – mostly about how hollow the film was – but there were also a ton of strong, favorable reviews that noted a deeper emotional level had been added to an adventure franchise. Jurassic Park on the other hand was received even more positively with a few bad apples complaining about differences between the film and the book.

While the praise for each film, both critical and popular, isn’t exactly a slam dunk, it does represent a time in our film-watching history where critics and the box office were basically on the same page. And this was back when critics were arguably stuffier than they are today.

Which brings me to my second point, critics just aren’t as stuffy as they used to be. Changes in how reviews reach audiences and who can claim the mantle of “professional critic” open that field far beyond the A.O. Scotts of the world. The internet, like it or not, has made things far more democratic. And I don’t just mean in the realm of film. It’s all around us. The internet has opened the world of the amateur to invade the world of the professional in a way that’s never existed, and for film appreciation, it’s meant that more populist-minded critics are counted amongst the ranks of the elite.

But that should mean a narrowing of the gap, shouldn’t it?

I’d argue that normally it would, but films have also changed seriously since the days of Spielberg getting you to tear through your jumbo tub every summer. Subjectivity and opinion aside, there’s just no denying that Last Crusade and Jurassic Park have character elements and story structures that are light years stronger than Transformers: Rise of the Fallen. There’s just no debate there. And no one’s making it.

Amongst critics who hated the film, the argument is that it was all loud banging noises without any meaning. Amongst fans that loved the film, the argument is that it was all loud banging noises that looked amazing and dropped jaws. It’s a similar sentiment that was lobbed onto Spielberg’s flick about Dino DNA with the exception that it did the harder work of delivering more well-rounded characters and a tighter story. One could argue – a more classic story.

Imagine if Jurassic Park had been released today into the maw of the internet.

In my mind, the gap between critics and audiences would actually appear smaller if summer blockbusters hadn’t all but abandoned the idea of character.

This point is driven home when we take a look at another film from this year that achieved (probably more than any other) success by bridging that giant (imaginary) gap between the critic and the ticket-buyer. Up rocked through the $100 million mark in its second week, pulling in over $700 million in its worldwide total to date. Balance that with a 98% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes and we have bona fide proof that critics and fans agree.

The difference there is story. It’s character. That’s the key. Release a giant spectacle of a film and craft characters that a viewer can connect with, and all the sudden that Grand Canyon turns into a crack in the sidewalk. Release an empty canvas to show off how much dynamite you can purchase, and the gap re-appears, waiting for a brave few to take a leap of faith out into the open space between.

So is there really a disparity between the critical community and the everyday film lover? Maybe. Maybe not. Many were screaming from the hilltops about it this summer. They spoke like doomsday salesmen about the cultural dead zone symbolized by droves of somnambulist movie goers. They talked about how critics had lost touched with greater society. But at this point, I’m not so sure.

And I have an archeologist, a digger you can’t get out of Montana, and an old man with a floating house to thank for that skepticism.

What do you think?

Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector [email protected] | Writing short stories at Adventitious.