Dear Critics…(part II – Bright)

Bright. According to the critics, the worst film of 2017. By any rational measure it was not even the worst film the week it came out. What’s going on here? On Rotten Tomatoes the critics give an absolutely stinking 26%. That’s bad. That’s really bad. That’s a film so bad that it leaves you feeling dirty, like you’ve soiled yourself. With the disappointment there’s a measure of anger. Why? Why was I tricked into wasting my precious life on this? Just as well the audiences were forewarned.

And yet, and yet. Apparently a number of people went ahead and watched it anyway and…well, they seemed to like it giving it 85%. Hang on, 85%? That’s not a stinker; that’s a genuinely good film. People are saying they not just thought it was ok or short of being awful; they thought it was really enjoyable. A 60% difference seems to require some kind of explanation.

I’ve read a number of the bad reviews and well…there’s nothing particularly insightful about them. It’s a series of cliche’s. It doesn’t work. I didn’t like it because whatever. That’s not to say any of these critiques are necessarily untrue or unfair (albeit uninspired) but they could be levelled at any number of films that don’t lead critics to declare them the worst film of the year (some of these same critics were probably the ones who listed ‘Mother’ as one of the best films of the year so…yeah). Something else is at play here.

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Theory#1 – We are afraid of Netflix.

This theory is also pertinent when it comes to the discussion of Altered Carbon. It goes that Netflix has become hugely successful and is changing how people view films and TV. In the case of the latter, the critics don’t appear to be so worried because, let’s face it, most of them don’t want to have to sit down and watch hours of live TV. They are used to being given viewings in advance, binging four episodes on the trot. They might be a little bit worried about how traditional TV channels are going to cope (and maybe they should be) but it’s not impinging on how they’d choose to consume the product.

Films are a different matter. Many film critics truly love cinemas. For them, their first visit to the picture house was a seminal experience. The smell of popcorn and worn out seat coverings still causes their stomach to clench with excitement like remembering the first kiss of a favourite lover or a first professional level goal, try, century or crossing the winning line as number one. Cinema is at the core of their being, an integral part of their personal history and sense of self. That’s why films about films and cinemas always feature so highly in critics’ lists. It speak to something very real within them. It’s how they can give the Best film Oscar to ‘The Artist’ without a trace of self-awareness.

And there is nothing wrong with any of that until it gets in the way of the day job, namely making fair recommendations for the general public. Netflix represents an existential threat to the cinema-going experience (or so some believe) and they must be stopped. Bright was a big investment for Netflix, a chance to show they can do films as well as series. So, naturally, any true lover of cinema must use their power to stop this juggernaut regardless of whether the film deserves their disdain or not.

Personally, I’m not totally convinced I buy into this theory. There may be an element of that in play but whether it is uniform is debatable. In fairness, there is a argument to say Netflix should release these things in the cinema first. Why not? If they back a film that much let people see it on the big screen. People are going to use Netflix anyway. Anecdotally, I binge on Netflix a fair bit but I’m also going to the cinema as much as I ever have in my life.

Theory #2 – The ‘buy in’.

Another theory as to why ‘Bright’ received such a mauling is that the concept itself just alienated the critics from the get-go and they failed to appreciate the buy-in factor that many fans of sci-fi and fantasy bring to what they enjoy. Here’s a concept; buddy cops but it’s in a world where there are orcs and elves and one of the cops is an orc. You may well read that and go, ‘oh come on, that’s stupid’. Apparently this was the standard critical response.

On the other hand, lots of viewers were given that concept and thought, ‘yeah, I’ll go with this’. Second generalisation alert: fans care about world-building, critics care about performances. Ok, this may be a generalisation too far but there’s something in it. When futuristic and fantastical worlds are unveiled before our eyes a lot of people are just on-board with it. For them, this suggestion of another world to explore is the thing that enthrals them. It’s why they can look at the maps of Middle Earth or even Treasure Island and feel a sense of excitement just at the thought of going to these places, even if they are never really touched by the story. That feeling of immediate investment is something I got watching the title sequence of Game of Thrones and also the sense of instant familiarity when they visit the ‘Oasis’ for the first time in ‘Ready Player One’. Certain things tick certain boxes for certain fandoms and that should not be dismissed.

When you are gazing at the horizon whether the facial expression or vocal inflection of the person in the foreground is 100% convincing is less of a concern. For many critics, by contrast, the acting performance is the alpha and the omega. It’s why the accusation of 2-D characters is so often used and why some critics can feel fulfilled watching an actor’s face as he stares off into the distance while nothing happens. The interior world of the performer is where they want to explore.

From this perspective it’s easy to see why the critics love films like ‘Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri’ (ok, I really enjoyed it too). It’s all about performances and it is stacked with them. If on the other hand, you went to that film hoping to see a world you’d never seen before where your mind can go off on adventures of its own, you’d be disappointed. The point here is thus, internal and external worlds are both valid forms of entertainment. There’s no rule saying that the former is worth more than the latter.

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Dear Critics Part 3 – Altered Carbon. Coming next…

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It’s all about the antagonists

Here’s a quick question for you; who is the most important character in the Harry Potter series? The answer is obvious, right? It’s the Harry Potter series; every book is called Harry Potter and the…It has to be Harry, surely? I would argue not: it’s Voldemort. That’s not to say Harry is some dull empty vessel who’s only purpose is to be he reader’s eyes into the world. On the contrary, Harry is a great character. He’s far from being a Luke Skywalker, true blue hero who is less interesting than the folk around him. Harry is wounded and sympathetic and occasionally flawed (although I’m not sure you’d get all this by just watching the films). Harry has many qualities but he is not the main mover of the narrative: that is Voldemort.

voldyThink about it. The book begins with the apparent first defeat of Voldemort. Harry is only famous because of the fame Voldemort bestowed on him by being unable to murder him. Likewise, the Harry potter series finishes with the final defeat of Voldemort. His absence is what tells us it is all over. Harry has a life after this but the series doesn’t continue to follow him in his life without Voldemort. Sure, there may be Cursed Childs and whatnots to come but they are addenda to the story of how Voldemort was defeated.

Speaking of Luke Skywalker. How interested are we in his life when there is no big bad around? The main story finishes with the death of Darth Vader. We don’t rejoin him until the reboots have another antagonist to throw at us. Likewise, it’s no surprise that we leave Middle Earth with the demise of Sauron.

I’ve been thinking about antagonists recently while reviewing the Defenders’ respective series. The broad consensus seems to be in terms of quality they go; Jessica Jones, Daredevil and then, someway behind, Luke Cage. Is it just merely a coincidence that while Jessica had David Tennant’s brilliance as Kilgrave and Daredevil had the grinding fury of Vincent D’Onofrio’s Kingpin, Luke Cage had to contend with the short-lived and nonthreatening Cottonmouth and then the silliness of Diamondback?

I’m only halfway through Iron First but the major problem so far seems to be the lack of a good antagonist. All of which makes me think, maybe it’s all about the antagonist after all. At least when it comes to sci-fi and fantasy. Other genres have other considerations. Detective novels while benefiting from good antagonists are more about the protagonist.So what is it about sci-fi and fantasy that make antagonists so important? Partly, it is that a lot of sci-fi and fantasy is about conflict against an exceptional threat. If the threat is not sufficiently threatening then defeating it is less compelling.

Another reason is sci-fi and fantasy is often (though not always) less morally ambiguous. In a fight between good and evil the only way the evil is going to be defeated is through terminal justice. There will be no accommodation or settlement. The bastard needs to die and we need (for the most part) to be ok with the bastard dying. Therefore, their death must be both utterly necessary and morally and narratively satisfying.

joffYou might argue that some fantasy is not so black and white, A Song of Ice and Fire, for example. While there may be some truth in this, the series does also provide us with some genuine hate figures for whom we will endure all kinds of suffering to our heroes just to see them get what is coming, like Joffrey and Ramsay. Equally, the Ice and Fire overarching it all pretty unambiguous. Those white walkers/Others have to be defeated.

Ah, that’s fantasy but sci-fi is different, you might argue. Sometimes there is an accommodation in sci-fi, like in the Matrix and Mass Effect. In the case of the Matrix films, they clearly cottoned on to the fact that we were more interested in an antagonist battle so they made it more about the recognisable Smith than the amorphous Matrix itself. While Mass Effect 3 has one of the worst endings ever, so let that be a lesson about deviation from the template.

Other examples? Look at Star Trek. What are considered to be the best Star Trek films? Generally, people say Wrath of Khan, Undiscovered Country and First Contact. For which we have Ricardo Molteban’s Khaaaaaaaan, Christopher Plummer’s Shakespeare quoting Klingon and, arguably the greatest Star Trek villain of all, the Borg.

For that matter, look at the series. What turned around DS9? The introduction of proper antagonists in the form of the Dominion. What was often the difference between a good Babylon 5 episode and a cringe-worthy one? Did it have the Shadows in it? In the same vein, I never really had much interest in Star Gate but I bothered with Stargate: Atlantis because the creepy Wraiths seemed like a genuine threat. Oh and lest we forget, what’s the surefire way to up the stakes in any series of Dr Who?I give you everyone’s favourite demented space nazis wailing EXTERMINATE!

It’s a lesson to all of us when we write. While we all want to give the world the next brooding hero who will show us complexity, humour and virtuoso fighting skills so far uncontemplated, make sure there’s someone out there for them who is capable of killing them and and shaping the narrative of the world they wish to terrorise. As much as heroes, villains have a challenge to answer. Let us hope they rise to the occasion.

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Am I getting more childish or has childish got more mature?

I went to see Captain America: Civil War last night. Nothing wrong or strange in that by itself, but then I thought about the last few films I’d seen at the cinema. Before this it was Deadpool and before that it was Star Wars. Two comic book adaptations and a family film. Going back further, the last film I saw that wasn’t a comic book film or a family film was The Martian, a sci-fi film.

Still nothing wrong with this. Thanks principally to the cost of a visit I don’t visit the cinema very much any more so when I go, I want to be guaranteed to be entertained. Seeing something that may challenge me or not be to my tastes is more of a risk when there’s the best part of £20 on the line.

So then I thought about TV. Currently, the two shows I’m watching most are Game of Thrones and iZombie. Again, both somewhat genre. Over the last few months, I’ve also eagerly consumed Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Gotham – three more comic book conversions. Bear in mind this is from someone who is not a comic book reader (send your hate mail to no1 Noteveryonehastolikeeverything). That same description can be levelled at many of my friends who have also enjoyed these shows. So what, one might ask, is up?

I think the answer is partly about me and partly about what is is we consume. I’ll address the first first because it’s easier. I’m something on an expert on myself.

When I was in my late teens studying English literature at A-Level, I voluntarily tried to read a number of classics. I switched genres and read things out of my comfort zone. At the same time I was happy to go to art house cinemas and watch indie films about a dysfunctional family in the mid-west (as I write this I’m not entirely convinced that wouldn’t have bored me then but the point stands). Scenes of actors looking out silently at the landscape seemed to hold meaning for me then.

Now in my thirties when I’m supposed to be sensible and mature I just don’t have the patience for this any longer. I tried to watch the much-critically acclaimed The Master a few years ago and was almost to the point of tears for the lack of plot or action. Cohen brothers’ films seemed to send me to sleep. As for challenging documentaries, I can honestly say there’s enough depressing stuff in my head already. In short I have become a total pleb.

These days entertainment is paramount in my entertainment and this is one of the reasons genre films appeal. They don’t waste my time, usually. They have a plot and they have action and, most of the time, they have a resolution. I don’t have to spend time afterwards wondering about the meaning of what I just saw or interpreting what the message was. My post-game analysis focusses on whether I enjoyed it or not. In a sense, in a life with a job and worries and writing as my creative outlet I can only spare so much brain-space for films as well.

With TV I think it is slightly different. In a post box-set revolution world of binge-watching streaming services, TV has changed. TV has become more like novels with long narrative arcs and plenty of time for reflection. Actors can now stare out into space because they’ve got another 9 hours to do the action stuff. Contrary to films, it doesn’t feel like eating up valuable time.

TV has also become emboldened and a lot of what we’re watching now just wouldn’t have been made previously. Budgets weren’t forthcoming as they now are and this is another reason I think we have so much genre TV now. Fantasy used to look naff and cheesy on TV because they hadn’t paid for it to look otherwise. The acting was hammy because good actors couldn’t be lured to do it. It’s less embarrassing to watch Game of Thrones than Hercules, principally, because it’s a much higher quality product.

Now we are in a virtuous cycle for genre pieces. They get more money and make something good, because it’s good it gets more credibility; with credibility more quality actors, directors, writers etc get drawn to these projects and they are consequently better, starting the cycle again. That’s why, my decreasing maturity notwithstanding, I’m not alone in watching about dragons and superheroes.

Is there a downside to any of this? Simon Pegg wrote an interesting piece a while ago about how as adults we are having our childhoods sold back to us to keep us infantilised. There’s a lot of truth in this. Many things that used to be for kids now successfully populate the adult world. You see people who were once considered too old for it getting excited about Dr Who, lining up to watch the latest Star Wars film and openly discussing which superpower they’d have. The average age of a gamer is 35 not 15, as all non-gamers would love you to believe. People proudly instagram themselves at conventions, where before it might have been a guilty pleasure. Fear of being labelled a nerd isn’t what is used to be.

All this might be more concerning if genre pieces were cheap and unthinking. Fortunately, this is increasingly not the case. If you see a number of films this year, the dumbest one you see won’t be a genre piece in all likelihood. Increasing success has led to increasing confidence and genre TV shows and films are more prepared than ever to ask deep questions. Having a costume doesn’t mean you can’t have the same existential trials as someone in a beret and turtle neck.

What if this is the only place people are finding this though? Is it not a bad thing if we are substituting real intellectual rigour for their slick, simplified versions in entertainment? Yes, thinking a little should not be a substitute for thinking a lot but I’m not sure it works that way. Most the people I know who love genre are also highly-engaged, informed and politically active. Ultimately, if dumb fun becomes a little less dumb then that’s a good thing. After all, I was never going to watch a documentary tonight anyway.