It’s been long established that critics prefer realism to flights of imagination. And by realism I mean commentary on the existing world as oppose to actually being remotely realistic. In the mind of the average critic the ability to build and entire world with cohesive culture, history, language, geography and mythology and then weaving a compelling plot on top of that is a feat far short of taking a swipe at what currently exists.
In the minds of such critics, Jane Austen is the revered Goddess. She wrote about what she knew and will therefore be forever brilliant, while Tolkien created so therefore it will forever be lightweight and in no sense ever profound. Apparently, imagination is a non-existent virtue in such thinking.
This view has always annoyed me, not least from a creative perspective when you consider the general difficulty of the two models. I’ve always felt fantasy and sci-fi writers (perhaps genre writers in general) have been unfairly judged when what they do is in many ways considerably harder.
Lately, this thought has bugged me less as I’ve felt since the Lord of the Rings films that kind of dullard thinking has been in retreat. Once Tolkien’s work moved off the page and on to the cinema screen it attained a level of respect hitherto denied to fantasy. Through a direct line this led to Game of Thrones which (albeit begrudgingly) has managed to snatch a few Emmys along the way. Arguably, less than it deserves but progress nonetheless. The traditional prejudice seemed to be wearing thinner to the point that critics could accept fantasy and sci-fi on its merits and not dismiss it out of hand.
And then the last few months happened and I feel we are back to square one. The reason is for the reaction to the trio of releases in that time; The Last Jedi, Bright and Altered Carbon. I’m not saying that the critical responses to these films is necessarily a reaction against sci-fi/fantasy. My argument is that they show the mainstream critics are ill-equipped to evaluate sci-fi/fantasy.
I’m going to start with a highly controversial assertion. If the critics say one thing and the public says another, the critics have failed in their job. I can immediately hear a flood of counterarguments rolling my way at that idea but hear me out. What I’ve stated is unequivocally wrong if, 1) a critic’s job is to tell us what we should like and not what we will like and 2) a critic is not there to recommend but only give their personal take. I tend to think both of these ideas are deeply flawed. The idea of someone appointing themselves as an arbiter of tastes is incredibly dubious from the outset, while the idea of a personal take doesn’t sit with having a paid position in the media as a gatekeeper to culture. It’s either personal or it’s a judgement on what people will enjoy; it can’t really be both. There has to be a compromise somewhere.
The next argument would be the idea that what is popular and what is good are not necessarily the same thing. I would completely agree with that statement. On the other hand, there are far too many who seem to take the view that because something is popular it is disqualified from being good. If 3 million people rate something as 8 out of 10 there is a reason for that. You don’t have to agree with that reason but you should acknowledge it exists. And if your conclusion is that reason is people are idiots I go back to my previous assertion. If it is your job to recommend things to idiots, then you should recommend what idiots like; anything else is an indulgence.
All this is very black and white and too easy to pull apart. In reality, there is a middle ground and for the purpose of this piece I will focus on the discrepancy factor. If the critics say a film is a 93% film and the public say it is an 87% film, (or vice versa) it’s probably fair to say that most people think it’s good. There may be reasons why one group likes it more than the other but there is a consensus. Example, ‘Aliens’; on Rotten Tomatoes critics say 98% and public says 94% based on a considerable amount of reviews. It’s fair to say that reviewers professional and amateur think this is a very good film. I would say more often than not there is this kind of agreement.
Where I grow wary is when there is a huge discrepancy, let’s say more than 20%. There’s clearly two ways this can go. You can have something loved by critics that leaves fans unmoved and you can have something appreciate by the public that is dismissed by the critics. In the case of the former this seems to happen with film that are quirky, understandably so. Critics see a lot of derivative and formulaic films, Anything that breaks the mould will be appreciated. By the same token, fans who see maybe a handful of films in a year are generally less bothered by cliches and more concerned about entertainment.
In the latter case, it happens more often with genre films or blockbusters. The critics get fixated on a couple of details (something they deem people ought not to like) or parts that seem derivative and miss out on the sense of escapism and the fact that the average audience member may never have seen something like that before.
All of which brings me back to the trio of sci-fi released that have so far divided critic from fan starting with the first release; The Last Jedi. At time of writing rotten tomatoes has this as 91% from critics and 48% from the public. I’ve read some articles (which I’m not going to link as they don’t deserve the attention) that have summarily dismissed this discrepancy with justifications ranging from mass bot attack to a backlash against the progressive nature of the film.
My judgement is that the bot attack theory is nonsense. There are too many reviews on rotten tomatoes that are simply from people who are disappointed; not people with agendas. Not everyone is giving one star and claiming it is the worst thing ever. Many are three star reviews fairly explaining what they felt was lacking. For the record, I’d put myself in this group. I don’t think it is worth 91% nor is it worth 48%. It wasn’t awful but it was far from being great.
As to the PC backlash. It’s fair to say that is a thing for a few people but it does not seem to be a majority. Anecdotally, the most common criticism I’ve read, heard or seen is that there were elements of the film that were off (ahem, flying Leia), poorly plotted and lore-breaking. And I think here we have something close to an explanation for the 50% discrepancy.
Generalisation warning: critics like to be surprised. Fans like continuity. Critics applaud when Luke throws aside the lightsaber. Fans irk at the seeming change in Luke’s personality. Critics enjoy the change of the good guys plans not going to plan. Fans get irate that people on the same side aren’t talking to each other for the sake of a plot contrivance. Critics swoon at an artful silent black and white shot. Fans pull their hair out when a hyperspace ram is suddenly a thing, apparently going against all previous logic of not just the film in question but the entire series.
In essence, the critics think they are watching a piece of cinema and do not have sufficient respect for the world in which it is set. Sure they may consider themselves above such things but now we’re in the territory of music magazines sending someone to review the gig of a band they hate. It all gets a bit pointless.