Avatar: The Way of Water is now playing in theatres, and I did exactly what I said I’d do: drive to Vancouver to see it in 3D on a very big screen on opening weekend. I’m going to see it at least twice more (in IMAX) before it hits home media.
I get it: many of you reading this probably care a lot more about skiing and snowboarding than you do about blockbuster films, but I’ve only been here for a couple of months, so please bear with me. I think the release of this jaw-droppingly expensive James Cameron passion project is a good opportunity to say something about how we look at movies in general.
The popular and controversial film review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes offers the following consensus about December’s biggest box office hit: “Narratively, it might be fairly standard stuff—but visually speaking, Avatar: The Way of Water is a stunningly immersive experience.” As of this writing, it sits at a 78 per cent approval rating, which means that most critics liked the film.
Personally, I would agree with this assessment. Avatar 2, much like its predecessor, was never going to wow viewers with Oscar-worthy acting or a screenplay that makes you reflect upon the meaning of human life. Instead, it’s a gorgeous tech demo featuring exciting action sequences, photorealistic CGI that puts Marvel to shame, and an adequate plot delivered by actors of varying repute. I enjoyed the movie because I love science fiction, great visual effects and action. That’s what I was hoping for and that’s exactly what I got.
I’ve also heard from people who aren’t interested in Cameron’s latest production at all. One friend of mine watched the trailer right next to me and could not be bothered to care. Another said something along the lines of, “I can't imagine that people are excited for another Avatar film since the first one was so mediocre.” One local radio host expressed skepticism last month that audiences would want to sit through a three-hour, 12-minute flick no matter what it was.
I don’t agree with these people, but I’m more than willing to respect where they’re coming from. Film critics aren’t typically so reasonable.
Judge a book for its intended purpose
Let me be clear: I’m not trying to say that all film critics are arrogant jerks or corporate sellouts, because some definitely have worthwhile contributions to make. What I am trying to say is that I’ve seen a lot of critics approach their jobs in a way that I argue is both nonsensical and needlessly condescending.
If someone condemned a semi-truck for being fuel-inefficient and difficult to park, would you believe it was a bad vehicle on those grounds? How about if another person ripped a compact car to shreds because it can’t tow very much? Neither of those individuals would have credibility, because they misunderstand the things they are trying to criticize. A semi-tractor unit is designed to haul trailers and a compact car is designed to be a convenient everyday vehicle. Both should be evaluated with their intended use in mind.
In my experience, many (though not all) film critics exercise that same logical fallacy. They seem to want to hold all movies to a single—and oftentimes arbitrary—standard of what a good movie is. In doing so, they fail to acknowledge two simple truths: art and entertainment are inherently subjective, and different movies are made with different purposes in mind.
Schindler’s List, for example, is an incredibly important movie that tells a poignant tale about a dark time in history. Ninety-eight per cent of critics on Rotten Tomatoes praised it, and for good reason. Yet, most people don’t go over to their friends’ houses on a Saturday night and say, “Hey, let’s watch Schindler’s List!” Does that mean all of those people are stupid and unable to appreciate impactful filmmaking? No, it just means that the film in question is intended to make you think, not to make you happy.
On the other side of the spectrum, we find something like Michael Bay’s Transformers franchise. Four of the five movies in the series (Revenge of the Fallen, Dark of the Moon, Age of Extinction and The Last Knight) hold a grade of 35 per cent or less. The vast majority of critics seconded what Roger Ebert had to say about Revenge of the Fallen: “If you want to save yourself the ticket price, go into the kitchen, cue up a male choir singing the music of hell, and get a kid to start banging pots and pans together. Then close your eyes and use your imagination.”
Despite those kinds of scathing indictments, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen made $836 million at the global box office. Dark of the Moon and Age of Extinction surpassed $1 billion apiece, and even The Last Knight managed a solid $605 million as the franchise’s least profitable entry. Directors like Bay have built careers out of laughing in critics’ faces while giving fans what they want and are evidently willing to pay for.
Ironically, Bay’s latest flick, Ambulance, made a paltry $52 million against a $40 million budget, despite a respectable 69-per-cent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Goes to show you how much the critics’ opinions can be worth.
Make up your own mind
Benjamin Lee writes for The Guardian, and his review of Godzilla: King of the Monsters may be the best way to illustrate my problems with a lot of film critics. Lee joined most of his peers in deriding the movie for its thin plot and underdeveloped human characters, saying: “it has rare moments of visual splendour, but they can't disguise a laughable script with a ramshackle narrative.”
Who in their right mind watches a movie about skyscraper-sized, plasma-breathing monsters hoping for an airtight script and an Oscar-winning narrative? Nobody who understands what they’ve signed up for. Godzilla: King of the Monsters wasn’t trying to do what Schindler’s List did. Instead, it was trying to do what Transformers did: entertain the masses with CGI-fuelled blasts of escapist action. It’s a souped-up Jeep, not a classy Mercedes-Benz.
However, Lee writes as if the Jeep is wrong for not being a Mercedes, pretending in the process that his opinion is above reproach. His review is full of heavy-handed superlatives, calling Godzilla 2 “inarguably bad” and the franchise “buckling under its own weight” (right before Godzilla vs. Kong made $470 million in a pandemic-afflicted market). Mr. Lee may work for a far larger and more famous publication than I do, but that doesn’t give me or anyone else a reason to let him dictate our viewing choices—especially when he presents his opinions in such an unpleasant and one-sided manner.
I can’t help noticing that Lee gave Pacific Rim: Uprising three out of five stars even though that movie bombed at the box office and disappointed most fans of the franchise. That brings me to my final argument: film critics are often (though not always) out of touch with the people who might read their stuff. I’m in no position to evaluate Lee’s overall skill as a journalist, but what I’ve seen of his work gives him little to no credibility as a reviewer of monster films or action films in general.
Look: whether you’re a dedicated theatre-goer or a casual viewer who watches what your friends drag you to, stop giving critics undue influence over your personal tastes. Rare is the film that succeeds on all counts like Top Gun: Maverick did: a highly profitable and visually best-in-class thrill ride that also manages to tell a heartfelt and well-acted story. (Even then, some disparage the Top Gun sequel for being “military propaganda,” an argument that I won’t touch here.)
Instead, keep in mind that most movies try to fill certain niches. The John Wick franchise has always been popular with critics (all three entries hold down 86 per cent or better on Rotten Tomatoes), but you’re not going to like it if you don’t want to see people get shot. Little Women (95 per cent) brings a timeless story to life with acclaimed actresses and an objectively masterful screenplay, but it may not hold your attention if you want something more fast-paced. The best thing to do is to recognize what you personally like and compare that to what any given film is trying to sell you.
Above all, don’t let anyone else—be it a professional critic or an opinionated family member—make you feel bad about what you prefer to watch. Life is far too short for us to be putting each other down over differences in entertainment choice.