The Not-So-Quiet Roar of the Critics

The box office surprise hit of a few weekends ago came in the form of the greatest prank every performed by Jim Halpert. That’s right, I’m talking about A Quiet Place. Of the (many) movies that came out over the last few weekends, this one particularly managed to make a splash with audiences who were hungry for a low-key thriller. And thus, what started as a SXSW darling, blossomed into a box-office smash hit. It’s easy to assume that the great word of mouth marketing for this movie was the biggest factor in it’s success. But I think the critics actually played one of the biggest roles in this film’s box office run. While it isn’t something you’d often factor into a film’s success, I think that it’s becoming more and more important. The critical praise for A Quiet Place was a huge booster for it’s success as it has become for many film’s financial success. Rewind a year ago and “Get Out” was a smash box-office hit. But how could a small-budgeted directorial debut make such a splash with audiences? They heard it’s good, and that’s because that’s what the critics were saying. More than ever, the voice of the critics have huge sway over audiences and the box office is proof of it. Rotten tomatoes “certified fresh” has become the Michelin-star of the film industry, adding some weight to your film’s box office numbers or in the absence of it— causing it to sink. Films like The Lone Ranger can build up major hype in the early stages of a marketing campaign with an amazing trailer and a powerful production studio to back it. But the second that people start to hear your film stinks, not even Johnny Depp will be able too save you. So many people, in defense of the films they love, say: who cares what the critics say? There’s a strong case to be made that they’re nothing but a bunch of stuffy academics who feel like they’re written opinion quickly becomes canon. But in a world where the internet has provided everyone a platform for spreading their own beliefs as gospel en masse, having a group of qualified individuals provide you with valuable praise may be the thing you need to set you apart from the pack. For a good (but not too unorthodox) film like A Quiet Place, that helps.

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The popcorn thing is real. Do not eat popcorn in that movie. I repeat. Do not eat popcorn in that movie. I’d like to think Krasinski knew something about this going in and this scene is his way of pulling a Jim Halpert prank on the audience.

In the film, John Krasinski and Emily Blunt play the parents of a young family trying to navigate a post-apocalyptic world where savage alien-beasts hunt down and kill anything that makes a lot of noise. The aliens could be giant demonic Teletubbies for all we care – they are probably the least interesting part of the entire film, a mere MacGuffin stand-in for the difficulties of parenthood. And boy, what an arduous journey that can be. This movie makes it clear to all young couples – try to not have children around the apocalypse, ideally. Kids are a lovely part of life and are necessary to continuing (and furthering) human existence, but they might as well be the end of all existence as we know it when the only thing needed to stay alive in this post-apocalyptic world is to keep your damn mouth shut. The film has evidently brought the significance of sound to the forefront of the moviegoing experience, with many users claiming harassment at the behest of their fellow audience members for acts as innocent as chewing a piece of popcorn too loudly. The film took an interesting, almost inverse take on how sound amplifies a film experience, making members hyper-aware of their environment. In this way, it was one of the more interactive films I’ve seen in a while. And audiences loved it. The theater-going essence was resuscitated with a simple film about a family trying to survive in a post-apocalyptic world. The plot itself is relatively simple and not particularly novel. The post-apocalyptic genre has been in full-force as of late. Over the past two years, I personally have seen at least three (that I can currently think of) films that are all about the destitute state of the earth and the fight to survive amongst a small band of humans. I think, for one thing, there’s some truth to the fact that films like these have the ability to play on the pessimism of the era. The idea that we’re living in grim times, where bad news floods our newsfeeds makes for great film fodder. Again, films are all about empathy. The human ability to relate to the world around you is something that films have succeeded in capturing for over a century now. They empathize and, in some ways, are the greatest teachers of empathy. When the world seems a dark and gloomy post-apocalyptic abyss, the cinema acts as a societal mirror, reflecting those feelings of anxiety and fear at you in a much more metaphorical form. And timeliness is an important aspect of the cinematic experience. Films like 10 Cloverfield Lane and It Comes At Night have played (successfully) along this trend as well. But even the most timely films can end up falling flat – and not every post-apocalyptic movie enjoys this kind of success. I happen to enjoy the film because it’s a smart, era-appropriate, metaphorical, sensory, not-too-complicated film and I’m glad it has had the success it’s had. I’m obviously not alone in my feelings either and the box office shows that. But my approval and that of many on the Twitterverse is nice, it doesn’t spell instant success. Because as much as my impetus for moviegoing may be the same as a horde of others, there’s still a missing X factor to A Quiet Place’s success that has yet to be addressed: what did the critics say?

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How do you make a character even more menacing in a horror movie? Hardly show it. That’s the lesson here and it’s through a brilliant manipulation of sound on-screen. Still, I could definitely make a “dad running montage” for contemporary post-apocalyptic films.

Would A Quiet Place have done as well without it’s critical success? Would Get Out? Difficult to say, for sure. Perhaps an easier question is: could Justice League have done better with a seal of critical approval? And then, a far more interesting question is: how much better? If recent film history has taught us anything, it’s that big budgets only matter up to a point. Because you really can only throw so much money at ugly and hope it gets better. That was a bit of an old methodology. It’s part of what fuels these film franchises with six or seven entries. It’s the idea that “if you build it, they will come”. But it seems that the quality of the build matters just as much as it’s size – otherwise your structure collapses in on itself. There’s a reason John Carter-ed has worked it’s way into modern film jargon as a big-budget flop. As much as critical reception is the reason these bad films are punished, it’s also the reason that good films are rewarded. Franchises are seeing the benefits of investment in quality. Look at the transformation within the recent iterations of the James Bond film series. In the late nineties and early oughts, you had Pierce Brosnan playing up a cartoonish, oversaturated James Bond, whose films tried to meld the bubble-gum nature of the nineties with the classic appeal of the sixties. It didn’t really play well onscreen. The stories were tired, formulaic, and a bit too flashy to the point of being artificial. The critics were appalled. They called one of the films , “a dreadful cul-de-sac”. For the most part it didn’t matter. The studios were getting the money after all. But then something happened. Audiences started to realize the critics had a point. And Barbara Broccoli and the folks in charge there started to realize that this reaction would spell doom for them. So what did they do? They rebranded. They reinvented themselves entirely over the course of a few years and decided the whole thing needed to start from scratch. A risky move? Absolutely. But they needed to start somewhere. So then Casino Royale comes out in 2006 and audiences understand that what their getting is of a significantly higher caliber than before. They weren’t alone. Critics also came to laud the reboot as a fresh take on a tired franchise. It was long overdue. The seal of critical approval was fantastic, because it validated their venture to audiences and served as an impetus for making more films like this. The subsequent Bond film may not have been quite as high quality, but overall, critics and audiences were in agreement that this was a trend in the right direction. Sometime around the mid-to-late oughts, the critics began to have a lot more gravitas when it comes to decisions like these. The separation between the critical upper echelons and the vox populi have converged thanks to the ubiquity of the internet. The internet, as a social collection tool has been wholly important in collecting and spreading individuals thoughts about films. Despite the closing of this gap, there is still one place regarded above all others as the ultimate source of critical film insight. It is the collective mason jar where all the other reviews are dumped and it serves as a filmic litmus test in todays culture. And interestingly enough, it’s named after a damn farm produce!

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Ah, who could forget the Brosnan years? Turns out a lot of people as soon as Daniel Craig came around! Even he admitted the character was a bit lazy. It’s a good thing he made something out of that singing career

More than any other critical seal of approval (and leagues above Pete Hammond’s), sits the Rotten Tomatoes, “Certified Fresh” sticker. This damn thing is a symbolic gesture of a great film as determined by the Rotten Tomatoes editors. It’s now a kind of strange Michelin-esque standard that producers can use as a valuable marketing ploy for their films. When Rotten Tomatoes was first released over a decade ago, it was simply a collected amalgamation of other critics reviews and a database of information for the everyday filmgoer. It didn’t have much value or merit for itself. But soon, it began to compile these critical scores and determine the number of positive reviews versus negative reviews to create an aggregate. This is harder than it sounds as many critics are self-satisfied stuffy sycophants who revel in other’s appreciation of their prosaic ability. Because of this, they’ll do stupid things like make reviews ambiguous, stuff them full of superfluous languages, or articulate their thoughts on a film in thesis format when all anyone really wants to know is: is it worth it to go see? If so, why? So when the thoughts and opinions of these are hard to determine, it makes it harder for the editors at Rotten Tomatoes to determine if it’s positive or negative. But most people don’t care about the nitty gritty details anyway, they want to know simply if a film is worth seeing. So the Tomatometer becomes this scale that represents the overall critical take on a film and condenses all that filmic jargon into one, easy-to-read, determinable number (in percentage form). It has sat pretty quietly for a while, but in recent years, it has really taken off. It has the huge benefit of acting as the pioneering movie review collection site and serves as the sole launch point for many seeking that condensed information. Eventually, they simplified the entire formula with a checkpoint for freshness: the “Certified Fresh” seal of approval. This goes to a film who’s aggregate lays above eighty percent after a certain gestation period. And this becomes the next best thing to promote your film after having your film win actual awards. 

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Obviously Wonder Woman was trying to prove something with it’s abundance of critically-approved gifs. Still, this one goes to show you how in-tune society has become with what the critics are thinking!

When I first saw ads for A Quiet Place, I noticed that, in addition to the typical use of pull-quotes from critics, they included a small bit about it being “one hundred percent fresh on Rotten Tomatoes”. Prior to Black Panther’s release, some of it’s TV spots also boasted that it currently has one hundred percent on Rotten Tomatoes”. The use of critical success as an appealing aspect for films of a ranging budget (I gave you two pretty contrasting ones right there) is an interesting phenomenon that shows the increased power that the critics have in this day and age. Films can’t just be flashy anymore. Nowadays, there needs to be an appeal to critical authority. You think you can rely on big studios and big names? Look at what happened to Disney and The Lone RangerWhat about anticipated chapters in well-established anthologies? That’s where I turn to Justice League and it’s failure. The point is, films now have to make an appeal to critical authority. We’re no longer dealing with stuffy, artisanal wannabes, writing filmic scripture from up on their high horse. We’re living in a different world now. The “Cahiers du Cinema” is no longer merely available to a small cinematic elite, but realistically to every lover of film willing to take the time to read. The age of the internet and it’s ability to rapidly spread information has made it easier for movie critics to share their opinion with more people. Rotten Tomatoes serves as the collection bin for all of this information. And what do people love more than condensed information for the everyday web-surfer in the age of technology, even when it comes to the simple pleasures such as entertainment? Maybe new emojis. But not a lot. The opinions of just about everyone seem to matter today for worse and, in some (fewer) cases, for better. But Rotten Tomatoes seems to be the ultimate opinion-distillation machine when it comes to thoughts on movies. It’s power has gotten itself on the advertisements for the films themselves. They’ve even added in a feature in recent years for the audience’s take on films – to differentiate between what the pros think and what your average moviegoer fanboy might think. But that seems to have it’s own pull on audience members, enticing those who may be initially hesitant based on critical reviews, while also detracting those who may see a critical darling put swarths of audiences to sleep. So when a film like A Quiet Place comes out and makes little ripples in the festival circuit, the buzz gets started. From there, audiences and critics react and those reactions are collected and broadcast to the masses (Onscreen couples are so fun!). This kind of goes along with the annoying trend of internet en mass as judge and juror, but at least in this case, there is a clear delineation on who is qualified and who is just spouting their opinion. That’s the beauty of critical platforms like Rotten Tomatoes that make that distinction. That way, all those people who want to chide Isle of Dogs with accusations of cultural appropriation have a few hurdles to jump over before they name themselves supreme cinematic authority. By this point, it gets released. And what was once a quiet little film which, on paper, wouldn’t have a recipe for any kind of particular financial success, becomes a huge hit. Which is a great example of how, with a little critical support, a seventeen-million-dollar (mid-range!) film can cause a huge boom earning back ten times it’s budget within the first month of it’s release. The critical wave is a real thing. It can carry films far. For films that seem bare-bones, simplistic, and formulaic – a set of critical eyes may be just what it needs to reveal the truth: sometimes the best dishes (and films) are made with just a few solid ingredients. And we all benefit from this thought process with pressure for higher quality films. Because filmmakers now know: when that critical wave comes crashing down, it’s anything but quiet. 

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