Contradictheory: Fans, critics and making your mind up


  • Living
  • Tuesday, 27 Feb 2018

What do the films Star Wars: The Last Jedi and The Greatest Showman have in common? They’re both films where critics and the public disagree with each other.

Let’s take the latter. It has been a hit with audiences, which the movie review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes demonstrates with its 89% audience score. However, only 55% of the critics approved of it.

Why the stark difference? The Greatest Showman is a musical about real-life American showman P.T. Barnum starring Hugh Jackman. It’s brightly coloured, a bold in-your-face film with catchy tunes that leave you wanting more of the same (if you’re a five-year-old, this means five or six times a day). It’s an easy film to like, it has the message of “we may be different, but so what?”, and it’s fun.

That’s all there is to it, really. Jackman’s charm propels it along, and as undeniably talented the rest of the cast are, they are patching over a thin story. The real Barnum was more complicated that the movie’s simple characterisation. Also, the music has been accused of being too “poppy” and unsophisticated.

But the audiences can’t stay away from this film. Although the box office started off slowly, The Greatest Showman is on track to become the best performing original live-action musicals of all time. Not bad for a film that has not charted higher than fourth in the US domestic weekend box office. It’s one of the side plots in the movie: As long as the audience is enjoying the show, who cares what the serious critics think? They’ll be won over in the end.

But a critic’s role is, arguably, to give a deeper understanding about a topic than we otherwise might recognise. Critics watch so many movies and think about them so much that they understand stuff at a deeper level.

I’m going to take a few paragraphs from the work of Film Crit Hulk (yes, that’s a real critic on the Internet), and agree with him that just because two people have a subjective opinion about a movie, it doesn’t mean that both opinions are equally valid (tinyurl.com/Star2-critic).

His analogy is that a group of people can listen to a car engine and say, “that sounds great!” However, a mechanic listens and hears something is wrong. Nobody assumes the mechanic is equally as right or wrong as any other person there. In fact, the minority of one expert is probably more correct than the majority of nonexperts.

So my first point is that experts tend to know what they’re talking about, and just because public opinion is against them, it doesn’t mean the experts are wrong.

Let’s turn now to a movie that you are more likely to have seen: Star Wars: The Last Jedi. It’s made over US$1.3bil (RM 5bil) at the worldwide box office since its release on Dec 14 last year. Not too shabby.

Except that when you examine Rotten Tomatoes, the audience score is a paltry 48%, meaning that more than half the people who watched it did not like it. Conversely, reviews from the critics have generated a score of 91%, and if you limit it to only the “top 50” critics (as defined by Rotten Tomatoes), that number rises to 96%.

There are people who actually detest The Last Jedi – I know, I’ve talked to them. They’re all fairly serious Star Wars fans who feel somehow betrayed – a clue, I believe, to understanding this dichotomy.

If you want to read an interesting take on this backlash, I recommend the article on Vox at tinyurl.com/Star2-Vox. My opinion is similar to the one expressed in the article: To all those who hate The Last Jedi because the other Star Wars films are better, you are missing the irony that it is purposefully undermining the tropes set by its predecessors. This is not a movie for your generation, it’s a break to bookend a new saga for the next.

But surely this doesn’t explain the 52% who didn’t like the film on Rotten Tomatoes? There aren’t quite enough dedicated fans are they?

Well, there are if they brigade and vote over and over again. The clue is in when you look at the film’s Cinemascore rating (Cinemascore is an exit poll of moviegoers on the first night of screening; go to cinemascore.com). Despite its alleged divisiveness, The Last Jedi scored an A on opening night. (The Greatest Showman predictably also scored an A.)

So the second point to make is that a very vocal minority can sound as if they are the mainstream, especially in this age of the Internet.

A movie that opened here last week is Black Panther. In the United States, it has set the record for the biggest advance ticket sales for any superhero movie in history. It currently has a Rotten Tomato critic score of 97%.

It’s also the first Marvel film to feature an almost-all African-American cast, and it’s showing during America’s Black History Month. There are numerous stories of inner city schools (which usually have predominantly black students) organising school trips to watch the movie, with words like “representation”, “self-esteem” and “empowerment” thrown about.

So, my last point is less a statement than a question: If race is used to sell a film, is that a bad thing? Does it make a difference if the film is, at the end of the day, good?

Or maybe you should just watch the movie and make your own mind up.

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In his fortnightly column, Contradictheory, mathematician-turned-scriptwriter Dzof Azmi explores the theory that logic is the antithesis of emotion but people need both to make sense of life’s vagaries and contradictions. Write to Dzof at star2@thestar.com.my.


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