April 20, 2014

Can today's reviewers remain clear-headed when a movie frustrates their hardened expectations?

In our 24-hour news stream culture, critics and audiences alike seek out information about upcoming movies, months in advance. By the time it is released in theaters, their expectations are so hardened that any deviation will deal them a major blow of cognitive dissonance. And rather than adjust in a humble way — "Huh, this is very different from what I was expecting, but let's go with it" — they follow the standard human programming and belittle the movie instead.

It's not just that it has failed to live up to their expectations — that happens all the time, and those expectations might not have been terribly high in the first place. It's that it has turned out to be of a different nature than they had expected, whether they were deliberately misled by the ad campaign or they were overly eager to form preconceived notions of their own, to alleviate their OCD fear of uncertainty.

When the viewers construe a movie as a bait-and-switch scam, or a glossy apple with a slimy worm inside, or a Trojan horse, they will naturally feel disgust, immediately vomit the product back up, and warn others to stay far away from it. This reaction of disgust, which pans the movie in black-and-white terms, goes far beyond how they would respond if it had merely been disappointing or not-so-good.

But, just because a movie's ad campaign and industry buzz turned out to be misleading, doesn't mean you can't still enjoy it. In fact, that's what you ought to expect — that the packaging will try to appeal to the lowest common denominator, to maximize butts in seats. If you thoughtlessly accept the packaging devised by high-priced ad agencies and Hollywood publicists, then you are a naive fool. Especially if the campaign leads you to expect something mind-blowing — you know what they say about something that seems too good to be true.

I know — shame on the advertisers for framing the movie in a different tone or genre than it actually will be. Still, get used to devious advertising, and be open to being pleasantly surprised when it goes somewhere you weren't expecting. Otherwise you'll spazz out instead of enjoying something like Man of Steel (which I reviewed, along with the spazz-fest, here).

I don't think people felt such a stinging disappointment to movie releases back before everyone developed OCD and the need for micro-forecasting, and before they became so trusting of the propaganda put out by faceless bureaucracies (whether corporate or governmental).*

All worth bearing in mind when you try to use reviews as a guide for what to see, or to inform your own expectations.

This has been another prefatory post to my review, hopefully up today, of Transcendence. Each time I sit down to write it, there's another layer of culture-smog that needs to be blown out of the room first. Perhaps there is more to say about the reaction to it, and what that reveals about the state of our culture, than about the movie itself (but I'll do that too).

* These abnormalities are symptoms of cocooning syndrome. People with zero social safety net are much more unstable to small perturbations from their plans — there's little slack in the system when you're the only one in it. And if you are too creeped out by other people to interact with them, including your own white middle-class neighbors, then you look to a larger-scale authority to mediate and control your relationships with others. True, you feel more like a slave, but more importantly you don't have to interact with other people — cuh-reeeepy!


  1. Interested in your review of Transcendence. I've seen the commercials, and have seen that its bombing. I noticed, in the commercial: 1) some scientist guy (presumably Johnny Depps' friend), acts shocked at one point (when Johnny appears on the computer?). He gasps and holds his face like a girl. I was immediately turned off. 2) Johnny Depp's character, giving a TED-type talk, seems like the kind of douche that I wouldn't like watching for 90 minutes. 3) the commercial seemed a bit incoherent: Johnny gets put in a computer, then chaotic, physical violence ensues (the ground seems to erupt, machinery explodes, etc). This seems scientifically, or physically inexplicable (how does a computer make the ground erupt?). From this it seems that the movie might have high brow pretensions (human AI grows into a God), but ends up being just a special effects adventure movie. Again, the commercial turned me off.

    I have no intention of seeing it, but I'm curious what an intelligent reviewer thinks of it.


  2. This may have something to do with the complete absence of foreign films or other content on American television, unlike in Europe. Although, in larger markets like France and Germany they are always dubbed.
    Genres of all types also seem to become more hidebound, as seen in 'young adult' fiction.

  3. You'll get a major kick out of this: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/960748838/tinitell-introducing-a-wristphone-for-kids

    It hits EVERY checkbox of your analysis...Helicopter parents, technosaturation, aspirational marketing for cocooning parents (whose kids are probably strapped to their ipads in the first place and never go outside anyway.)

  4. Yeah that line about how it's tough enough for "the sandbox" -- like their kids have ever seen one.

    They're simply not allowed out of a direct line of sight until they're in middle school, at which point their parents will shell out the dough for not only a real cell phone but the monthly bills too.

    "I'm just so stressed out by how expensive it is to raise kids nowadays!"

    Maybe because parents nowadays have such airheaded ideas about what is necessary for a 12 year-old child...


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