Film criticism is an art form. The ability to read into the deeper messages of a film is a true talent and to put that knowledge into words can be painfully difficult. The best film critics have a wealth of knowledge one can only acquire through watching an absurd amount of films, ranging from summer blockbusters to art house indie movies. This specialized knowledge adds insight into a review, but it can also be to its detriment.
Reading more film reviews than I ever have before, I have become increasingly aware of a disturbing trend: the over-comparison of films. More and more, it seems as though many critics can't resist showing off how much they know about films, or how many they have seen in their lifetime. It is because of this arrogance that many films are unjustly lambasted, written off, and condemned.
On the whole, comparing a film to another set in a different world with different parameters is not conducive to an exceptional piece of criticism. It is important to give each film its due and undivided attention, and that means ignoring outside influences, such as other similar films and the source material upon which a film is based.
It is important to focus on whether you believe in the world, the story, and the characters presented on screen. A filmmaker's primary goal is to take the audience into their constructed reality. If it is done in a fluid manner, where all of the elements of the film work together in harmony, more often than not, the filmmaker has made an exceptional film.
Reading and listening to reviews, it is apparent that many films are reviewed poorly because they are not viewed in a cinematic bubble. To illustrate this point further, here are a couple of selections from top film critics (according to Rotten Tomatoes) who employ comparison in their reviews.
In Spike Jonze's “Her," Scarlett Johansson plays an operating system who becomes a human being's lover and then transcends him, moving into some numinous and ethereal computing cloud like the distant deity of liberal Protestant theology.The first sentence of Andrew O'Hehir's review of Transcendence
"Oblivion" is a big sci-fi movie which takes all the ideas in "2001: A Space Odyssey," "Silent Running," "WALL-E" and "Moon" and mixes them up. Then throws out the good ones. Then makes "Beneath the Planet of the Apes" anyway.Stephen Whitty, The Star Ledger in his review of Oblivion
This infantile excuse for an adventure yarn plays more like a triple-cross between "The DaVinci Code," "CSI," and "The Amazing Race" than “Raiders of the Lost Ark."James Berardinelli, Reel Views in his review of National Treasure
“Man of Steel" is an exceptionally unpleasant viewing experience, especially coming on the heels of such snappy superhero movies as “The Avengers." Indeed, by now, it's difficult not to see the DNA of previous comic book movies throughout the iconography of this one, right down to the way Superman kneels with his fist on the ground, Iron Man-style, before rocketing into space.Ann Hornaday, Washington Post in her review of Man of Steel
Everyone has a right to their opinion, but the way in which these reviewers back up their stance on these films is lazy criticism and misleading to the audience.
Recently, Ken Loach, a longtime independent filmmaker, disapproved of the reviewing process of many film critics, generally referring to them as “people who live in darkened rooms" and who don't “know life." On Mark Kermode's video blog, he expanded on his comments, and made interesting observations on what he believes critics do wrong:
By and large, critics don't deal with the subjects that [filmmakers] deal with when we are making a film. They don't say, 'Is the story worth telling?' … 'Do the characters reflect what we know of the world?' Those big issues aren't touched and their references are very often of other films.
In the video, Loach also says that the ideas brought about by his film, Hidden Agenda, were passed over by critics, who instead discussed whether or not the film was a thriller.
It was a wholly inadequate response. They didn't have to say it was a good film, but they should deal with the subject that we researched.
According to Loach, reviewers only rate films based on other cinematic or creative works and not the real world ideas and themes that are explored. Even though Loach's films are specific to the social struggles of the British and Irish, his suggestion of how films should be looked at should be applied every time you walk into a theater.
It should also be noted that there is no such thing as a truly original piece of art anymore. As art has evolved, creators have constantly drawn inspiration from previous works and expanded upon those ideas or molded them to fit the message they are attempting to convey. This goes the same for filmmaking. Of course, movies that are blatant ripoffs of other films should not be taken seriously and plagiarism should never be tolerated in any medium.
I am not saying that viewing a film in a cinematic bubble is an easy technique to put into practice. On the contrary, I struggle with it myself, but I have seen so many movies that have been ripped apart because they were “not faithful to the source material" or were accused of being derivative. As the effect of cinema upon culture continues to grow, it's time for both critics and audiences to start looking at films with fresh and undivided eyes.