Henry Bevan on whether we judge a film before we watch it…
One of the most disheartening things ever happened a few days ago. Dwayne Johnson, The Rock, generally awesome dude and woke bae, attacked film critics on Twitter because they didn’t like his new movie, Baywatch. According to Dwayne, “Fans LOVE the movie” whilst the critics had their “venom and knives ready”.
I know you’re possibly preparing for a presidential run in 2020, but it’s a bit early to start decrying FAKE NEWS, Dwayne. As a fan who is a critic (admittedly a tiny one), I find your tweets are often inspirational. Even though I’m not interested in getting ripped, your inspiration transcends pumping iron. You make people feel like they can achieve anything if they put their mind to it. That is why you’re beloved and why I, and most people, will turn out for any of your films.
Well, almost any of your films. Baywatch bombed, and Paramount are suggesting the negative reviews were a reason. Dwayne was just trying to keep the film afloat in the face of a critical storm the size of the one in San Andreas. So, why did he attack the critics and try spinning some positive press? Because the Rock understands how pre-release narratives, how stories about production problems and re-shoots impact a film’s critical and box-office success. If you think a film is going to be rubbish before you enter the cinema, you’ll probably think the film is rubbish when you leave the cinema.
This is also why Patty Jenkins was annoyed by the reports stating Wonder Woman was a mess, and more tragically, why Zack Synder felt he had to make public something that is none of our business. He knew people would gossip about his departure from Justice League and create false narratives that would harm the movie.
Both these directors are working within the DC Extended Universe, a franchise whose entries have so far been divisive. Wonder Woman‘s critical and commercial success should change the tide, but there is a lot of ill will towards Superman and company. In franchises, the reaction to earlier films impacts the one currently being released. If every film has been critically and commercially successful, it is harder for a negative narrative to take hold.
So studios obviously want a positive pre-release narrative and critics play a part in creating that narrative. Why do you think only four-and-five-star reviews end up on movie posters? Critics do play a role in curating the cultural conversation, but today they mainly exist to sell films. As someone in love with the profession and who reads reviews for fun, this was a heartbreaking realisation. A critic’s thoughts are co-opted for a last-minute marketing push, and critics willingly allow this. I know some of my peers will read this and scream at me, but just think about how many get excited when their review is quoted on a poster or in a trailer. I understand this response. I get excited when I see a tweet quoting one of my reviews let alone a movie poster. It’s a nice bit of validation my fragile writing soul needs, but getting poster-quoted shouldn’t be my main aim.
A review should simply critique the film. It should talk about whatever appears in the film’s runtime, not what happened during production or a director or actor’s reputation. If there are reports that a director is a misogynist and that misogyny is obvious from the film, then it should be talked about. If you dislike a director’s previous work, then you probably won’t like their new film, but you shouldn’t decide you’ll dislike it before entering the screening room.
That’s what a review should be, and critics don’t write their reviews six months before release. Dwayne, the critics might not like the idea of a Baywatch movie, but they’ll only trash a movie if it really is a turd.