Readers Write In #61: Metacriticism – The difficulty of reviewing a movie in the digital age

Posted on December 2, 2018

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I watched the Rajnikanth starrer “2.0” yesterday and now I’m faced with a very difficult question. What do I say when a friend asks me: “How was the film?” No one’s going to look for a detailed analysis of the visual effects or the strength of the screenplay or whether there was a focal character for the audience to sympathise with. It’s the simplification they look for: Whether it’s good or bad. That good or bad classification soon becomes radicalized among groups of friends into “Sema mass” or “Padu mokkai.” Most of these are people who have just watched the trailers. How did we get here?

The domain of film criticism has undergone a rapid change. About a decade ago, reviews in Cinema Plus or the Indian Express were my first point of contact with movies. Before that there was the “Top Ten Movies” on Sun TV. It usually took anywhere from 3 to 5 days for the verdict on the movie to be passed. That was ample time to go and take a look at the movie yourself. With the advent of the internet, the movie review scene has exploded. Each reviewer has his own brand of reviewing the movie. Prashant Rangaswamy tries to give a layman perspective of the movie by neatly laying down the pros and cons. Abhishek Raja lists down all the people involved in the movie, from the guy who scored the BGM to the art director. “Blue Sattai” Maaran is unsympathetic to any effort that’s gone into the movie and he rips apart the movie saying there’s not much of a story to look for. Finally, there’s Baradwaj Rangan whose reviews you read to figure out what you missed while watching the movie so that you can catch it in the next viewing.

The problem with the professional reviewers is that it’s their job. They can’t afford to wait for inspiration and NOT review a movie, waiting for the time where something really good will come up to shape a review. Once there’s a fan following, they’re under pressure to watch the movie on the first day and air their opinions online within a day about what they think. These reviews are not always art appreciation, doubling as a tool for the audience to pick which movie to watch and which not to. When you’re doing the same thing again and again, you need to bring a change into the routine as well. The reviews become an art form in themselves and the reviewer is under as much pressure to make the video innovative as Shankar is to make 2.0 out of the world.

It’s difficult to do this consistently and many times the reviewer falls into a rut. There’s no variation in form. How do you stay invested in a review which talks every time in serial order about the story, the actor’s performance, the music, the cinematography, the second half, the climax… Doesn’t this formula become obsolete after a while? And is it really possible to explain every movie in terms of its components? Its like saying, “The tomatoes used are of the highest quality. They have been chopped into nice pieces and are being cooked with aluminium cookware. Only iodised salt has been added…” What’s the taste of the damn curry?

There’s also the glut of movie related videos online now. There are reviews for the first look of a movie, the trailer, the teaser, the single, the album, the audio launch function and the motion poster. Apart from these there are interviews of the director, the cameraman and some childhood friend of the star who watched a movie with him once. The title is too clickbaity to ignore – “Shocking secrets about 2.0 revealed.” But with the lack of content, there are videos with titles like this as well, which people still click: “Lyricist of the first song of Petta revealed!” Can any movie, however awesome it is, do justice to this sort of hype?

The problem with reviews is that it can explain a story but not an experience. Take the recent films 96 and Pariyerum Perumal for example. Their premise is very simple and it’s not much of a “story” if you explain it verbally. But these films were deeply touching on an emotional level because the characters, the music and the circumstances come together perfectly in moments that make the movie worth watching. On the other hand, 2.0 has a screenplay that moves like a bullet train. One event moves on to the next hardly leaving time for the audience to breath. Before you get time to question, “Wait, is he just saying Akshay Kumar’s ghost is a fifth force? Did he just say positive radiation and positive vibes are the same thing?”, you are floored with grand 3-D effects and fight sequences which end up becoming the talking point of the film. You don’t know what to say about A.R.Rahman’s music these days as well. You trash talk “Simtaangaaran” the first time you hear it and you’re ashamed to tell anyone four days later that it actually grew on you.

There is great danger in denouncing a film harshly these days as it can make you come across as nit-picky and snobbish. “Why do you look for logic in a film like this? A movie is just for entertainment,” is the usual comment. These are the same people who question Nolan’s scientific integrity even though he hired an actual cosmologist for the black hole visualization in Interstellar. With the increasing popularity of online platforms, negative criticism of a movie is also taken as a regional insult. My Telugu friends try to justify that Bahubali is the biggest thing that happened to Indian cinema with others who bring up the visual standards of Hollywood. Is either side right or wrong? There is such a staggering amount of information online that no reviewer can take up a single viewpoint and defend it adequately.

Finally, there’s the risk of a movie not being taken seriously at all. Leading this front is the army of meme creators who use intertextuality and references to simplify every movie scene to a Vadivelu comedy. You can craft the best dialogue or the most beautiful visuals, but if they can find a tad of similarity to existing content, your movie is going to be ripped apart as a joke. The scene has changed so much now that it’s not just movies, but critics themselves who are being mocked in meme channels. Why has it become so complicated to just go and watch a movie? Why bring it down to the level of politics?

Thinking about all this, I reach home and my friend asks me, “How was the movie?” I choose the diplomatic answer. “It has a good message.” Let him find out for himself.

By K R Adhithya (@adhithya_kr on Twitter)