Themes Over Substance In Film Criticism | Column from the Editor

I watch a lot of YouTube film critics. Truth be told, it’s how I got into blogging about movies almost a decade ago, as my teenaged-self was fascinated by what Doug Walker was doing with the Nostalgia Critic. Today’s column comes in direct response to a video made by YouTube film critic that goes by The Critical Drinker titled “How NOT To Critique Movies“, in which he describes a tendency online film critics have to focus on themes, and ignore lazy filmmaking.

I have personally been guilty of this, and I must admit it’s very easy to allow strong, interesting themes and ideas to overshadow half-baked characters and scenarios. Moreso than ever, films today employ narrative shortcuts often by referencing stories and characters we know that put in the work (this is especially relevant in franchise films) in a way in which reference and thematic undertones alone are used to establish character, motive, and background (sometimes even personality) rather than good storytelling, and I admit, if these films put a clever twist on these borrowed concepts or do something unexpected with them, it’s easy for me to forgive the fact that they’re built on nothing, and that shouldn’t be the case.

The “Star Wars” sequels serve as a potent example of telling stories through themes and reference than actual character construction, particularly by presenting an antagonist (Kylo Ren) and protagonist (Rey) that thematically mimic characters from the original trilogy (Darth Vader, Luke Skywalker), but whose backgrounds, motivations and overall characters remain half baked throughout the trilogy. Perhaps the most powerful moment in those films is when Kylo Ren kills Supreme Leader Snoke, the (at that point) presumed big bad of the franchise, perfectly encapsulating the theme that “The Last Jedi” wove through its narrative that this new generation was going to break the cycle of empire and rebellion and forge a new path by quite literally cutting the plot of the original trilogy in half. And truth be told, perhaps I would still like that film as much as I first saw it had its sequel capitalized on its bold acts. Unfortunately, the themes in the “Star Wars” sequels fell apart in a way that only amplified their hollow character writing. The featured image for this article is a character in “The Last Jedi” often referred to as Broom Boy, who serves as a great example of this empty sort of writing; We know very little about him other than he’s force sensitive, he serves no function in the overall plot of the story other than to reinforce the motif that “the rebellion is reborn”, in hopes of eliciting an emotional response from the viewer.

Specifically, the Drinker gets into how film critics tend to overanalyze films, using such examples of “Midsommar” and “Paul Blart: Mall Cop”.

“Paul Blart: Mall Cop could be seen as a sobering rumination on the rampant consumerism in a Post-9/11 world,” he says. “A warning against our misplaced faith in traditional authority figures, simply because they wear a uniform. Or a melancholic reflection on the struggles of faced by working class Americans against the background of the global financial crisis. Or it could just be a film about a fat guy on a Segway fighting criminals.”

Film critics cannot help but overanalyze films, though not all of that analysis is necessarily useful to the average moviegoer who just wants a quick recommendation on a film. It’s often been said that there are no more original ideas, and you can trace conventions to even the most mind-numbing blockbuster to decades of interconnected pop culture and a spiderweb of genres and pioneering works across mediums. If you want to take a deep dive, great, and it certainly gives film critics and those who do professional film studies things to write about and they might give you great insights on how the world works and how nothing is created in a vacuum, but their practical purposes are often finite.

Every film has themes, and brilliant themes do not always equate to good filmmaking. I do often enjoy pieces of analysis that address themes, especially in great works, as they help get into why they are so effective. And sometimes they might let you see a different interpretation of a work that will allow you to appreciate it, even if it is no masterpiece.

I think it brings up an important point that effective film criticism should always take into account how good a particular work is when compared to its genre/era counterparts. I think a lot of viewers get fed up with critics because we often fail to answer one central question they demand of us: Is ___ film a good example of what ___ film is? Critics often get mucked up by adopting a pre-conceived notions of genre hierarchy that only serve to muddle their palettes, as well as this constant need to compare every work to what they view as high art.

This also taps into the existential question of entertainment criticism in general: Its usefulness, but that’s a subject that demands its own column in of itself.

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