Why I think critics tend to overpraise mediocre, but ambitious, films

Yesterday I saw Arrival. It’s gotten great reviews (a 94% on Rotten Tomatoes). My Facebook feed has been abuzz with praise for it. And it’s based on a story by one of my favorite writers, Ted Chiang. And the film is the kind of thing I might like very much: a linguist rushes to communicate with a newly-arrived alien race.

I really, really wanted to like the movie. But ultimately I found myself getting kind of bored. The core problem with the movie, and the story it’s based on, is that it requires you to swallow something pretty incredible: the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. This is the idea that people think in a different manner depending on which language they speak. Thus, a Mandarin speaker has qualitatively different thought patterns (not as a result of their culture, but as a result of the language itself) from an English speaker. In the story and in the movie, this is taken to its logical extreme, when the linguist’s brain is changed in an incredible and superhuman fashion by the alien’s language.

But Chiang’s story succeeds for the same reason all of his stories succeed, which are: a) the story is so quietly moving and deeply personal that you accept whatever he’s talking about; and b) he extends his premise to the furthest and most incredible extent, so you find your own mind blown by the chilly and incredible power of his.

The movie lacks these things, and as a result, it is boring. The main character is a cypher. She’s haunted by thoughts of a child she’s yet to have, but those flashes are shown in such generic terms–yes, she is a mother who has a daughter and they do mother/daughter things–and are so devoid of context from her life that you have little understanding of her. In fact, the person in the flashes seems completely different from the person we’re watching. In the present day, Amy Adams (who plays the linguist) is utterly focused on her work, but she’s also full of fear. There’s a palpable nervousness whenever she’s on screen. In the future portions, she has neither the fear nor the passion. She’s subsumed by motherhood. Which is, okay, maybe that happens, but it seems strange when in the present she is so sexless and so completely not oriented towards the family.

So the quiet emotion doesn’t feel like it’s there. And the cool logic and rationality is also gone. For one thing, I just didn’t believe in anything I was seeing. In the movie, aliens land, and the world pauses. The day after the landing, Amy Adams comes to her university, and nobody is there. The quad is empty. Her classroom is empty.

Why? Where did all the students go? Are they really just huddling in their dorm rooms? Or booking flights to get home? I didn’t believe it. They might be frightened and anxious. They might have terrible dreams. But some portion of them would still go to class. School wouldn’t suddenly end. I mean we went to school the day after 9/11 and people went to school the day after Trump was elected, and both of these things were ultimately a lot more frightening than mysterious, but at-the-moment non-threatening, aliens.

And then the rest of it, the build up of geopolitical tension. It all seemed very contrived. Like something that needed to happen in order to raise the stakes on what’s ultimately not a very high stakes story. I’m sorry, but I didn’t believe that in the span of less than a month, China would get tired of the aliens and decide to attack them. The aliens would need to do something first. The leaders of China aren’t idiots.

So anyway, I just didn’t believe in and wasn’t invested in anything I saw on the screen. Also, the basic linguistics that we saw wasn’t particularly interesting either. It amounted to: write down words and act out what they say. Like, would it really be that easy to communicate with aliens? They actually seemed to learn each others’ language really quickly, and you almost think that within another few weeks, they would’ve been chatting as easily as you and I could.

 

The other mediocre movie I saw was Manchester-By-The-Sea. This one did well at Sundance, scored a distribution deal, and was released to good reviews (also a 90+ on Rotten Tomatoes).

This movie has a lot more good stuff in it than Arrival did. It’s about a guy who committed a terrible wrong and as a result retreated from life. But when his brother dies he’s given the guardianship of his sixteen year old nephew, and now he has the chance to perhaps forgive himself.

Casey Affleck, who plays the protagonist, gives a stolid, wordless performance. This is the guy who can’t ever express what he’s feeling. All he gives the world is a flat stare. He makes plans without ever explaining the why or how of it. The entire movie consists of nothing more than people trying to get something out of him.

But the movie contains a lot of black humor and vivid characters. There were so many nice little moments. For instance, when a guy is crying in the hospital and a nurse asks if he wants a Kleenex and then, off-screen, you hear her saying to someone else, “Hey, can you hand me a few Kleenex.”

Or when Casey and his nephew are outside the hospital, and the kid is debating whether to go see his dad, and he finally says, “Let’s just go” and Casey starts driving right as the kid opens the door, and then they have an argument about what “Let’s just go” means.

There is a lot of good stuff here.

But it’s slow. And it’s bleak. And Casey, if he changes, does so in tiny imperceptible ways. I can’t actually tell you how the movie ends, because I left about thirty minutes from the end. In the beginning of the movie, Casey gets into a bar fight for no reason. And then, toward the end, he finds himself back in a bar. I whispered to the friend I was seeing the movie with, “Hey, if he hits that guy, let’s leave the movie,” and he did, so we did.

It was just so fucking tedious. I mean I understand why he hit the guy, it was to show us that he was having a dark moment and slowly slipping back into his old ways. But the forward progress he’d made was SO tiny that it just felt like nothing had happened at all.

 

Anyway, both of these movies did really well with the critics. Arrival, weirdly, is even doing well at the box office!

Personally I’ve noticed that when a movie is really ambitious, as these two movies were, it almost always gets great reviews, no matter how shitty the execution might’ve been. I can’t imagine what it’s like to be a movie critic and to have to see so many soulless Lone Ranger reboots and Pirates of the Carribean movies. But I think that because of all the dreck out there, critics give really good reviews whenever something rises even a little bit above the morass.

But I’m not a critic. I don’t see a hundred movies a year. I only see ten. And I don’t want to know if a movie is one of the hundred best that came out this year. What I want to know is if it’s one of the ten.

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