The Pitfalls Of Today’s Movie Criticism


Typically, the career path to film criticism doesn’t start with a 7-year-old in class declaring that they want to review movies when they grow up. As a kid from Nairobi, my journey toward a life dedicated to analyzing film began when my elder brothers exposed me early to movies that required me to access more complex emotions than a typical tween would usually need to conjure up. Think of a 10-year-old trying to comprehend something like Michael Mann’s complex crime thriller Heat. I toyed with dreams of becoming a filmmaker myself at the time, as there seemed to be a resurgence of African film because thanks to a shifting global media landscape and available grant money, filmmakers here started securing funding, however, after realizing the level of skill and financial backing required just to get started, I opted to revise my approach to breaking into the film industry. 

Every film critic has a unique path into the business. Mine was driven by a desire to shine a light on African cinema — an industry currently undergoing an artistic boom. Directors like Kagiso Lediga and Mbithi Masya are now telling contemporary stories about Africans that go beyond our stereotypes and famous politicians, gradually shaping what modern African filmmaking looks like. I knew that as an African film critic, my job would consist of watching a gluttonous amount of their movies and TV shows and developing well-informed opinions on everything I watched. By the time I joined university, I felt like I was doing that for free anyway, so I might as well get paid for it. 

Within four years, I had conducted celebrity interviews, written for The Guardian, and even received invitations to prestigious film festivals. However, as an African film critic, it’s challenging to generate enough income solely on film criticism due to our still-developing industry. Consequently, many of us must expand our repertoire and write about more than African cinema. To sustain myself financially and continue covering African films, I often contribute to American and occasionally British publications. 

While I’m occasionally bothered by the practices of Hollywood and the British film industry, as a foreigner, I feel somewhat restrained in voicing my complaints. When starting out, I didn’t know anyone who was doing this from Nairobi, so criticizing the industry I had worked so hard to break into seemed ungrateful, even though by then, the cracks in the entertainment media industry were already fully visible to me. 

The biggest flaw for film writers, I began to realize, was that often writers are told to draft superfluous articles about celebrities to satisfy a publication’s advertisers and investors. In return, writers and editors make enough to pay their bills. At the time, I thought it wasn’t so bad; I could at least infuse my writing with humor. 

Furthermore, I am reasonable enough to realize that watching a comic book movie at 11 a.m. on a Tuesday, crafting a 500-word review, and then rating it on a scale of 1 to 5 is a privilege and a relatively stress-free way to make a living. 

Anyone who understands how the world works can predict that a publication that increases its readership because of this fluff will eventually change its policy and prioritize such superfluous pieces. So, when The Creator was released last year, I knew it would be an uphill task to get the green light from my editors to write something meaningful about a war between humans and artificial intelligence. The night the layered sci-fi film came out, I watched with a couple of friends as former U.S. Army Sergeant Joshua Taylor (John David Washington) gets lured back into the front lines in the war against AI by his colonel after she convinces Taylor that in the warzone he might reunite with his long-believed dead wife Maya Fey (Gemma Chan). The movie is set in a not-so-distant future where AI has gained sentience and committed a terrorist attack in the middle of Los Angeles, prompting the army to vow to eliminate these machines from planet Earth. 

The film was so brutal in its depiction of U.S. Army tactics against the AI that none of my friends even wanted to talk about it after the film ended. “I just feel like with everything going on in Gaza, this is too soon,” one quipped. And it was true. The Creator has one of the most unflattering representations of war in recent film history. Gareth Edwards, the movie’s director, was seemingly more interested in abstractions than critiquing any specific army campaign — so I thought writing about the film would be a fun exercise. But when I got home and pitched this story to my editor, I found out that analysis of this movie had already been assigned to another writer . . . which is fine, that’s part of the job. 

I was instead assigned to write a column about the tragic true-life story of Robert Pattinson, the English actor most well-known for his role in the Twilight saga. The reason for the assignment: The previous week, one of the best-performing articles for my publication was titled “The Untold Truth about Robert Pattinson.” So, I had the arduous task of figuring out which truths about Robert Pattinson were not only still left untold by the previous week’s article but were also tragic. Still, I found a way. 

Now, Robert Pattinson is a fine actor and I’m a huge fan, but I never thought there’d be a day I could confidently claim I may know more about that man than I know about my family or close friends. 

Once I completed the Pattinson assignment, I remained eager to get back to commentary on The Creator from critics I admire. I’ve always been a big fan of cultural criticism and have felt compelled to seek out the perspectives of a handful of critics on any new film release. America had its golden age of film criticism, heralded by influential figures like Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert, who significantly influenced the approach of current practitioners in the field. For African film critics, our golden age occurred relatively recently, led by figures such as Oris Aigbokhaevbolo and Tambay Obenson, who have provided a model for earning a living in this profession. Both writers supplement coverage of modern African cinema with contributions to international publications and coverage of film festivals, ultimately establishing themselves in the industry. The goal, regardless of a critic’s origin, has always been to make a name for oneself and then earn the license to write opinions freely and openly. 

But given the ever-changing media landscape, that model quickly required some much-needed updates. I grew up during what I will refer to as the Silver Age of Film Criticism — an era with its own standout voices and contrarians, but they weren’t household names; instead, they served as the voices of particular prestigious publications. It was The Vulture, not Hunter Harris, that stood out as an astute and humorous pop culture critic. Similarly, it was the A.V. Club that could accurately articulate the expectations of the general audience from their TV shows, not A. A. Dowd. The Silver Age was replete with talent, as long as you knew where to look. Thus, I was excited to check out the big publications and read what everyone was saying about The Creator.

It was a very tense time in Hollywood when The Creator was released; the actors’ and the writers’ unions were deep in negotiation with the studios during a work stoppage, and one of the biggest issues addressed by their negotiations was how AI would be used in their industry going forward. So, I was not surprised that the first few reviews I read about the film were all about AI, but then I kept looking, hoping that at least one major publication would address how timely the message of dehumanizing the opponent during times of war was. However, there was none. Every single review I read — positive or negative — decried the portrayal of AI in The Creator as not being evil enough to justify the fears creatives have about losing their jobs to AI. 

In the third act of The Creator Taylor becomes fully immersed in the AI child’s sentience, whom he’s now named Alphie (Madeleine Yuna Voyles). Taylor realizes that above all else, Alphie is just a child. At every opportune moment, the movie pauses to remind the audience of the sentience of the AI robots. They have a sense of humor, they can lose their temper, and most importantly, they can love. Taylor also realizes this, and he just can’t bring himself to harm a child — so ultimately, given Alphie’s importance as the only one with the capability to completely end the war, Taylor and Alphie are on the run from both the U.S. Army and the AI Army. Fortunately, they are discovered by a high-ranking soldier named Harun (Ken Watanabe) from the AI Army. Despite Harun’s initial suspicion and anger towards Taylor, he explains that the AI never desired war with humans. He reveals that the “terror attack” in L.A. was actually a man-made explosion caused by a coding error. Much like the themes explored in The Creator, it has become evident that threats to the creative community’s livelihood stem from tangible, man-made issues rather than from AI. Major publications’ lack of in-depth analysis regarding the film’s commentary on the military-industrial complex isn’t due to censorship but rather reflects the pressure for writers to conform to online trends. 

At the time, the predominant online discourse centered around AI rather than war. Consequently, articles at the time of The Creator’s release fixated on past AI portrayals in film and tangential topics — such as Tom Cruise’s fictional encounters with AI in the latest ‘Mission: Impossible’ installment and even President Joe Biden’s perspective on the matter. And then it hit me: that’s precisely why I found myself dramatizing Robert Pattinson’s expulsion from school at age 12. I wanted to evoke a sense of tragedy. Realizing this parallel, I began to question the sustainability of my career trajectory. If this pattern persists, my role may devolve into perpetually chasing fleeting trends rather than fostering meaningful discourse about film. This realization prompted deep contemplation about potential career changes. 

It wasn’t always like this; when I first entered the field, you could write whatever you wanted about a movie, and things remained the same for me until April 2023. The publication I worked for fired a long-term editor, and all the writers were informed that revenue streams from the articles we wrote were unsatisfactory. The higher-ups informed writers that they had figured out a way to use perfect SEO practices to ensure our articles would be viewed by more readers. SEO, short for Search Engine Optimization, is a strategy used by publications to make their content show up as the top result on search engines like Google. It involves understanding how search engine algorithms work and tailoring articles to match those criteria. While SEO brings in revenue for publications, this “Google journalism” transforms keywords and movies into clickbait material. 

At first, I welcomed SEO to my writing because I was most proud of two things in my professional life: my internet searching skills and my writing skills. With enough time, I thought I could provide a clean, well-sourced copy on just about any topic. But the story choices just kept getting worse and the enforced style of writing became formulaic. One time, a Larry David interview went viral when he revealed that he filmed a death scene for his show Curb Your Enthusiasm just in case the show ended abruptly. In quick response, my editor suggested an article where 10 other actors recorded their characters’ demise. Such a list obviously could not be compiled; that was just Larry David’s eclectic humor. 

During the silver age of criticism, publications could track not only how many people clicked on their articles but also how long they spent on them. So, it wasn’t enough to write an article with a sensational headline anymore; it also had to hold the readers’ attention for as long as possible. These practices led writers to produce low-quality articles and consumer fatigue. Then, Google also started generating its own AI answers to queries, so the number of readers clicking on the stories just kept shrinking with every passing day. Suddenly, all the SEO wizardry became unable to solve these particular issues, and revenues dropped. But since consumers were now more attached to a brand than any critic in particular, the next inevitable step followed: Just lay the writers off. 

It would be simpler to blame media executives for fixating on unsustainable revenue models that appease algorithms rather than actual readers, but that would ignore our collective complicity as media, in general. We writers knew when stories prioritized visibility over informational value. All of us understood how robotic and inorganic our work had become. We invited the wolf into our pen because the wolf promised to play by the sheep’s rules. And that ended up eroding the general consumers’ trust in our work. So, much like the AI robots in The Creator, I’m aware that journalists of all disciplines do not qualify as perfect victims to most readers. 

According to a Clare Malone article for The New Yorker about recent media layoffs, experts are now suggesting that the path forward for digital publishers is building a reputation with a strong audience — a proposal that seems odd, considering these same experts were once suggesting sacrificing that very reputation for SEO practices. Seemingly, the path forward is actually a path backward. For entertainment journalism, many of the best in the field have diversified how they reach an audience, primarily through podcasts and newsletters. 

Of course, some talented film critics don’t have a substantial online following and need a publication with the manpower to handle the outreach and business side of things. These individuals are seemingly the worst hit by this seismic shift in the media landscape. Many freelance entertainment journalists spend their days just coming up with timely pitches for various publications willing to publish film criticism. 

To address this issue, journalists are now collaborating with each other to launch smaller independent newsrooms, operating on a subscription model. The idea behind this new framework is to provide journalists with more freedom to write about topics they believe in, rather than being beholden to external factors that may not necessarily enhance the quality of the content readers consume. The hope is that this approach will rebuild the trust lost due to the overreliance on SEO practices to attract ad revenue. 

The Creator may merit a re-evaluation that shifts the focus onto its portrayals of war rather than solely on AI, visual effects, and Hollywood’s current intellectual property boom. It’s important to recognize that some films, now regarded as among the greatest of all time, have undergone significant critical reassessment. For instance, The Godfather, Part II was originally dismissed by The New York Times as a sequel that “like many people who have nothing to say . . . won’t shut up.” 

Criticism inherently involves the risk of being completely off the mark — it’s part of the job. However, an equally significant aspect of criticism is the opportunity for reassessment. Unfortunately, in the current media landscape dominated by trends, this opportunity appears increasingly elusive. 

A broader reassessment of media practices is also overdue. Hopefully, the changes being initiated by media players will endure, as they are more necessary now than ever before.•



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