My Movie-Related New Year's Resolution

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by Matt Singer
December 31, 2012 1:01 PM
5 Comments
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"Star Trek Into Darkness."

Ah, New Year's Eve. Such a beautiful holiday, such a horrible Garry Marshall movie. And such a great time to make resolutions; to look in the mirror, brutally assess your flaws, and vow to improve them. We promise ourselves we'll lose ten pounds, or swear less, or get less annoyed when goddamn crying babies won't shut their fucking mouths while I'm trying to read on the subway (oops, there goes #2). Those resolutions are common. But over the past few weeks, I've realized I want to make another, more unusual New Year's Resolution this year. A movie-related one. And here it is:

In 2013, I'll write more reflection and less prediction.

This is something that's been nagging me lately; the sheer amount of effort expended by film journalists guessing stuff about upcoming movies. We try to figure out who Benedict Cumberbatch is going to play in "Star Trek Into Darkness." We hypothesize why Superman is wearing handcuffs in "Man of Steel." We debate whether "Pacific Rim" is going to look like "Transformers." 

It's fun to watch a trailer and speculate about the finished movie. But that's hype, not criticism. There's a place for that, of course; after all, there's no movie business without new movies to look forward to. But that place has gotten awfully big lately. Maybe too big.

Don't get me wrong: I'm curious about Cumberbatch's "STID" character, "John Harrison," too. But whether he's really Khan or Gary Mitchell or a time-traveling Rutherford B. Hayes, what difference does it make? The movie is the movie, and it's not coming out until May. The filmmakers tease you with just enough information to guess, but not enough information to guess correctly -- because if you solve the mystery, you'll stop writing about their movie and start writing about something else. The piece I want to read is the one written after "STID" comes out, when some hardcore Trekkie breaks down how Harrison -- whoever he really is -- compares with his previous iterations and reflects the shifting ideology of "Star Trek" throughout the decades. Dammit Jim, I'm a film critic, not a gumshoe! 

In a sense, pieces analyzing trailers or posters aren't all that different from pieces slamming "Zero Dark Thirty" without actually watching it. It's all supposition and conjecture. So why do we hate when someone does it about "Zero Dark Thirty" but love when someone does it about, say, "John Carter" -- a movie that was widely written off months before its release? Shouldn't we wait to judge all movies until after we see them?

Earlier this year, I coined the term "perpetual sneak preview culture" to describe the kind of marketing overload that has started to take hold at some film websites. Every day there's a new teaser, or behind the scenes featurette, or five exclusive new stills. Each one comes with its own prediction-laden blog post; each builds up bigger expectations that are harder to match. We start to confuse good marketing with good moviemaking -- or worse, we assume bad marketing equals bad moviemaking. We form our opinions, then watch the movie as a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. "John Carter" looks bad, hence "John Carter" is bad (or, for a 2013 example, how about "Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters?") The "Zero Dark Thirty" ads that run during NFL football sell it as a piece of macho, patriotic action, hence "Zero Dark Thirty" is a piece of macho, patriotic action. 

Once we make those kinds of predictions, serious, unbiased reflection is that much harder. That's why I'm going to try to write less of the former and more of the latter in 2013.

And before you call me a hypocrite for publishing a piece earlier today about the most anticipated movies of 2013 let me just say: that was written in 2012. So it totally doesn't count (and it's more evidence of how badly I need to make some self-improvement). Plus, who actually keeps their New Year's Resolution, anyway?

Ooh! Ooh! I know who John Harrison is! He's one of the humpback whales from "Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home!" I mean, look, he's in that tank just like the whales were in that tank at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and Kirk's standing there just like he stood there in "The Voyage Home." Thoughts?

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5 Comments

  • Arch | January 3, 2013 11:27 AMReply

    I cannot be less than 200% behind you. But let's face it, you'll be quite alone on this road. I'm curious to know whether your very interesting idea of a "perpetual sneak preview culture" could be a symptom of an ever growing need for News created by websites. It seems to me everybody's playing the producers/marketing game for the sake of these [OMFG] tagged news. Something that in my opinion, has been sadly even more prevalent among genre flicks and geek material... the recent buzz around the evil dead trailer would be a summary of that comic-con state of mind.

  • Arch | January 8, 2013 6:04 AM

    Add to this the recent Texas Chainsaw affair. Maybe I'm oversensitive about this, but because I did follow this closely, I can't help thinking there's been a lot going on for the last 10 years or so as far as horror movies critic goes. Just sayin'.

  • Jason Bellamy | January 1, 2013 11:35 AMReply

    You have my full support in this endeavor.

    As much traffic as speculative, pre-release posts get, does anyone go back and read them after a film is released? If not, I think that says something of their value to the overall conversation.

    Besides, if the ideal is for most movie discussion to unfold after a film is released (and what serious movie fan shouldn't want that?), the problem is even bigger than what you've described. As you well know, there were numerous reviews posted of movies like LES MIS and DJANGO UNCHAINED (and, I think, ZERO DARK THIRTY) more than a week before they were released to the public -- not just in mainstream America, but even in NYC and LA, so far as I can tell. (Please correct me if I'm wrong.)

    Sure, studio imposed embargo dates make those pre-release reviews fair game. And, sure, at least the reviews in question were written by critics who had actually seen them (which is different than what you're describing above). So, again, fair game.

    But if we assume that the ideal is for conversation to start once the movie is available, those early reviews don't make sense: they are written by an extremely small minority (far less than 1% of those who will end up seeing the movie) for a mass audience that doesn't have access to the thing being reviewed. Thus, the only people who "should" begin discussing those movies are the few critics who have seen them. But that's not what happens, and thus critics/publications seem to be encouraging audiences to form opinions in advance.

    Alas, that's a harder bell to unring. Avoiding speculative posts about what movies 'might' be would be a terrific start. Good luck!

  • jingmei | January 1, 2013 7:46 AMReply

    Just make this one become true, it's awesome.

  • Danilo Telles | December 31, 2012 7:03 PMReply

    If you're gonna keep only one New Year's resolution, make it this one!

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