Pirates Of The Caribbean: On Stranger Tides and the state of film criticism

As the latest Pirates Of The Caribbean goes on to make huge sums of cash in spite of a poor critical reception, Mark wonders, what's the point of film reviews?

The general fanfare that greeted the global release of Pirates Of The Caribbean: On Stranger Tides seemed to pay off at the box office, pulling in $346.4 million worldwide in its first five days (and pretty much double that now). Speaking from personal experience, word of mouth prior to going in seemed to be, “The trailers looks good, so I really hope it’s not shit.”

If that sense of ‘anticipointment’ came from anywhere in particular, it would probably be the quality of the previous two sequels, 2006’s Dead Man’s Chest and 2007’s At World’s End, but particularly the latter. Although, as ever, not everybody holds to the consensus, it seems in retrospect that the tides turned against the overblown plotting of the third Pirates outing.

At World’s End currently holds an aggregated score of forty-five percent on Rotten Tomatoes, and On Stranger Tides already has a thirty-three percent rating, and yet, the box office speaks for itself. Pirates Of The Caribbean seems to be one of those franchises that brings everybody out, regardless of whether they’re really looking forward to it or simply hoping it’s not shit.

Of course, the opening weekend box office take doesn’t determine the eventual standing of a film in the film-going public’s hearts and minds, nor does the eventual gross. But it does act as a gauge of popularity, and On Stranger Tides is proving popular despite sixty-seven percent of aggregated professional critics giving it the thumbs down.

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With the Internet having democratised film criticism to a large extent, there’s a marked effect on the way that film critics are writing about films. At the end of the day, some readers and viewers rely on certain critics with a similar film taste, or simply keep up to date with contemporary reviews to be entertained.

Mark Kermode is one critic who’s gained a large following by occasionally being explosively ranty about films that really annoy him. In fact, his legendary ten minute rant about At World’s End, during which he rarely seemed to pause for breath, and co-presenter Simon Mayo was moved to walk away and let him get on with it,contrasts with his relative indifference to On Stranger Tides.

This, itself, contrasts with the scorching vitriol that other critics have heaped upon the latest Pirates sequel, which I think most will agree, it doesn’t entirely deserve. Why? It’s possible that the answer, like so many concealed truths in Pixar films, lies in the finale to Ratatouille.

One of the film’s finest moments has the imperious food critic, Anton Ego, deliver a frank and honest assessment of the art of criticism. Putting aside the conclusion, that “The average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so,” he makes the point that critics “thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read.”

It’s not to say that On Stranger Tides didn’t make some of its detractors genuinely angry. I’m certainly not going to challenge Ali Arikan’s review for Slant Magazine, in which he’s so righteously incensed by the film that it even convinced me that director Rob Marshall should be on trial for some manner of war crime.

Certainly, other memorably negative film reviews in the past year have also come from a place of genuine outrage. Lindy West’s review of last year’s Sex And The City 2 concluded, “If this is what modern womanhood means, then just fucking veil me and sew up all my holes.”

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But, at the same time, it’s important to remember how enjoyable negative criticism can be, and how that might affect the way that critics write, now that there’s much more of a struggle for the attention of cinema patrons. On the opposite side, it almost seems to have led to overly positive reviews of certain popular fare.

Fast Five might just be the best of all of the films in The Fast And The Furious series, but let’s not forget that all of the other films in that series are The Fast And The Furious films. And up until Fast Five, not one of them had received a ‘Fresh’ rating over on Rotten Tomatoes, i.e. a rating higher than sixty pecent positive.

And yet, the fifth instalment, which is over two hours long and brings in a multitude of characters from the series past, is “Certifed Fresh”, with a rating of seventy-nine percent.

So, what we’ve learned is that the inevitable Pirates 5 should cast The Rock as a pirate hunter looking for Jack Sparrow, if Disney wants to please the critics as well as the audience.

The difficulty there is that I don’t think studios do want to please critics any more. If you market a film well enough, it seems possible to sell any number of sequels and remakes in that all important opening weekend.

The scorn linked to On Stranger Tides is so cartoonishly exaggerated in some quarters that it could have the negative effect of alienating some viewers against those critics. If critics get so apoplectic over this film and audiences aren’t similarly provoked, it could devalue those critics’ currency. It’s like The Boy Who Cried “Wolf!”, except the critics are crying that it’s shit.

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And the popularity of Pirates, and films like it, seems to have one of two effects. It either leads to reviews becoming even more harsh, as critics grow wearier with the ebb and flow of ‘Rotten’ box office successes, or to reviews that almost seem to give weaker fare a pass, rather than particularly lauding it.

Ultimately, film criticism is still a subjective pursuit. Or as Roger Ebert said recently, after getting a hammering for his negative review of Thor, “I don’t consider my reviews instructions to readers about whether they should see a film. They’re more like a continuing conversation. Nobody enjoys it when people get too wound up and start shouting.”

Fans of Kermode may differ on that last point, but it remains that most critics have, at some point, gotten wound up and started shouting. Whether or not it is to be noticed amongst their peers, the audiences themselves and the cacophony of online debate over each new release, is irrelevant.

The question is, whether or not ‘professional film criticism’ will be as common in the future as it has been up until now, seeing as how we’re getting to the stage where such opinions are increasingly less privileged over studio marketing and brand recognition.