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‘Columbiana,’ ‘Apollo 18,’ and the failures of criticism

Many of you are already familiar with the website Rotten Tomatoes, which aggregates film reviews from a variety of critics.

Zoe Saldana in "Columbiana"
Photo courtesy of TriStar Pictures
Zoe Saldana in “Columbiana”

Many of you are already familiar with the website Rotten Tomatoes, which aggregates film reviews from a variety of critics. The site assigns a score to each film reviewed, based on whether the critic liked the film or didn’t, represented by tomatoes, presumably under the assumption that, if a critic had his or her druthers, rather than write up the review, the critic would simply fling vegetables at the screen.

There are other aggregation sites out there, including MetaCritic, which expands the format to include criticism of television shows and video games. All of these seemed based on a sort-of “wisdom of crowds” approach. One critic may not be especially trustworthy in reviewing a film, as critics are idiosyncratic and moody and sometimes deliberately contrary, and may warn you away from a popular film that you would really enjoy while steering you toward some incomprehensible art film that will have you confused and depressed for weeks. But a larger sample of critics is likely to marginalize these outliers, producing something like a critical consensus that is more trustworthy than you’re going to find with the lone critic.

There are a few problems with this. With Rotten Tomatoes, it starts with an assumption that reviews are going to fit a simple binary — the critic either will like a film or not like it. And so reviews are weighted as “fresh” or “rotten,” despite the fact that this binary is sometimes impossible to divine from a review. There are a lot of “meh” films out there, and a good critic will reflect their critical ambivalence. Rotten Tomatoes can’t use such reviews, and so decides for the critic whether they like the film or not based on the punchiest sentence in the review, which the site highlights.

And why? Because ultimately, critical aggregation sites such as Rotten Tomatoes serve as consumer guides. Their primary function is to tell you whether it is worth spending your money on a movie. And here is the second problem: Advising the consumer is something that critics are often spectacularly bad at. In fact, as far as I can tell, there is often no real-world relationship between critical recommendations and how a film does at the box office.

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Case in point: Two films from the past two weekends, both of which did decent business. The first is “Columbiana,” an actioner starring Zoe Saldana as an assassin who watched her parents get gunned down and has grown to be a merciless killer in order to exact revenge. This opened last week in a respectable second-place slot behind “The Help,” earning $10 million despite not having been screened to critics pre-release. The second film is a faux-documentary horror film called “Apollo 18” that opened this past weekend, was the third-most popular film this past weekend, also pulling in roughly $10 million, also coming in behind “The Help.” And there is something else “Apollo 18” has in common with “Combiana” — it also refused to offer screenings for critics.

"Apollo 18"
Photo courtesy of Dimension Films
“Apollo 18”

This used to be the sign of a bomb, and these are the dog days of summer, when studios dump their also-rans into theaters, hoping to recoup some of their expenses on films that just didn’t turn out that well. And this is how critics have treated both films, if Rotten Tomatoes is to be believed: “Columbiana” only rates a paltry 33 percent critical approval on Rotten Tomatoes. Worse still is “Apollo 18,” which a mere 19 percent of critics found “fresh,” or worth your dollar at the box office.

Rotten Tomatoes does something very interesting, though. It doesn’t just aggregate the opinions of professional critics, but also invites audiences to weight in. Sometimes, they pretty much agree with each other. For instance, there is a film called “The Debt” that opened in the second-place box office spot this past weekend. Seventy-seven percent of critics liked it, while 73 percent of audience favored the film. (It’s worth noting that Rotten Tomatoes gets a much larger sampling of audience than it does critic: They aggregated 111 reviews of “The Debt,” but managed to encourage 13,241 audience reviews.) The average critic thinks “The Debt” is pretty good, as does the average audience member.

But there are points where the critics and the audiences diverge wildly. “Columbiana’s” 63 critics gave it only 33 percent approval; its 10,921 audience reviews approved of the film by a margin of 62 percent. This difference is even more notable with “Apollo 18.” The critics number 37, and, as mentioned, only 19 percent of this minuscule critical turnout favored the film. In the meanwhile, 23,182 audience members weighed in, and 75 percent of them liked the film — a larger percentage of audience members enjoy “Apollo 18” than “The Debt.”

I have seen both films, and both have qualities that are worth recommending. “Columbiana,” for instance, in another in a series of films that have French filmmaker Luc Besson’s imprimatur on it that seek to make a female lead into a credible action star. He’s done it in the past with Anne Parillaud in “La Femme Nikita,” Natalie Portman in “Leon,” Milla Jovovich in “The Fifth Element,” and both Salma Hayek and Penelope Cruz in “Banditas.” It’s still exceedingly rare to see films which feature female lead performers, much less female leads whose storyline isn’t defined by a romantic relationship to a man; Besson has repeatedly cast women as the lead characters in his films, and insisted that they are just as capable of engaging in violent superheroics as men. Whatever its failings, “Columbiana” is the first film to cast Zoe Saldana in the lead in an action film, and its a role that suits her perfectly.

“Apollo 18,” meanwhile, is another in a series of faux-documentary horror films shot entirely with hand-held cameras — horror has demonstrated a particular fondness for this approach, perhaps because it helps mask some very low-budget special effects; it has the added benefit of goosing a film with an additional sense of immediacy and credibility. In this case, if the film looks low-budget, it’s because it recreates the American space program in the early ’70s, when we sent our astronauts into space in what looked like boxes covered in tin foil. The film captures the look of this era of space travel perfectly, and manages to make the surface of the moon look as it did in footage from the Apollo mission films — a barren, blasted place of high contrast and long shadows. 

There is something scuttling about out there, barely caught on cameras, and that’s a little nerve-wracking, but the real horror of the film is in the sense of terrible isolation. The men of the fictional Apollo 18 mission are trapped on the surface of the moon with few reserves of oxygen and fuel, unable to contact their Mission Control center (who may not be all that willing to help them anyway), and something awful is happening. Horror films often heighten their sense of menace by isolating the characters and making sure they cannot get help — in “Apollo 18,” this is foregrounded to being the primary horror of the film, and whatever is going on outside the space capsule is secondary. In some ways, this makes it a thematic sequel to the terrific film “Moon” from a few years ago, which also focused on just how terrible it can be to be isolated on our planet’s natural satellite when things go wrong, and when our supposed allies on earth either don’t care about us or have their own cruel agenda regarding our fate.

When critics feel responsible to act as consumer guides, they have trouble with films like these. First of all, genre films are often made for genre audiences, but critics (with few exceptions) write for general audiences. Genres are peculiar things, in that they must simultaneously meet expectations and toy with them. But if a film strays too far from convention, it ceases to be a genre film. There’s an unexpected similarity between action films, horror films, and, say, musicals, in that each film builds itself around extended set pieces of spectacle. The plot of a musical in designed to move us from song and dance number to song and dance number. The plot of an action film is designed to movie us from one scene of thrilling action to the next. And the plot of horror is designed to move us from one sequence of terror to another. All will have to unfold their story along the specific structure of their genre, and, as a result, all have their own critical demands.

It is not enough, for instance, to ask how good the story is in “Columbiana.” Plot is a function of structure, and, in action films, often subordinate to it. Action audiences go to action films for the actions scenes, and a good critic will weigh how good the action scenes are, and how credible the actors are in these scenes. In horror films, story is often subservient to sequences of horror, and critics must not limit themselves to asking how good the plot is, but how effective the scares are. A critic should endeavor to understand a genre film as the intended audience for genre films would. But genres have a long history of being seen as being below critical consideration — both westerns and noir were critically shrugged off for decades, unless they had some quality that was seen as elevating them to a level of art. 

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It wasn’t until the ’60s that these genres experienced a critical evaluation that insisted the conventions of these genres were inherently worthwhile, and, in fact, the genres couldn’t be properly understood unless the critic understood these conventions, and how films exploited these conventions, advanced them, and sometimes exploded them. It’s especially instructive to look at three genre films by Stanley Kubrick, who took particular delight in exploding genre conventions — “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “A Clockwork Orange,” and “The Shining” all are products of genre (two science fiction and one horror film), and all are created by a filmmaker who was familiar enough with the conventions of the genres to set up, and then (almost sadistically) defeat audience expectations. All three films are considered classics nowadays; all three received critical drubbings on release.

While I will allow that there are critics who write about genre films well, although I don’t think there are that many, both “Columbiana” and “Apollo 18” demonstrate that we don’t really need critics to tell us whether a film is worth spending money on, and, if we’re relying on critics as a group, collectively they are often not very good at this job. And that’s fine — I honestly think that critics are almost entirely valueless as consumer guides, which I will explore more in my columns this week. “Should I spend money on it” is a tedious question, and, but for films that have gotten a lot of public buzz, I suspect audiences make that decision primarily by seeing what is playing that fits their taste in film, regardless of what critics have said — I would be curious to see somebody poll audiences to find out how many decided what movie they are going to see at the theater itself.

So if critics aren’t very good at telling us what movie we should see, and people don’t actually use them for that function, then what good are they? Well, there are a variety of other tasks critics can engage in. They can be journalists, going on sets and interviewing filmmakers to show how a film is made, and what the creators intend with their project. They can explore the meaning of film, unearthing its subtext, or putting it into a historical context. They can certainly discuss whether the completed film matches the filmmaker’s intention, and whether intention even matters. There is a lot to be said about any one film, and yet too many critics say the one thing that doesn’t really make a difference: whether you should see it.