The unconventional method by which Netflix released The Cloverfield Paradox has ruffled some feathers with critics. Mid-Superbowl, they ran an ad announcing that the third installment of the Cloverfield film series – The Cloverfield Paradox (you can read our review here) – would be released just a few hours later on Netflix as soon as the game was over. For people who aren’t sports fans, but do love a good sci-fi flick, the ending of the game suddenly became significantly more important. Beyond that, this is a major disruption in the release methodology for major motion pictures (something Netflix has been on the forefront of for a while now). They eschewed the traditional method of trailers, posters, heavy promotional materials weeks in advance in favor of a two hour heads-up during the Superbowl.
More incendiary was Netflix’s complete lack of critical screenings for the scifi/horror film. Usually studios have critical screeners so they can have pull-quotes from critics for their promotional material (you know the ones you see in trailers and on posters boasting about the movie’s greatness, or the coveted “tomato score”), but due to Netflix’s very specific distribution method, critical approval is something they may no longer need in order to help sell their movie. When you have your own over-the-top digital distribution the idea of “promoting a film” takes on a completely different shape. Does Netflix need to pay for billboards and newspaper ads when most of their target audience is already subscribed to their service? When you logged into Netflix that day, an announcement was on the front page making users aware the film would be out that evening. For anyone not subscribed to Netflix, the subsequent buzz from a single (if expensive) Superbowl followed by the inevitable speculation and “hot takes” on social media will definitely catch their eye. With marketing and distribution radically different for Netflix than a conventional studio release in the movie theaters, that just leaves the role of movie critics in a paradox of their own.
Film Criticism’s role now: By most people’s standards, movie critics today exist to give audiences an idea of whether or not they should see a movie, which is why the Tomatometer exists. No context, no words, just a simple percentage to go off – and it is pretty much the antithesis of movie criticism. The idea that a movie review should affect your decision whether or not to see a movie is problematic for a lot of reasons, especially in the digital age. First and foremost, critics and audiences rarely agree on a movie. Check the “critics” section and the “audience” section of most movies and you’ll see (very often, but not always) quite the gulf between the two. This is because generally the critics’ opinions are a very poor indicator of audience enjoyment overall – something we covered in a previous article. So if you’re looking to an overall critical consensus to get an idea if you’ll potentially enjoy a movie – you’ll probably be disappointed. When you get right down to it, even reading a review before you watch the movie is fairly unhelpful. What can you really discern from a spoiler-free, vaguely descriptive synopsis of a movie? Beyond that, reading a critique or review of a movie before even watching it seems like you’ll be unequipped to even appreciate the review’s finer points because you haven’t seen the movie. In short, reading movie reviews to help make your decision as to whether or not you should watch a movie isn’t the best route. Recommendations should come from people you know and trust, whose opinions you have context for and trust, not from a percentage on a website or some stranger whose work you’ll never come back to.
That’s not to dismiss film criticism altogether – or at all really. Film criticism is important, but not when it comes to recommending a movie. The best reviews will include a LOT of information and analysis that will only really make sense if you’ve already seen the movie. Film criticism as it is now could easily be replaced by an Amazon algorithm (“If you liked _____, you’ll also enjoy ____”) and probably provide people with a recommendation much more suited to their tastes. Aggregator sites like RT, metacritic are not what film criticism needs to be moving towards and it is sad to see so many reviewers embracing the half-hearted methodology that these sites utilize.
So what is the future for film criticism? There is definitely a place for it moving forward as the theatrical experience becomes more niche and digital streaming becomes the norm. That place isn’t in recommendations but actual film criticism. Analyzing the film as a piece of art, not just trying to get a hot-take out the fastest or regurgitating what other critics say in an attempt to be click-baity and eye-catching. In fact, most “film reviews” amount to little more than a smarmily written synopsis of the movie. Add in the never-ending parade of “personalities” who spend more time infusing their own “humor” (I use the term as loosely as possible) into a review rather than discussing the film itself in a serious way and there’s not a lot of good film criticism out there. For people who love film, finding thoughtful, detailed, analytical critiques of film will always be important. It helps people see a movie they’ve already watched in a new light by uncovering overlooked connections, themes, characterization, set design, etc in a way that isn’t just about “being apart of the conversation” or speculating what will happen in the next shared universe sequel.
With Netflix’s subversive release of The Cloverfield Paradox, the flaws in modern film criticism are becoming more apparent. As the market of “movie critics” becomes more and more flooded with people who wouldn’t know which end of a camera to hold, the role of legitimate movie criticism needs to evolve or be lost in a sea of fanboy-critics who know more about “franchise continuity” than they do about thematic structure. As the methods of distribution require less promotion and less effort/risk from the audience, the role of the movie critic needs to move away from trying to narrow down a complex creative work into some kind of rating system/recommendation and focus more on putting genuine thought and effort into analyzing/dissecting/discussing this art-form we all love.
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