Each year the film industry sacrifices one of its blockbusters to the movie gods, in the hope that its other releases will be spared the vicious lash of mass opprobrium. This year the designated victim was Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. Critics spotted Luc Besson’s space opera on the horizon, sensed weakness, singled it out from the big budget herd, and moved in for the kill, savaging it as, “a stinker”, “a travesty of storytelling” and, “one of the worst films I have ever seen”. Social media gleefully swooped on the carcass to declare it the year’s biggest DOA turkey. And all this before the public had even had a chance to see it.
Rotten Tomatoes gave Valerian a 49% rating, but looking at the site’s reviews round-up (something I do only when writing a piece like this), I’m struck now by how many critics actually seemed to enjoy Besson’s demented live action BD (short for Bande Dessinée – the French term for comic strip). Alas, the scattered plaudits were swamped by a swell of negativity, and it didn’t matter that some of us argued that the film was actually the sort of colourful, thrilling, imaginative ride (with, OK yes, maybe a few problems in the storytelling and character departments) that many audiences would have enjoyed. Because nobody went to see it. Tagging the film as a “flop” turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Valerian isn’t the first movie to get written off before it had even left the starting blocks. I approached The Lone Ranger (31%) in a spirit of pessimistic gloom after the first surge of derision dismissed it as “another big-budget western disaster”, and, “a noisy, never-ending nonsensical mess”. The prospect of having to watch an increasingly tiresome Johnny Depp hamming it up as Tonto with a dead crow on his head didn’t exactly whet the appetite.
But I’m glad I went to see it anyway, because The Lone Ranger, despite the odd misstep, turned out to be not the cynical rehash of the TV show I’d expected, but an original and engaging comedy western with knockabout charm, spectacular stunt choreography, a devastating subtext about the subjugation of Native America to white business interests, and even Depp delivering a genuine emotional wallop in a moving coda. It didn’t matter: the poisonous early reviews had already sentenced it to Death Row, and audiences duly stayed away in droves.
The history of cinema is dotted with films maudits (literally, films that have been cursed), but they can often repay attention if you catch them before your expectations have been coloured by media hitmen. John Carter (Rotten Tomatoes rating 51%) was deemed, “a nonsensical mess” and, “mind-numbingly tedious”. Most critics couldn’t be bothered to review it fairly, instead just using it as a butt for cheap jokes. The film was written off as a loss-maker by its own studio before it had even opened in most territories, but viewers who approached it in the spirit in which it was intended were rewarded with a sincere and affectionate homage to old-school science fiction which replaced modern irony and in-jokes with a childlike sense of adventure.
Perhaps it’s symptomatic that the three titles I’ve just mentioned were neither sequels nor remakes. They dared to do something a little different, a little bit risky, and were punished for it. None was perfect – but how many films are? It’s astonishing that so many cinephiles continue to fall into the trap of taking the critical consensus seriously, even while they’re disparaging those same critics for being out-of-touch elitists. The rise of blogging, which ought to have undercut the bandwagon mentality, only seems to have compounded a tendency to cleave unthinkingly to the majority verdict. By the time the inevitable contrarian “hot takes” arrive, it’s too late – the judgement has already been been set in stone.
Maybe part of the problem is conflating criticism with opinion. I don’t care whether or not you like a film – what I’m interested in is why. But the Beavis and Butthead method of criticism boils down to a crude dichotomy in which something is either “fresh” or “rotten”, with no allowance for all the shades in between. The star rating system beloved by so many media outlets isn’t much better.
The truth is that no film is entirely without merit. Wild Wild West (17%) had a brilliant scene in which the heroes use an upside-down severed head as a slide projector. All About Steve (7%) was peppered with brilliant sight gags, a heroine too awkward and embarrassing to be tucked into any of the usual bland rom-com categories, and a denouement that was almost subversive. Hudson Hawk (26%) featured a singalong heist, James Coburn making a sick joke about the Challenger disaster, and David Caruso as a mime artist. These are not ingredients that will tickle everyone’s fancy, but they certainly tickled mine.
Even everyone’s favourite whipping-boy, Gus Van Sant’s (almost) shot-by-shot Psycho remake (37%) will pay dividends if you ignore the chorus of ‘pointless’, ‘boring’ and ‘a lot less scary!’ and approach it not as a thriller (by now everyone knows whodunit) but as experimental artwork in the spirit of, say, Douglas Gordon’s 24 Hour Psycho installation. Van Sant’s Psycho encourages you to look at Alfred Hitchcock’s original (97%) with fresh eyes, and makes you reflect on how radically dialogue, editing and acting styles changed in the thirty-eight years between versions.
Occasionally a film maudit will be reappraised many years after its initial release. Heaven’s Gate (57%) became a byword for production profligacy, best known as the film that bankrupted United Artists, hammered a nail into the coffin of the big budget Western, and put the kibish on the career of its director, Michael Cimino. Even back in 1981, those of us who resisted the hoopla of hate and watched it on its own terms were agreeably surprised; I preferred it to the same director’s overpraised Oscar winner, The Deer Hunter (94%). Heaven’s Gate still has its haters, but these days the consensus is evened out by recognition that it’s not just visually awe-inspiring, but exposes elements of the American frontier myth that are usually swept under the carpet. Indeed, it’s the oligarchy vs immigrants angle which may well have sparked some of the initial hostility.
You might not give any the films mentioned here a “fresh” rating, but I challenge you to watch them and not find a single scene, image or off-the-cuff idea worth cherishing. Though of course, my policy of checking out every certified flop that comes along does sometimes backfire. The Snowman (8%) was just as uninspired as friends had warned, though even this had nuggets of interest, such as a truly strange cameo from Val Kilmer, and – as my attention began to stray from the perfunctory Scandi-noir unfolding on screen – triggered an intriguing reverie about the time management skills of fictional serial killers who stalk their victims before murdering them in elaborate ways while holding down a demanding dayjob, leading a family life and building a series of snowmen without anyone noticing. As I said, no film is entirely without merit.