There’s a popular series of video essays on YouTube called “CinemaSins” that essentially represents the worst qualities of contemporary film criticism. These videos take the format of “Everything Wrong with x in 4 Minutes or Less” and proceed to outline exactly that: a smarmy, authoritatively nerdy voice rattles off a list of a given film’s flaws both major and minor, with a strong emphasis on the minor. A cursory look at the titles tackled to date gives you a good idea of the general sensibility: so far they’ve covered “Inception”, “The Avengers”, “The Dark Knight”, “Prometheus”, and a host of other similarly big-budget, geek-oriented franchises, taking each in turn to task for problems of narrative logic, scriptwriting omissions, questionable character motivations, and other utterly inconsequential points.
In “Everything Wrong with The Dark Knight Rises in 3 Minutes or Less”, their most popular video at more than 2 million views, the superhero blockbuster about a man who fights crime in a bat costume is lambasted for such egregious “sins” as a typo in an on-screen newspaper article, a background extra falling without being hit, and a five-second grenade timer going off in three. The problem with this approach isn’t that the complaints themselves are invalid—though as more attentive Batman fans tend to point out in the comments, they are often that too—but that the very basis of this style of criticism is misguided.
This weekend sees the much-hyped release of “Jurassic Park” in retrofitted 3D. Revisiting the film for the first time in several years at a recent press screening was illuminating in a way I hadn’t anticipated: I’d seen the film so many times on home video as a child—more than any other film, by my rough estimation—that all I find myself capable of noticing are the film’s most superficial flaws. It’s as though my brain is so attuned to the details of the film that, when I’m unable to reconcile those details with a coherent conception of the fictional world it creates, my first impulse is to address the sense of cognitive dissonance.
This time around, things stuck out to me that simply hadn’t before. Plot details, for one thing, are introduced but summarily dropped, like a sick triceratops that seems important until suddenly it isn’t, or a “lysine contingency” that is explained but never used. And the film’s delineation of visual space is liberal to the point of sloppiness: I’ve seen “Jurassic Park” a hundred times and I still don’t understand the geography of the T-Rex paddock, which appears level to the road at one moment and 200-feet deep the next (which Sadler and Muldoon are able to traverse in what looks like seconds). And speaking of the T-Rex, how is it possible for the largest dinosaur in the park to burst into the front lobby of the Visitors’ Center to eat the velociraptor at the last second without anybody noticing it’s there?
The answer, of course, is that it isn’t possible, much in the same way that, say, cloning dinosaurs isn’t. And the point is that it does not matter whatsoever: in the world of a narrative fiction, anything is possible, and part of the unspoken contract between an audience and a film is that disbelief will be suspended. It’s our obligation as viewers to accept a degree of implausibility because unreality is fundamental to all fiction; what we’re watching is an illusion and as with all illusions, we need to be willing to look the other way to let the magic wash over us.
With Spielberg’s seminal blockbuster, especially, that sense of magic is essential: the real joy of “Jurassic Park” has always been the awe and wonder in seeing something incredible realized before our eyes, something we know is impossible but which impresses us for its grandeur all the same. “Jurassic Park” is nothing if not a consummate adventure, nearly as much an achievement in classical storytelling as it as one in the field of special effects. It’s also a good example of a great film that does not care one iota about inconsequential details; its “flaws” are not faults. To criticize it on the basis of its negligible “errors” is to misunderstand what actually constitutes a cinematic error to begin with. A moment of conspicuous artifice, be it a boom slipping into the frame or a narrative device seeming flimsy, is a problem only in the most basic, coldly technical sense, and it should be of consequence only to those viewers so concerned with catching a film’s slip-ups that they’re missing the magic in front of them.
What is the purpose of scrutinizing a film for these kinds of flaws? To expose the fact that a film is, in fact, a completely fictional creation? It’s hardly a revelation that, when Batman is fighting a gang of thugs, he isn’t actually beating them into submission, so what exactly is the benefit of pointing that fakery out when it becomes even momentarily apparent? There are many intellectually valid things “wrong” with, for instance, “The Dark Knight Rises”: its sense of ideological confusion, its inability to reconcile the self-seriousness tenor of its look and feel with the camp qualities of the material, its problematic conflation of civic dissent and outright anarchy. Interrogating these aspects of the film is the function of real film criticism. It isn’t as easy as pointing out logical flaws, and it doesn’t lend itself as well to glib videos intended to go viral. But it’s the obligation of a critic to do the heavy lifting, to engage with the film on its own terms beyond the most simplistic and superficial level. Sticking to “flaws” isn’t just a matter of failing the film—it’s everything wrong with film criticism.