Do we still need film critics?

Eliott Edge
5 min readFeb 5, 2023

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“I’ve wasted my life!”

Today, everyone is a critic and virtually everyone writes reviews. I am all for democratization, but that doesn’t at all mean that the popular opinion will be a “good” opinion. All you have to do is see who gets elected to the presidency every four years to start to have doubts slide across the surface of your mind. But we are not here to talk politics or the electoral process. We are here to talk about film.

Case in point: the Internet Movie Database. Before Rotten Tomatoes, IMDb was the only widely used resource to find what the man-on-the-street thought about a picture. According to this global repository of film opinion, the #3 greatest film in the canon of cinema is Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. Forget it filmmakers and movie-goers, The Dark Knight is where you pack your bags and disembark. Movies simply don’t get much better than watching Batman fall from a skyscraper, fail to deploy his grappling gun, smash onto a car with lass in arm and neither suffer any physical injury. The rescued damsel, Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal), doesn’t have the air blown out of her lungs or a concussion, but instead has the pithy wherewithal to remark, “Let’s not do that again.” This is it, folks. This is the apex of the craft and the story of our lives. Number 3, best film ever made.

My point should be clear already: just because everyone has an opinion and a platform to share it on, doesn’t mean it’s good. Or even useful. Enter the “true” critic; the person that, through fire, fury, and mojo of circumstance, seems (seems!) to know what the hell they are talking about.

Now, I think The Dark Knight is fine. It’s not great. It wouldn’t be in my top 5 films list. It wouldn’t even be in my top 100 list. Maybe it would find a place in my top 500 films, if I ran out of movies I can recall seeing.

What makes it so well liked on IMDb? Heath Ledger carries the film for forty minutes in a deservedly praised performance. It is one for the cinema history books, no doubt. He displays that rarest magic we yearn for in a performance: the actor transforming entirely into their character. But except for the sound design and booming musical score, Ledger is the only element of notable caliber in the film. The other performances lean towards wooden. Even Christian Bale admitted it. Saying, “I feel a little bit dull by comparison.” But that’s not Bale’s fault — everyone is dull beside that performance.

What else? The script is forced and the plot is termite-infested. The less you think about what you are actually seeing on the screen, the more enjoyable it is. Many movies suffer from this ailment, the: How did this happen? Whatever, take it and move on. The Dark Knight doesn’t tell us anything deep or nuanced about the human condition. But it doesn’t have to. No character feels like they truly love each other, even though love is a theme in the picture. And we’re rooting for the villain throughout, because, not so deep down, we know Ledger is the only thing keeping us somewhat invested in this nearly three-hour spectacle. We walk away wowed, but no one walks away enriched.

I remember the first time I saw the film in theaters with my brother and mother. We were entranced by Ledger. He was unpredictable and otherworldly. Completely captivated, we couldn’t get enough of him, and we couldn’t believe what he was doing on screen. But even during the complete pleasure of absorbing Ledger’s show-stealing scene, after show-stealing scene, we all saw cracks in the film the size of canyons: A bomb hidden in a guy’s stomach? How did that help Joker escape without blowing himself to smithereens? The people of Gotham will always stand up for what’s right? Always? I thought they were famously downtrodden, jaded, and cynical. Two-Face looks like he really shouldn’t be able to get around like that. Batman landed on a car? A car!?

Just because a film has some great stuff in it, doesn’t mean it’s a great movie. A great movie is when almost everything seems to magically come together. The Dark Knight simply isn’t an example of that. Alien is an example of that. The Mothman Prophecies is one of my favorites. It captures a feeling of eeriness that I haven’t seen in any other film before. But it is far from a great movie.

So what’s the value of a true critic? Well, being a critic of every single medium is difficult. A music or art history critic is going to have other things to say than those of us who spend most of our time watching film and television. That being said, film critics are a wilder breed. We need to have a roving understanding of the arts. That’s because our medium of fascination is a synthesis of photography, music, theater, writing, design, and other production arts. Being a film critic, you end up having to know a little about a lot. And it’s not an easy game because you have to watch long productions that sometimes fall flat, or never learn to stand up at all. Then the urge to warn others of danger becomes overwhelming. Similarly, when a film is great there is an equal need to shout it to anyone who will listen, because it’s closer to the magic of what this art form is truly capable of.

It was probably Ebert who said it best:

“I believe a good critic is a teacher. He doesn’t have the answers, but he can be an example of the process of finding your own answers. He can notice things, explain them, place them in any number of contexts, ponder why some ‘work’ and others never could. He can urge you toward older movies to expand your context for newer ones. He can examine how movies touch upon individual lives, and can be healing, or damaging. He can defend them, and regard them as important in the face of those who are ‘just looking for a good time.’ He can argue that you will have a better time at a better movie. We are all allotted an unknown but finite number of hours of consciousness. Maybe a critic can help you spend them more meaningfully.”

There’s plenty of ink that’s been spilled on the theory and history of criticism, but that’s about as good a defense for the purpose of a film critic as one is likely going to get. But maybe Rachel Dawes was on to something too in The Dark Knight when she turned to Batman after they both crash-landed on a car and said, “Let’s not do that again.”

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Eliott Edge

Author of '3 Essays on Virtual Reality', global speaker, artist, humorist, futurist, netizen, critic & psychonaut Patreon.com/OddEdges EliottEdge.com IEET.org