Let me freely admit "Battleship" is a strange movie to make a stand on. But, in its way, it's perfect: a dumb summer movie full of outrageous sentimentality and the kind of rah-rah militarism that was all well and good when America was at war with the Axis powers but started hitting people the wrong way with Vietnam and never stopped.
"Battleship" also was created out of a classic board game. Movie origins don't get more humble than that.
What better place for a self-respecting movie critic to get a good hate on?
The movie has, accordingly, received a rocking, stomping "36" from the Rotten Tomatoes movie website and "41" from Metacritic (100 is the best score).
And there you have everything you need to know about how low the standards of movie criticism are in the Internet Age, where a lot of pre-chewed, pseudo-opinion can go viral in minutes and become significant — even though it's baseless, and rather stupid besides.
It's a rule of thumb that, by and large, pack journalism is the worst journalism, but Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic on the web substitute group-think for one honest (the key word), independent and well-informed opinion. The result, in both cases, is often wildly unreliable, the way home audience votes are on "Dancing With the Stars" and "American Idol" (where, every year, more talented contestants are consigned to "also-ran" status along with the hopeless klutzes and squawkers).
No one in his right mind would want to make absurd claims for "Battleship." There is, though, a certain kind of movie we've become content with in the summer: big, expensive, full of wild special effects, stunts and CGI hoo-ha. To that, "Battleship" adds the kind of shameless, pro-military rah-rah that a couple generations of moviegoers got used to in the movies of John Ford (especially), Raoul Walsh and William Wellman.
In our era, though, we only tolerate such films — if at all — when the enemy is extraterrestrial. We can become shameless planetary chauvinists and patriots for the human species. The heck with interplanetary marauders.
Some of the troubles of current American movie critics are traditional, and all of them are writ large in Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritics. In any group of occupational transients and poseurs, there will be plenty of people writing or saying things to impress others, rather than things that might enlighten, entertain or prove to be true (and, therefore, of use).
This is going to be especially true if they're young. It's part of our species that some of the ways we individuate ourselves as teenagers and post-teens — as well as send out feelers into the larger social universe — is with our cultural taste. It's our letter to the world in the hope of a salutary, maybe even romantic, return: say "I am the sort of person who listens to Norah Jones, reads Toni Morrison, watches 'Mad Men' and laughs at 'The Devil Wears Prada' but not so much that the cocoa comes spurting out my nose. I'm too proper for that. Who are you? Maybe we should talk."
In a lot of movie critics, that becomes institutionalized for psychological reasons — a kind of self-created prison of sensibility that sanctifies a fear of being mistaken for something less than one just knowsone's self to be. Hence, any website full of "you bet I'm a movie critic" people is bound to scoff royally at a BIG dopey summer noisemaker whose origins are as low as a venerable board game. Never mind that the sequence in which the movie transfers the board game to the screen is rather ingenious – not as much, say, as the Summer Movie Monster "The Avengers" or "Dark Shadows" created by visual masters director Tim Burton and production designer Rick Heinrichs but, in the case of the latter, a vastly jollier and more enjoyable movie.
The bait dangled for the unwary critic is huge: the hated name of Michael Bay, the nemesis of all that is holy in movies, the grotesquely overfinanced maker of vast, thundering toy commercials that have less understanding of the human species than you find in the average sixth grader. Some of "Battleship's" action sequences have the same flaw — overwrought imprecision — that you find in other Bay movies, so surely the whole film belongs on the same rubbish heap in Eternity.
Well, no. To take a "Dancing with the Stars" analogy again, two couples performing an Argentine Tango (whatever that is) are certainly not doing it the same way.
"Battleship's" marketing plan — European release before American — may be commonplace these days, but it guaranteed an early, negative critical response. Right between the eyes. When you give critics in England and France a movie full of lunkheaded American military jingoism, you're just asking ?for it.
How are they supposed to react to Americans saving the entire planet?
When newspapers across the country reacted to print journalism's current crises by listening to wrong-headed consultants and laid off movie critics by the dozen, the results were catastrophic. While it's true, a lot of smug, thoughtless pack journalists took buyouts or were sent packing, there were also quite a few veteran individualists and free-thinkers who reviewed movies honestly, rather than celebrated the rites of an adolescent club or secret society to which they yearned to belong.
When you sanctify critics under a certain age, you run the risk of indemnifying opinions by those who are trying them on for size, color and effect on the social world rather than those who've lived long enough to tell the God's-honest-truth the way they see it.
No matter who thinks what about the result.
Does it seem as if movies in America have gotten worse in the last 15 years?
By all means, blame the studio executives in their insane and perennial search for blockbusters. But while you're at it, blame the critics — and what journalism's executives and online conformity prophets made of them, too.