Monday, November 23, 2015

Waterworld and critic culture

"I see your disguise along with your lies
You need to evolve, you need to resolve
Oceans slowly rise... time to fly"

Syntax - Time to Fly

I've been noticing a recurring phrase in Wikipedia articles about good movies maligned and/or ignored by the American public: "The film did better overseas." Take for instance Waterworld, which we were all instructed to despise because, you see, it went over-budget and we all know the true measure of artistic expression is how thickly and quickly it lines the pockets of the profiteering gatekeepers constricting our zeitgeist. The industry apparently grew to hate the project and film critics toed the line and panned the project's result.

Not that it was a great movie, either in 1995 or now. It's a popcorn flick, a ludicrously expensive one but then there are so many of those. It manages to rise above most action movies with which it might be compared by virtue of its setting, tone and other gimmickry, and as is so often the case its strongest points, its departures from accepted norms, draw the most caustic rivers of bile from critics. Rifling through a few of the choicer comments on Rotten Tomatoes reveals a critic culture which far from analyzing the movie itself simply would not tolerate anything of its like.

It's SciFi, and Science Fiction is not "literature" in the glossary of English Lit. majors scribbling reviews for a living while spewing book after e-book of mundane overemotional navel-gazing hoping one of them will be recognized as the great American novel. To those who make a lifestyle of over-analyzing the human condition, SF with its frequent emphasis on the post-human is an unfathomable anathema. If we divide fiction between character-centered and plot-centered, most of the best SciFi falls so deep into the "plot" end of the spectrum that it merits its own category. Critics seem unable to abandon their expectation of empathy from a story to glory in its world-building. The only good and also successfully hyped big-budget world-building movie adaptation in recent years, Cloud Atlas, had to be made palatable by the otherwise needless plot thread of "twue wuv" conquering all.

Waterworld lacked such friendly dilution, and Costner got repeatedly slammed in reviews for the cold portrayal of his character. As over-fed as the public is on macho bad-boy protagonists whose only motivation nevertheless is serving as protector / provider for their family unit, the mariner's relative independence, his internal locus of control to borrow a headshrinker catchphrase, must indeed seem utterly alien and inexcusably self-centered for a culture in which the only permissible self- is self-serving. In other respects the critic consensus contradicts itself as always. The plot is criticized at once as too simple and too hard to follow, the decor both as too bleak and too cluttered, the moralizing both as too heavy-handed but not politically correct enough. More than one reviewer cited the characters drinking re-filtered urine... not to prove any particular point but just because... eeewwww, can you believe they put that in a movie?

Quite a few reviewers seems would rather have been watching something by Disney and didn't quite get that post-apocalyptic flicks were a genre all their own and had been for decades even in the mid-'90s. They critiqued it as "ugly" and the only reference anyone seemed able to dredge up was the constant comparison with Mad Max - and that was fed to them by the writer's own admission as inspiration. In their desperation to find cause for consternation, they latch on to anything, including one overpaid dimwit who couldn't understand how the map-tattoo worked: "Enola has a tattoo on her back that for some reason everyone seems to believe is a map indicating the route to dry land. (A left at the second dolphin, then straight for six coral reefs . . . )"
For the love of fuck, lady, they're called coordinates!

Yet strangely not one review so far seems to bring up the one major valid critique of Waterworld's plot, its very premise. To actually reach such water levels as in the movie would require not just melting the ice-caps but several Earths' worth of water. Pie are cubed, people! Drinking pee and the little girl's tattoo were major flaws but what, that little detail slipped past everyone's junior-high scientific knowledge?

Ah, well. The American public is woefully incapable of grasping subtlety or understatement, but this tendency is only exacerbated by critics who will pan anything which doesn't present the human, all too human emotional cues reinforcing the tribal loyalty status quo. Waterworld is anything but subtle or understated, but simply by asking the audience to get into the water-world itself instead of trying to identify with the protagonists it transgressed one of the most dire taboos of pop-culture, and the industry dutifully lashed back, fabricating a demonizing consensus which for two decades has ensured that Waterworld gets referenced only as a "flop" (which thanks to the international market it arguably was not) and not a decent action movie set in a captivating imaginary landscape. It was no masterpiece but with cowboy-ish antiheroics, gimmicks like a boat that's almost cooler than the Batmobile and deliciously hammy lines like "a single tear rolls down my cheek" it's certainly better than the vast majority of action movies which have come out in the two decades since... the vast majority of which I would guess were heartily recommended by the same critics who panned this one.
Fast & Furious 7 has an 81% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Critics are fucking morons.

Consider also that Waterworld was for its time the most expensive movie ever made. This fueled much of its denigration. The latest Star Wars movie coming out in December, The Force Awakens, will be twice as expensive. Its marketing budget alone, just what Disney & co. have invested in hype, nearly matches Waterworld's reviled 235 mil. or so total budget, hype included. Ask yourself which of the two movies, both action-packed popcorn flicks, both nominally SciFi movies, both with budgets which could feed a small country, which of these two... masterpieces... actually gives you something you haven't seen a hundred times before, which of them ads something to your experience as movie viewer. Which of them actually feeds your imagination?

Then ask yourself how critic reviews will look for The Force Awakens, anticipate all the spineless ass-kissing from every corner of the industry for Disney's latest big-budget by-the-numbers cash-grab. The movie business was a dirty business two decades ago too but as Waterworld teaches us, dirt can be valuable. There are degrees to corporate waste.

No comments:

Post a Comment